Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 10, October 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Hacking the SDG Discourse: A Narrative Strategy
for Changing the Story of Global Development

Joseph Brewer

Originally published in
Medium, 29 August 2015

We don’t need to settle for what the current development process has to offer. We can change the rules and create a better game for everyone.

A course is now being set for the next 15 years of global economic development. As the Millennium Development Goals come to an end, the United Nations will officially adopt their replacement — the Sustainable Development Goals — in September of this year. After conducting a detailed frame analysis of these SDGs we have pinpointed a set of weak links in the logic that can be targeted to help humanity make the transition to a truly sustainable world.

We have set ourselves on a path to reframe the key narratives of economic progress?—?using the Sustainable Development Goals as a “historic moment” where a successful intervention has the potential to reach larger audiences. This will require that we work seamlessly as a team with a shared understanding of what we are attempting to do and how we are going about it.

Join the effort to reframe global poverty here! has been built on a body of research in two key areas: (1) Political analysis of economic history that reveals the structural causes of poverty and inequality. And (2) linguistic analysis of the cultural patterns that keep these structural causes hidden from view such that they are not adequately addressed.

Our intervention is to open up the mental space for inquiry among development professionals and change agents working to address systemic threats to humanity.

The strategy for doing this has two parts:

  1. Weaken the core logic of development-as-usual by challenging its assumptions and revealing covert, unpopular agendas.
  2. Ask three questions that are designed to initiate people on a learning journey that reveals the structural causes of poverty and inequality?—?thus opening up the conversation landscape to a new set of stories that give meaning to these emergent understandings.

This is built on a Theory of Change informed by the science of cultural evolution, which has observed that:

People live within stories that make sense of their social world. These stories become entrenched as institutional structures and practices, making them difficult to dislodge and change. Telling a “better story” is therefore a process of making the dominant stories less coherent and more difficult to understand, which opens up space for new meanings to fill in where they have broken down. Our theory of change is to challenge the logic of the problematic narratives while facilitating a learning process that helps people craft their own new stories that make sense of the knowledge and insights gained along the way.

We will “hack” the SDG discourse by asking three questions (listed below). These questions will be delivered in multiple forms?—?a series of blog articles written by our team and allies closely aligned with our mission; short videos posted to the web that challenge the dominant narrative; and a set of infographics that reveal key empirical findings about the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

Social reality is built on consensus of perception about what is real.
Believe something else is possible and it may come to be true.

Our challenge is to unleash these waves of potential conversation in a synergistic manner. This is why we need to articulate our narrative strategy as clearly as possible.

First, the three questions:

How Is Poverty Created?
Where do poverty and inequality come from? What is the detailed history of past actions and policies that contributed to their rapid ascent in the modern era? When were these patterns accelerated and by whom?

Who’s Developing Whom?
The story of development is often assumed or unstated. What is the role of colonialism in the early stages of Western development? How did the geographic distribution of wealth inequality come into being? What are the functional roles of foreign aid, trade agreements, debt service, and tax evasion in the process of development? And most importantly, who gains and who loses along the way?

Why Is Growth The Only Answer?
The mantra that “growth is good” has been repeated so often that it has the feel of common sense. Yet we know that GDP rises every time a bomb drops or disaster strikes. Growth, as defined up till now, is more nuanced and complex than this mantra would have us believe. Why must the sole measure of progress be growth (measured in monetary terms)? Who benefits from this story? What alternative stories might be told?

We will use these questions as organizing principles in our blog articles. They are woven into the infographics and web videos. And we have seen early evidence of their power in articles written earlier this year.

Outlining A “Script” for Our September Pulse

The SDG Framework will be officially adopted in early September, creating a media window when lots of people will be talking about them for a short period of time. We want our ideas to go viral?—?as a “pulse” or crescendoing wave of dialogue where people share our content and create their own in response to what we are sharing.

This is where we need to organize ourselves for synergistic action. We’ll need a script that we can follow to operate independently while ensuring that we support each other’s efforts in a manner that creates resonance across the landscape of conversations.

The script is our game plan. It is how we want things to play out. Just like in a theatrical play, the script is what we follow to know what the character roles are and how their behavior is prescribed. It needs to be very simple and easy to use so we “know our proper role” for the settings we find ourselves in.

The play-by-play reality of this pulse is going to get messy. There will be waves of internet memes (think of #CecilTheLion from a few weeks ago) that cannot be predicted ahead of time. People will talk about and share whatever is creating synchronicity in the moment. Which means we need to be agile and able to improvise without losing sight of our end game.

That is the purpose of this script. It will tell us how to act as we improvise in different settings. Here’s an outline for what it might look like:

There will be opponents (people who advocate for and promote counter narratives). Some of them will be coordinating with each other and have substantial financial resources at their disposal for marketing and promotions. We don’t have large resources, which means we will have to use guerrilla tactics and asymmetrical maneuvers that mobilize our opponents to respond in ways that turn their size against them. Our game plan in these contexts is to be the mosquito that agitates the elephant.

There will be NGO dissidents (people who work within the system, yet are frustrated because they know it is broken). We have a group of them that we are working with directly, but many more will remain hidden to us. These people are our hidden allies. We won’t know where they are or how many of them that might step up as internal saboteurs of the standard narrative. We must embrace this ignorance and “fly blind with full knowledge that our vision is obscured”. Our game plan in these contexts is to provide narrative ammunition they can pick up and use with ease, wherever they are.

There will be concerned citizens (people who are generally aware of the problems but not formally engaged in addressing them). These people are distracted and filled with daily concerns of their own. They may be suffering from information overload or feeling powerless in the face of such huge problems. We must embrace their lived experience and honor it with humility and the respect it deserves. Our game plan in these contexts is to provide insights that make them feel more hopeful and empowered that something can be done.

In each case, the script we follow is a strategic mode of engagement. It is easy to understand and can be monitored by other members of our team. When one of us enters the discourse we will all be able to tell if they are following the game plans outlined here.

Unpacking the Harmful Narratives

Much can be said about the harmful narratives we are countering. Indeed, entire libraries of books and articles have been written about them. Our purpose here is not to be comprehensive. Rather it is to be focused on leverage points?—?like the Aikido master who knows just where and when to apply pressure to create a pivot and throw their opponent to the ground.

The Great Lie of Human Progress
A key battleground will be to challenge the “feel good story” of progress, which tells us that poverty is going down, wealth is increasing, and the world is like a car speeding along a well maintained highway toward Techno-Utopia. We have already seen how this has played out. It masks the chronic problems of our time and hides the culprits who are responsible for gaming the system in their favor.

We can challenge this story with killer statistics and critiques of the logic claiming that the secret ingredient to cure all ills is “economic growth”. This is where we show how statistical manipulation has been used to paint a false picture, how things really are getting worse (even though there has been authentic progress on several fronts), and that more of the same is a recipe for disaster.

Need to Question the Fundamentals
Our central critique is that the SDG’s have been framed in a way that removes all discussion of political agendas. Nothing is said about corporate power. Nowhere is the history of poverty creation (or ecological destruction) given its due as one set of people taking advantage of unilateral power to conquer and steal from other groups of people. Structural causes?—?the rules-of-play that create poverty and environmental harm?—?are left out of the conversation.

We can challenge this story by asking critical questions. Reminding people about the structures and history of exploitation. Articulating that a great deal is known about how these problems were caused, so it is possible to actually solve them. But only if we focus on the fundamentals.

Neoliberal Capitalism Is Not Descended From God
The notion that capitalism is the end game, the utopian solution for economies around the world, something we must assume as given and unchanging is naively and dangerously ignorant of history. Hegemonies and paradigms come and go. They have lifetimes. There are discernible patterns of incubation, early growth, maturity, and decay.

We need to understand this if we are to tell a compelling story about the end of capitalism. We can pose historical contexts and begin inquiries. Did the Roman elites think their empire would last forever? What kinds of delusions held sway among the Egyptian pharaohs just before their empire collapsed into oblivion? Why is it so difficult to understand Chinese history? Because there were wave after wave of dynastic orders each rising and falling across the span of deep time.

Our stories can remind people to think with historicity, to remember that to everything there is a season. We can note the increasing number and diversity of commentators who point out that corporate capitalism is subject to evolution (just as all of humanity is?—?evolution isn’t done, it is still happening).

We see voices among the elites (Paul Mason, Jeremy Rifkin, and others) who paint a picture of capitalism being so successful at wealth extraction that its days are becoming limited. It is literally too good at what it does and is driving productive processes toward “zero marginal cost” where profit-seeking is no longer possible. We see grassroots movements and social uprisings all over the world because the system of today builds its towers of opulence on the backs of the working poor. And we see that human population growth (combined with technological advances) has “made the Earth full” and we simply cannot grow much further before collapse becomes inevitable.

The laws of physics, biology, and economics are all pointing the way to a post-capitalist world. Neoliberal capitalism is a brief period of rapid growth, soon to be followed by collapse and decay?—?like the cancerous tissue that it actually is. We can tell this story and challenge the hegemony of 20th Century capitalism while calling for the paradigm to emerge that replaces it.

The Moral High Ground of “Greed Is Good”
This story, that rational self-interest is the only and best way to create wealth, is so full of holes that it only exists today because of the power inherent in shadow narratives. It is so vacuous that it can be all around us, lightly touching everything even though it has very little real substance.

We can point out that happiness and fulfillment are not the same as material accumulation. That those who hoard the most are not role-models, they are suffering from a sickness spawned in their constitutional insecurities. That the best way to create and maintain social good is by managing the commons?—?a set of criteria for collective governance that won Elinor Ostrom the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

Our inquiry here is into the nature of human nature itself. What kind of creature are we? How does this selfish trait fit within the bigger picture of our profoundly social and moral nature? What kind of future do we truly want? Is it one built on inequality through exploitation? Or is it one built on shared visions and collective effort?

Our Strategy?—?Inquiries That Birth New Stories

In closing, our narrative strategy is not to “tell a better story.” It is to facilitate inquiry and learning by “asking better questions.” We know that people don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be part of creating something better.

Ask better questions and you will change the world.

We will ask our three questions?—?using the multi-media forms listed at the beginning of this brief?—?and do so with the script that outlines our game plan for engaging with different types of players in this conversation. Our measure of success will be the extent to which other people are asking the same questions we are and coming to similar conclusions. Even better will be if they uncover new insights and find better ways to move forward than we could have done on our own.

We know that we don’t know the best way to transform our civilization in the next few decades. We also know that a small group like can make impacts much larger than our size by holding tight to the spiritual integrity of humble inquiry for the truth. As we role-model this behavior in our own actions, we just might be of service to others as they make their own inquiries on these, the most important issues of our time.


Joe Brewer is the Founder and Director of Cognitive Policy Works.  He is an innovation strategist who weaves together brilliant people and ideas to create integrated solutions at the intersections of the advocacy, policy, and technology worlds.  Throughout the last decade Joe has sought to understand human values and behavior through the study of cognitive semantics and complex systems with the goal of helping build livable communities for the 21st Century.  Much of his work has focused on values, identity, and modes of thought that shape cultural understandings of political and social issues.

Joe is interested in developing new practices that empower people to manage large-scale social change while solving problems through collaboration.  His specialties include design for systemic change, the architecture of human interactions, and incubating social innovations that promote the growth of livable and resilient communities. He has formal training in Earth Systems, political cognition, and open collaboration processes. He works internationally with social entrepreneurs, civic institutions, and non-profits to solve the most challenging problems confronting humanity.

Why Kindness is the Key to a New Economy

Genevieve Vaughan

This article was originally published in
Transformation, 18 September 2015
under a Creative Commons License

The economy of kindness: a maternal gift economy. Credit: Shutterstock.

We learn kindness from our mothers - could we use it to replace the free market with a gift economy?

Kindness is not a virtue, it's an attitude. The economy we live in today is a form of capitalist patriarchy – which means that our economic system is based on domination.

An economy built on kindness would be radically different. It would be a gift economy.

Today, the values of patriarchy and the market have merged. Patriarchy provides the psychological motivation towards competition that moves the market, the desire to be the one at the top that drives people to continually increase what they have. It impels people to want to become superior to others, fomenting sexism, white supremacy and imperialism as well as greed.

This motivation makes the market mechanisms expand. Accumulating money becomes an unacknowledged instrument of cruelty towards the majority of the world's population.

There is another option: an economy of kindness. This might be described as a 'maternal gift economy'. This economy is based in the original social interaction: the care of young children, in mothering and in being mothered.

Recently, infancy researchers have focused on the interaction between caregivers (usually mothers, but also fathers or other community members) and young infants and they have found that differently from what Freud, Skinner and Piaget supposed, infants are not passive solipsists but are higly interactive social beings. This makes us change our view of mothering as well. The interaction between motherer and child, which at first is mainly based on nurturing and being nurtured, is the first template of economics and it also lays down the pattern for the child’s identity.

Faced with a little being, who cannot speak, motherers have to guess what the infant’s needs may be. They have to focus attention on the child and explore all the cues to be found in the child’s behavior and in the environment. Is the child hungry or sleepy? Are they cold? Do they need a diaper change? If the motherer does not guess correctly the child will keep crying, loudly expressing discomfort. 

In other words, the motherer's action must be actively other-oriented. It is this attention to the needs of others that I believe is the basis of the gift economy, an economy of provisioning, where goods and services are given to satisfy needs without expecting the payback of a counter-gift. 

If everyone is following this principle in an egalitarian way, everyone will receive as well as give. It is difficult, if not impossible, to practice gifting alone in a context of the market economy, because individual resources and capacities are limited. In a maternal gift economy there is no quid pro quo exchange but gifts are given forward by everyone and a mutually supportive community is created.

In communities of this kind, attending to the needs of others is a normal attitude. But in a market economy, it is thought of as a virtue, as kindness. We consider it unusual because so many people are forced to engage in its opposite for survival: exchange – giving only in order to receive. In fact, free market logic is diametrically opposed to the maternal gift-giving-and-receiving by which our early identity is established. Markets create cruelty, scarcity and deception by satisfying needs only through a so-called ‘equal’ exchange. Profit is actually a ‘gift’ taken by the exchangers, even if it is forced from the other party. The flow of gifts goes from the many to the few. 

Governments gift to banks, propping them up, while most people remain with nothing. CEO’s huge salaries and “golden parachutes” seem to be a payment for work accomplished, but are actually the gifts of the patriarchal capitalist system to those who reach the top of the pyramid. The one percent has taken possession of the gifts of the ninety-nine percent as well as those of Mother Nature.

Exchange does not create relations of mutuality and trust as mothering-gifting does. Instead it creates equal stances of mistrust, as each person tries to get more from the other in the so-called equal exchange. The gift economy promotes bonding while the exchange economy promotes separation. 

Kindness becomes dysfunctional to the profit motive. Free gifts seem anti economic. But free gift giving is just as much a mode of distribution, of satisfying needs, as the market is. And it has positive community-building consequences that the market does not have. 

I believe that kindness comes from the practice of the gift economy, even inside an economy based on the market and exchange. Kindness requires us to look at the real needs of others, which may be psychological as well as material. It stimulates us to try to satisfy them. Kindness means we have not given up our maternal heritage entirely. 

By considering it an individual virtue however, we deprive kindness of its revolutionary potential. It is only by generalizing the gift economy and diminishing the exchange economy that we can create a society where everyone’s needs are satisfied. 

Patriarchal capitalism is an economy of plunder of gifts. We need a direct maternal gift economy to take its place. The very act of exchange of products is a gift denying and gift taking mechanism. It is anti gift, anti maternal and as it is mediated by money, it imposes a monolithic or singular anti-gift ideal in our every economic interaction. 

I believe this has created a social patriarchal archetype. At its most extreme, this leads men try to achieve ego validation by being shooters, being the one who kills many, taking from them the gift of life. The murderous actions of racist police are also consistent with the values of the market and patriarchy. The one empowered to dominate and shoot asserts the importance of his white ego over the lives of those in another racial category.

It is not by chance that our society is becoming more cruel. Valuing independence, competition and domination means that generalized cruelty is promoted in our society, although it is not recognized as such. Even though the media continually broadcasts news about mass murders and wars, these events seem far away. We do not realize how much our economic system and its values are responsible for the suffering. Like drivers of drones we can distract ourselves from our part in the devasation by immersing ourselves in our daily lives, in drugs or in video games.

In my books I have tried to show that language itself is based on gift giving. Using language requires us to understand and satisfy the communicative and cognitive needs of others. Structurally, it requires kindness. If language is based on gifting and kindness, then we are homo donans, the giving being, not just homo sapiens, the knowing being. We have to give and receive before we can know. 

It is in accessing our maternal giving and receiving heritage that we can begin to create social change towards a kind society, generalizing the values of gifting and eliminating the cruel ego-centrism of patriarchy and the market.


Genevieve Vaughan created the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, the Temple of Sekhmet in Cactus Springs, Nevada, and initiated a network: International Feminists for a Gift Economy. Her books, For-Giving: a Feminist Criticism of Exchange (1997) Homo Donans (2006), two edited anthologies and more are available free at the Gift Economy website. Her newest book is The Gift in the Heart of Language; the Maternal Source of Meaning (Mimesis International 2015).

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10.15.Yin.Yang.png "No one grows alone."

Carl Jung (1875-1961)


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