Trade’s role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals



Terence P. Stewart | Current Thoughts on Trade

In 2015 all UN members agreed to pursue 17 broad sustainable development goals (“SDGs”) by 2030. As stated on the UNDP webpage talking about SDGs,

“The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

“The 17 SDGs are integrated—that is, they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

The seventeen goals include:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere;
  2. end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture;
  3. ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages;
  4. ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong opportunities for all;
  5. achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls;
  6. ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all;
  7. ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all;
  8. promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;
  9. build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation;
  10. reduce inequality within and among countries;
  11. make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable;
  12. ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns;
  13. take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts;
  14. conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development;
  15. protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degredation and halt biodiversity loss;
  16. promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels;
  17. strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

Trade has been and continues to be an important tool to achieve many of the SDGs. For example, expanded world trade has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over recent decades and so can play an important role in achieving SDG #1.

Similarly, trade can benefit efforts to reduce hunger and improve food security (SDG#2), though restrictions on trade can complicate efforts to address hunger and food security.

As is obvious in the current COVID-19 pandemic with the large number of export restraints imposed by countries, keeping trade of medical goods flowing can be critical to ensuring healthy lives for all at all ages (SDG#3).

Thus, trade is an important element as countries, the UN and other multilateral organizations and the private sector work together to achieve the ambitious set of sustainable development goals.

Each year the UN holds a High Level Political Forum (“HLPF”) which reviews progress to date and what needs to be done to get all countries to the sustainable development goals by 2030. This year’s HLPF was held from July 7-16 under a theme reflecting the great distance that yet remains to achieve the SDGs. The theme was “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: Realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development.” The theme reflects the fact that the world is a significant distance from achieving many of the goals and in fact will like suffer movement in the wrong direction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, there is a need for accelerated action if the goals are to be achieved by 2030.

A chart prepared by the UN showing progress on each of the seventeen broad goals (but only for certain specific goals within the broader category) for the world and for various geographical areas is embedded below. The data reflect progress only through 2019 or 2018.

Many UN and other multilateral organizations provide input to the HLPF each year. The World Trade Organization is one such entity. As noted above, trade plays an important role in achieving many of the SDGs though there is only one part of one of the SDGs where the WTO has a specific mandate — 14.6, eliminating overfishing and subsidies that contribute to the same.

On July 13, the WTO issued a press release on the WTO’s 2020 report to the HLPF. The press release reviews the sustainable development goals on which trade activities are having a direct effect and what actions are occurring within the WTO on them. The link to the press release follows and the text is reproduced below. The actual 2020 WTO report to the UN HLPF is embedded after the press release. SeeKeeping trade open amid COVID-19 crisis central to achieving SDGs and economic recovery, 13 July 2020,

“In a report to the United Nations High-level Political Forum (HLPF) taking place from 7 to 16 July, the WTO Secretariat highlights that trade, fiscal and monetary policies are key to supporting global sustainable development and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Amid the COVID-19 crisis, keeping trade open and fostering a favourable business environment will be critical to spur the renewed investment needed to meet the SDGs, the report says.

“The theme of the 2020 HLPF — to be held under the auspices of the United Nations Economic and Social Council — will be “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: Realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”. Participants will review progress on the SDGs in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They will also reflect on how the international community can respond to the crisis in a way that will accelerate progress towards meeting the SDGs.

The WTO reports annually to the HLPF on WTO efforts to achieve trade-specific targets in the SDGs. The HLPF is the United Nations’ main forum for reviewing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, providing the opportunity for all UN members and specialised agencies to meet annually to evaluate progress on achieving the SDGs.

“The WTO report to this year’s HLPF highlights that the multilateral trading system has contributed significantly to unprecedented economic development over the last few decades. Greater certainty over trade policies has created predictability, creating the conditions for long-term business planning and investment.

“However, a rise in trade-restrictive measures since 2019 — especially between major economies — and the suspension of activities of the WTO’s Appellate Body have created new challenges for the multilateral trading system. In addition, the COVID-19 crisis is having a major impact on global supply and demand, leading to disruptions in global supply chains for both goods and services.

“At this time of crisis, the multilateral trading system becomes all the more important, providing a forum for a coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report says.

“The report summarises the latest progress in the WTO’s multilateral trade negotiations, highlighting that talks on reducing harmful fisheries subsidies are playing an important role in advancing developing countries’ sustainable development objectives and meeting a key target in SDG 14.

“Other WTO work contributing to meeting the SDGs includes discussions within the Committee on Trade and Environment on issues such as the circular economy, domestic initiatives on waste and chemicals management and recycling; and through the Aid for Trade initiative, which supports the achievement of SDG 8a.

“The report also highlights the importance of improving transparency in WTO members’ trade policies, particularly those taken in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Another issue covered by the report is the role of gender-responsive trade policies as a means of increasing women’s participation in global trade and contributing to economic growth. These efforts were catalysed by the signing of the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment in December 2017 and the implementation of the WTO’s Trade and Gender Action Plan for 2017-19.

“The WTO’s work with other international agencies on increasing access to trade finance is also outlined by the report. Trade finance can help facilitate international trade, helping small businesses in particular play a more active role in the global economy.

“Mainstreaming trade into national development plans is cited as an important means of helping governments meet the SDGs. This includes integrating trade into sector strategies, defining a clear national trade policy and ensuring effective institutional coordination. The contribution of the multi-agency Enhanced Integrated Framework in this area is underscored by the report.

“Finally, the report underlines the need for governments to implement measures that address the challenges faced by least-developed countries in international trade to ensure a more equitable distribution of the gains from trade and support the achievement of SDG 17.11, which calls for doubling LDCs’ share in global trade by 2020. The report also points to the importance of open trade policy and responsive fiscal policy to bring about a sustained and socially inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.”

The 2020 WTO report is interesting on several fronts. First, it articulates in general the benefits of trade and the value of stability in the trading system while recognizing that trade is suffering from increased conflicts and from the economic effects of COVID-19 and WTO Member responses to the pandemic. The benefits of countries working together to permit global economic recovery are reviewed, essentially a call to the WTO Members to step up and in fact maximize cooperation to maximize the upside economic potential post pandemic. Trade has been and can be important to achieving SDGs.

Second, the report identifies a wide array of SDGs that the WTO has activities ongoing to support achieving. For the public, it is quite useful to see the range of activities that are ongoing at the WTO relevant to the SDGs even during a period of seeming stagnation and impasse at the WTO. While many important issues, such as progress on achieving a fisheries subsidies agreement, depend on WTO Members’ ability to reach agreement in ongoing negotiations, there are issues where ongoing activities like Aid-for-Trade or joint activities with other multilateral organizations are making progress on achieving SDGs, even if the ongoing work is technical in nature in some cases.

While the WTO report is just one of many reports and other input provided by various groups and organizations, trade, investment and financing will all play important roles in the coming decade if the sustainable development goals are to be achieved. Embedded below is the draft ministerial declaration from this year’s HLPF event which was held virtually. The draft is dated July 17 and was subject to review by delegates until July 22 (silent approval process). It is unclear if the draft was approved or not as of posting this piece, but the draft lays out the direction needed whether or not the exact language used in the draft ends up in the final declaration. Trade issues are identified in paragraph 17 which states,

“17. We remain determined to end hunger and achieve food security and improved nutrition for all as a matter of priority and to end all forms of malnutrition, while ensuring sustainable and resilient food systems, promoting sustainable agriculture, including smallholder and family farming, that increases productivity and production, and preventing food loss and waste. Recognizing that COVID-19 has exacerbated food insecurity, and also recognizing that international trade is an engine for development, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, food and agricultural products and inputs, and other goods and services across borders, and work to resolve disruptions to the global supply chains to support the health and well-being of all people. We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment and to keep our markets open. We look forward to the 2021 Food Systems Summit to be convened by the Secretary-General.”

The full draft declaration is embedded below.


There is much that needs to happen for the WTO to be fully functional and responsive to the changing global trade environment. WTO Members are the masters of what the WTO does or doesn’t do. But the WTO and its Members are also part of the collective effort to achieve the historic sustainable development goals set out by the UN in 2015 which are to be achieved, if possible, by 2030.

The 2020 WTO report to the HLPF is a useful reminder of the many ways in which trade can promote the UN’s SDGs and how at least some progress can be made even where there is gridlock generally within the WTO. This year’s HLPF meeting underlines the urgency of action by all countries, multilateral organizations and others to ensure a better world for all. Time will tell whether the governments of the world can in fact pull together to achieve the important global goals in the coming decade.

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