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The theme of the 2017 High-level Political Forum on sustainable development will be “Eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world”, which is also a central promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In the lead-up to the 2017 HLPF, weekly blogs by representatives of Member States, UN system, and major groups and other stakeholders will be featured in this series to present various perspectives on this theme. The role of SDGs 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 14, and 17 will also be highlighted, as these goals will be in focus at the 2017 HLPF discussions.

Click here to see all the HLPF 2017 blog entries

End poverty in all its forms everywhere
End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Promoting prosperity means starting with the basics

Week 11 - Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General, CIVICUS

12 May 2017

Emerging challenges such as the impending rise of automation calls for new and innovative solutions. Yet sometimes, new problems can also call for old solutions. This is the case with universal basic income, an old idea, which has gained recent renewed interest by experts and policymakers – an idea which could help reduce equality and, by reducing economic insecurity, also promote empowered citizens. Two years into Agenda 2030, the world is changing in ways that would have been hard to predict when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were being agreed. From populist and protectionist politics, to rising inequality and climate change inaction, the changing political and economic landscape calls for bold and brave solutions.

The theme of this year’s High Level Political Forum could not be more timely. We need to find new ways of meeting basic needs and promoting prosperity. Fortunately, the SDGs provide a solid foundation for the kind of bold and brave actions we need to take – even in the face of some disruptive changes that lie ahead.

Take automation, for example. We know that many jobs filled by humans will be replaced by machines and robots. A study by Oxford University economists found that up to 47 percent of US jobs are at risk due to computerisation, including jobs in transportation, production, as well as service industries. Machine learning, self-driving cars and automated production lines are already changing the nature of ‘work’ and, by implication, the nature of the income that many of us rely on to ensure our livelihoods, not to mention the tax base from which government provides many public services. Yet while the potential economic benefits of taxing robots and providing universal basic income have been explored elsewhere, I also think it is important to come up with policies that address broader human needs. Indeed, this is where a broad and holistic framework like the SDGs could be very useful.

As Professor Guy Standing, one of the most powerful advocates of universal basic income, has argued, basic income is not just about economics, it’s also about providing security. Standing argues that when people feel insecure, they are more likely to succumb to radical political ideas such as populism. By contrast, when people have a guaranteed basic income, they are also much more likely to help promote “republican freedoms,” the term Standing uses for civic participation.

Better civic life promotes inclusion. It helps to amplify the voices of the marginalised, tackle the causes of discrimination, and promote equal rights and access to services.

To achieve the SDGs, we need citizens who are able to participate fully in all aspects of economic and social development. Yet when people are living on the edge economically, even those who are most altruistic can struggle to find the stability needed to organise and mobilise.

This is not to say that the world’s poor give back less than the wealthy. Many studies have shown that people on low incomes give a higher percentage of their money to charity than those on high incomes. However economic stability, whether it is provided through basic income, social safety nets, or universal health care and education, is also about emancipating citizens.

When people have less economic stability they have fewer opportunities to go about changing society for the better. As Noam Chomsky argues, university graduates saddled with massive debts are less likely to think about changing society because “they can’t afford the time to think.”

Introducing a basic income would not only address economic inequality, it would also provide the social and political stability we need in order to promote prosperity for all.

Those of us who champion the SDGs need to take our broad and universal agenda more forcefully into current debates about inequality, insecurity and social protection. Similarly, we should make sure that opportunities such as the HLPF attract leading experts and practitioners working at the cutting-edge of social and economic policies.Some may see policies like universal basic income as a technical fix to deal with the dramatic changes to our economies, but such fixes would be far more effective and powerful if seen through a broad lens such as the SDGs.