5 January, 2016

A little less conversation, a little more action please

Swaziland farmer
by Michael Gidney, CEO for the Fairtrade Foundation

2015 was a year of sustainable development, with the UN approving the long-awaited Global Goals to guide national and global policies for the next fifteen years. On the eve of 2016, Fairtrade reflects on what the new Goals could mean and proposes a few resolutions for governments and companies.

An old Chinese proverb says, “He who says that something cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it”. There’s been a great deal of talk this year about sustainability; whether it can be achieved or whether it’s just hot air. Certainly, the problems in making trade work for everyone seem to find no political resolution. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) held its most recent ministerial meeting just before Christmas: despite strenuous negotiations and some progress, WTO members remain divided and the future of the organisation is uncertain. As WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo said in wrapping up the conference: “Inaction itself is a decision and I believe the price of inaction is too high.” Indeed.

This was a depressing end to the year which had contained some moments of real political consensus and optimism. The Paris climate change talks pulled the political rabbit out of the hat, with commitments to reduce carbon emissions that went further than some had predicted, despite the many get-out clauses in the final declaration. But the big deal this year was surely the agreement by the UK and 192 other countries to sign up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will set the global development agenda for the next 15years.

Where the Millennium Development Goals focused primarily on the symptoms of poverty, the new Global Goals will seek to tackle the causes. Of course the causes of global injustice are deep-rooted and complex, so it’s hardly surprising that the 17 goals seem almost impossibly daunting. Goal 1, for example, is to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”; Goal 2 will achieve “Zero hunger” while Goal 12 calls for “Responsible production and consumption”. Are we really saying that in just 15 years we can solve problems that have defeated us for generations? Well, why not? Mandela was right when he said poverty was man-made; we know there is enough food to feed everyone. I don’t think we should be put off by the scale of these challenges: it’s good to have them named. To have them ratified by most of the world’s governments could be a huge step forward. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said, “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” And what better time to dream big dreams than at the start of a new year?

Achieving the Global Goals will take all of us. There is more for government to do, certainly. There is much to celebrate in the UK’s approach to development aid, but we are on weaker ground when it comes to trade. The best resolution the UK government could make for the new year would be to stop giving with one hand and taking with the other. UK trade policy must favour poor producers more. Otherwise SDG commitments will be just talk. 2015 saw the UK market move away from African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) sugar cane towards subsidised EU beet - a move prompted by changes in trade policy. While the UK looks for friends in Brussels to shore up its efforts to re-negotiate its membership, it is turning its back on farming communities in developing countries who have supplied it with cane sugar for hundreds of years. Will the UK government resolve to sort this out in 2016?


Full version of the blog is on the Guardian Sustainable Business website. To read it, click here.

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