by Alice Tipping, ICTSD

With the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) coming up in 2015, the UN is in the process of pulling together a post-2015 global development agenda. The final outcome is expected to set the course for international development work for the following fifteen years. In recognition of the interconnected nature of most development challenges, UN members have mandated that the post-2015 agenda should integrate and balance environmental, social, and economic concerns. UN members have also decided that the SDGs will be an agenda for universal action: global goals that are relevant to all countries, supported by national targets.

Viewing the debate from Geneva, where the helpful (or harmful) effects of trade policies on the environment, economic growth, and human development are debated every day, it is striking how little trade policy is part of the post-2015 debate. UNCTAD calls trade “the most reliable and productive way of integrating into the global economy and of supporting the efforts of poorer countries to become less aid dependent.”

Expanding this thought, trade not only connects but shapes economies, communities, and the environment; it drives changes in employment and production, as well as the use of natural resources that production depends on. Trade policy is therefore an important part of the solution to balancing environmental protection, economic growth and human development.

Background briefs and country statements touch on the role of trade, but there has been very little attempt to tie this together to answer the broader question: what role should trade play in the post-2015 development agenda?

MDG8, the problem child
Trade policy was included in Millennium Development Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development. Along with targets on overseas development assistance and debt sustainability, Targets 8A and 8B refer to developing further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system, as well as addressing the special needs of LDCs. These targets were accompanied by indicators to measure market access provided by developed countries for developing country exports, agricultural subsidies in OECD countries, and the proportion of overseas development assistance allocated to help build trade capacity.

MDG8 was problematic on a number of levels. It is often considered to have been an afterthought – a grab-bag of economic issues that were acknowledged to be important but for which delegates felt ill-equipped (or simply ran out of time) to deal with properly. The targets under MDG8 are also less specific and less measurable in comparison with the other goals. Finally, there is very little connection between MDGs 1 through 7 and MDG8. ODA, debt relief, and trade preferences were simply assumed to help developing countries achieve the first seven goals.

SDGs, new kids in town
The process of creating the SDGs provides an opportunity to re-think the structure of the MDGs.

The UN High Level Panel of Eminent Persons (HLP) has suggested a set of 12 issue-specific goals supported by 54 clear and measurable targets, several of which pinpoint multiple dimensions of development. The HLP’s draft goal Ensure Food Security and Good Nutrition, for example, includes human development targets on hunger and stunting, an economic target around agricultural productivity, as well as an environmental target on sustainable fish stocks.

Trade policy and the environment in the SDGs
Trade policy could play a number of roles in the SDG framework. The simplest option would be similar to the role it played in the MDGs: as an enabler of economic growth mainly through improved market access for developing country exports. This could be achieved by rolling over the goals and targets of MDG8; increasing aid for trade, lowering tariff barriers, lowering developed-country agricultural subsidies, and gradually improving the rule-based trading system.

Such an approach could also be updated by establishing more specific targets for the market access provision. Countries could establish national targets for either full, or a specific percentage of, duty-free and quota-free market access for exports from LDCs, for instance. This variation would offer added value by making the market-access based contribution of trade policy more universal and increasing measurability and enhancing accountability. Countries would also be able to set targets consistent with national circumstances.

The integrative nature of the SDGs presents an opportunity to further leverage what trade-related policy could contribute towards attaining sustainable development objectives. Under a more integrated approach, trade-related targets or indicators could be included across the SDGs framework wherever they could contribute to improved environmental and human development outcomes, from addressing climate change to food security and nutrition.

Trade as an enabler across the sustainable development goals
The post-2015 development agenda will not impose obligations on UN member states; no country will be legally bound to implementing the targets agreed.

The SDGs’ integrated design and universal application provide a real opportunity to make development, environment, and economic policies, including trade policy, more coherent and mutually supportive. Trade-related ideas are already part of the debate in New York, but there is still space to define a coherent, constructive, and cross-goal role for trade policy in the new sustainable development agenda.

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Summary

This piece is a condensed version of an original briefing, written by Alice Tipping in the Bridges Trade BioRes Review from the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. She notes that trade is under-discussed in the post-2015 debate. This is despite the fact that it plays a key role in shaping economies, communities and the environment. It should therefore be seen as part of the solution for environmental protection, human development and economic growth post-2015.

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