Supplementing development goals to boost economic growth

15 September 2014
ITC News
While the MDGs aimed to tackle the symptoms of poverty, the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) need to address the root causes.

The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been significant for their striking successes as well as their failures. Since 2000, when they were agreed, there has been a reduction in the total number of people living in extreme poverty and a decline in maternal mortality rates. Still, there has been a lack of coherence among some of the goals and a marked unevenness of progress among developing countries. The MDGs have also offered an incredibly bold vision in trying to describe a truly global agenda for human development. For the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the years after 2015, this vision and ambition must be matched by bravery and commitment.

While the MDGs aimed to tackle some of the symptoms of global poverty now is the time to tackle the causes. For this, the SDGs need to address the structures and power dynamics that keep people in poverty. They must challenge values that have long been held dear; particularly in the area of trade.

The 17 SDGs the UN will consider contain language that is certainly encouraging. For example, they propose ‘inclusive and sustained economic growth’ and ‘decent work for all.’ They would ‘reduce inequality,’ ‘promote sustainable agriculture’ and ‘encourage sustainable consumption.’ They seem to speak to fundamental problems at the root of much poverty and suffering and there is a focus on the importance of making trade fair.

For more than 25 years the Fairtrade movement has sought to address these challenges in the belief that trade – if done differently – can reduce poverty and boost sustainable development. The growth of Fairtrade is testament to how far these ideas have gained public and commercial support: more than 1.4 million farmers and workers in 70 countries now benefit from the clear terms of trade and commitment to social and environmental welfare at the heart of Fairtrade standards.

Moreover, it is possible to detect a changing narrative behind the proposed SDGs that many in the Fairtrade movement would acknowledge and applaud. This is a recognition that an unmanaged ‘free’ market – which puts profits before people and the planet, where companies are able to act with impunity, where they engage the public in driving up consumption for ever-decreasing prices while devaluing agriculture along the way – is far from sustainable and needs to be brought under control. The global financial crisis showed all too clearly how an unfettered free market can destroy livelihoods while it enriches a minority.

Still, the proposed SDGs could easily be undermined by the weakness of domestic and international market policy. In most developed economies there has been a reluctance to regulate markets. The assumption has been that cutting regulation boosts growth. Despite increasing knowledge of appalling poverty and exploitation at the sharp end of global value chains, the most marginalized and vulnerable people have very little support from domestic and international government and very little right of redress. Too often global trade seems to have been pulling one way while the MDGs, public opinion and initiatives such as Fairtrade have pulled another.

The SDGs are an opportunity to create an environment in which all actors – producers, traders, consumers and policy-makers – pull together. This unity of purpose is at the heart of Fairtrade: in contrast to an uncontrolled market, Fairtrade has sought to show that robust trade rules help by creating a more even playing field. Unless the ambition of the proposed SDGs is matched by a determined commitment by governments to enact legislation supporting them, a transformative opportunity will have been lost.

The SDGs will have succeeded if the farmers and workers who feed the world can feel confident about their futures and can also feed themselves; if the awful scandal of the Rana Plaza textile factory collapse, which killed more than 1,100 people, is never repeated; if companies seek truly to take account of their impacts; and if governments are prepared to regulate to ensure markets work for humanity, not the other way around.