UNCTAD places trade at the heart of sustainable development agenda beyond 2015

08 May 2014

The sixth session of the Trade and Development Commission included an informal meeting in the afternoon of its first day to consider “The Role of International Trade in the Post-2015 Development Agenda”.​

With the form of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) currently under discussion, UNCTAD is making a contribution to integrating economic development and related global economic issues into the UN-led agenda beyond 2015.

The idea that economic growth can lift people out of poverty and form the basis of an aspiration for improving lives underpinned the MDGs – but the topic of trade was confined to Goal 8 (to “develop a global partnership for development”). Trade was mainly referred to as a matter of market access and tariff reduction, and in just three of 16 indicators used to track Goal 8.

However, UNCTAD’s work has shown that international trade should be mainstreamed as an “enabler” for achieving a broad range of social, economic and environmental development goals through promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth. Exactly how this idea will be integrated across the SDGs, and what targets will be used to measure the outcomes of such goals as gender equality, for example, is currently a matter for consideration.

As part of UNCTAD’s ongoing contribution to the formulation of the SDGs, the Third Geneva Dialogue, to take place during UNCTAD’s fiftieth anniversary events held in Geneva from 16 to 20 June, takes as its theme “Trade as a means of implementation of sustainable development”.

One commitment supported by UNCTAD is the eradication of extreme poverty. UNCTAD has backed this aim since the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD I) was held in 1964.

“The States participating in the Conference are determined… to find ways by which the human and material resources of the world may be harnessed for the abolition of poverty everywhere,” read the Final Act of the UNCTAD I, which was held in Geneva.

While trade liberalization can raise incomes, it does not automatically reduce poverty in an equitable way. But UNCTAD’s work has shown that there are means to counter such distortions and uphold a rights-based approach to development, even as countries open up to trade.

The transformative nature of the new development agenda, currently being discussed by United Nations Member States, centres on the broad developmental concept of sustainability. This will hopefully ensure that development can be made lasting and self-perpetuating in all its dimensions, rather than seeking singularly to minimize impact on the environment.

Over the past 50 years since UNCTAD was founded, the international economy has sometimes supported and sometimes hindered more inclusive and sustainable growth in developing countries. UNCTAD has shown, for example, how unregulated financial markets and unrestricted capital flows have often been an impediment to stable and inclusive growth. At the same time an open and predictable multilateral system has also been shown to stimulate trade growth.

It is equally important that developing countries can pursue inclusive and sustainable development strategies in a system that provides not only rules but the support and space to use policy instruments to promote structural transformation and to manage the adjustments that this implies. There must be an effort to ensure that existing agreements ensure sufficient policy space.

When properly harnessed, the opportunities brought by international trade in goods and services can be a powerful force for creating jobs, enabling efficient use of resources, providing incentives to entrepreneurs and ultimately improving standards of living in all countries.