Inequality, the SDGs, and the human rights movement in the US and around the world

Protesters applaud during a rally against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S., June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

About a decade ago, an academic cottage industry arose around the concept of “the end times of human rights.” Some found arguments about the demise of human rights overblown, but certain elements rang true: The movement had come to be seen—and not just by dictators—as elitist, driven by outsiders, or just plain irrelevant to many citizens around the world. Naming and shaming, standard approaches in human rights advocacy, were increasingly having limited effect. The business model of Global North donor supporting Global South activists exacerbated these problems.

Fast forward. In the wake of the myriad abuses occurring in the United States, another debate is emerging: Can the United States support democracy and human rights around the world as we have for four decades, even as racial inequalities, disparities, and inequities at home are more evident than any time in recent history? How do the societal and economic cracks and crevices in our system, laid bare now as canyons, affect our national security policies going forward?

I want to add another dimension to these debates. Despite the cratering of U.S. global leadership and multiple crises, if we embrace a 21st century conception of sustainable development here and abroad, we can recover with a new, better approach to advancing social justice and dignity, one that puts addressing structural racism front and center. Done comprehensively, it would improve communities all over the country but also positively impact American diplomacy and development work overseas.

Briefly, on the history of sidestepping our original sin

Racism in the United States has always been an impediment to realizing the promise of democracy, but also to embracing, and being seen to embrace, human rights. It deterred Eleanor Roosevelt and the U.S. delegation to the U.N. in 1948 from turning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the touchstone of the movement, into a legally binding document. The Truman administration, in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Brown v. the Board of Education, cited the unequal system of public education defined by race as a national security issue that the Soviets were exploiting.

Cold War dynamics and lingering effects have led to a systematic downplaying of social and economic rights. Instead, a focus on rights of the person (e.g., highlighting torture, indefinite detention) has tended to dominate many U.S. human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The 1975 Helsinki Accords between the United States and the Soviet Union indirectly gave rise to one of the world’s most preeminent NGOs, Human Rights Watch (HRW). However, HRW did not make tackling racial injustice at home the priority. Initially called “Helsinki Watch,” it signaled its role as a solidarity group monitoring the compliance of the Soviet Union with international human rights obligations.

When the United States visibly departs from the rule of law, dictators are enabled. For many of us who work internationally, the derogation regarding indefinite detention highly motivated us to try to close Guantanamo among other efforts to change deleterious counterterrorism policies. Within the same group—an overwhelmingly white, privileged community—few of us have to date made reducing inequality at home an equally critical or even existential issue.

This situation is no longer tenable. Advancing rights at home and overseas needs to finally be clearly understood as interconnected and should lead to changes in domestic and foreign policies. Intentional approaches to breaking down silos need to be established. Measurable progress reducing inequality and inequities must feature prominently, but challenges exist requiring paradigm shifts.

Obstacles to changing American diplomacy and development work

How countries reconcile with their violent past and how it influences the present is not a well-understood or consistently recognized factor in either diplomacy or development. This present past—our continued legacy of structural racism—has burst into view on prime-time television and social media. Our deep deviations from the rule of law have, however, freighted our efforts to advance human rights abroad for some time now—so much so they led me to search for approaches that at least acknowledged the tensions. Even minor efforts met with resistance and institutional obstacles.

In 2009, I helped organize a U.S.-Russia civil society summit in Moscow attended by President Obama who joined his former colleagues. This conversation, with Black Americans talking about their work in community organizing in the United States and Russian activists talking about work inside Russia, was a modest attempt to shift traditional approaches for assistance to peer-to-peer engagement. One concrete recommendation from the summit was a series of joint projects, including one on “history and memory”:

“In the United States, these might include the legacies of slavery and the treatment of indigenous peoples, and in Russia, it might include the legacies of terror and the institutionalization of deportations and slave labor in the gulag. It might examine how these issues are presented to the public in each country, for example, through a comparison of text books, tourism, movies, and popular novels.”

Some activists on both sides objected, believing it lent credence to the Kremlin’s “what-about-isms” (e.g., Don’t talk to me about Russian human rights abuses. What about racism in the U.S.?). In any case, after a few years of peer-to-peer meetings, the U.S. walked away. Vladimir Putin had again become president, most international support for Russian human rights evaporated, and the Kremlin launched hybrid warfare to undermine democracies, including “specifically target(ing) the Black community to sow division and suppress voter turnout.”

Still wanting to address the tensions inherent in our present past while advancing human rights overseas, when I joined the Obama administration in 2010, I proposed an initiative on reconciliation, accountability, and justice. Colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were receptive. (Some of these same colleagues have written recently about the need for a U.S. conflict prevention plan.) We immediately encountered impediments; USAID’s mandate is to address international—not domestic—development. The problem was, however, not just a bureaucratic one. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2017, “the international community is not well organized to manage the problem of historical memory. … (T)roubling, since how countries deal with violent episodes in their past shapes how they develop. … (C)onsider the United States’ own lack of reconciliation with its legacy of slavery and how this affects race relations and inequality today. Over and over again, we witnessed the lack of accountability for the past as a driver of contemporary development and, often, of conflict.”

Suffice to say, to date, the international democracy and human rights work that the State Department, USAID, NGOs, and private foundations have funded, programmed, and promoted has, like the United States itself, attempted to sidestep this profound wound. While obscuring what is going on inside the country, we have trained—indeed, congressionally mandated—our eyes to gaze only on abuses occurring elsewhere, similar to what one writer has labeled the “exotic poverty problem.”

The 2030 agenda can help reduce inequality

The world has turned upside down. Anything that seemed impossible a few weeks ago may now actually be imperative. How extremely foresighted then that a global framework for a 21st century approach to sustainable development already exists and applies to the Global North and the Global South: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This agenda has reducing inequality and leaving no one behind as foundational. Implemented, it could help radically reduce violence and increase access to justice. Expanded definitions of sustainability (beyond climate) and development (happens everywhere) represent paradigm shifts needed to erode the silos of development at home versus overseas. Only, however, if we organize and educate ourselves.

The clock is ticking. With the SDGS adopted in 2015 and running through 2030, time has been wasted. Equally problematic, there is little awareness that this agenda even exists. Yet we still have ten years, “the decade of action.” Moreover, there are pockets of traction: Some cities, universities, business leaders, and philanthropies have recognized the value-add of the SDGs, including in the United States.  At Carnegie Mellon, we are conducting a Voluntary University Review to see how our education, research, and practice align with the SDGs.

Now is the time to make the agenda for peaceful, just, inclusive communities a societal—dare I say— national project that delivers for all citizens. We need a national conversation about what sustainable development—including tackling structural racism—means. We need to support a next generation of experts trained for the transnational, distributed world, educated in holistic, human-centered design, listening and responding to needs in whatever locality they work. They must reflect the demography of the United States. We need resourced plans to broaden the pipeline of talent, targeting educational institutions early and often.

The foreign policy community should rethink labels common in international development circles. We should no longer be comfortable talking about the United States as a “developed country” given disaggregated data at the city level, even before the pandemic, that show life expectancy in communities of color below places the World Bank labels as “less developed.” The average life expectancy in parts of Ward 5 in the District of Columbia is 67. The average in Botswana is 69.6. We can no longer ignore educational, health, and economic disparities that have defined generations.

The era in which the human rights community considers inequities and inequalities as outside their remit must end. Traditional approaches to advancing human rights by monitoring compliance with legal frameworks (or capacity building) are inadequate. Some, namely the Ford Foundation under Darren Walker, have recognized the need for change. Yet behind closed doors, activists complain Ford has “walked away” from advancing rights.

The foreign policy community must recognize structural racism as a fundamental threat to the well-being of this country, just as we would a foreign one. If we do not have the will to meet this moment, we may well be witnessing the end times of human rights and the ultimate undermining of our democracy. That is what the Putins of the world are betting. We can prove them wrong and establish that the United States, despite history, is a beacon. Reducing inequality and inequities here will do more to help advance human rights than a million reports monitoring abuses overseas.