WIN–WIN: How International Trade Can Help Meet the Sustainable Development Goals



Matthias Helble and Ben Shepherd | Asian Development Bank Institute

In September 2015, the members of the United Nations (UN) agreed on a new set of development goals, the so-called UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As was the case for the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs are expected to guide development efforts through the 2030 time horizon. The 17 SDGs cover many areas, such as poverty, health, environment, education, innovation, inequality, urbanization, peace, justice and institutions, and partnerships for development.

Interestingly, there is no specific SDG trade goal. Among the 169 SDG targets, there are few references to trade-related objectives, the key ones being promotion of the rules- based multilateral trading system, and implementation of duty-free and quota-free market access for least developed countries, with a doubling of their export market share.

This book comes at a timely moment. The international development community, as well as policy makers in both developed and developing countries, are currently developing road maps on how to best achieve the SDGs. At the same time, there has been a backlash against globalization, mostly in developed economies. The benefits of trade opening are being increasingly called into question. It is therefore crucial to fully understand how trade interacts with the various goals enshrined in the SDGs.

Trade integration holds many opportunities for development, but, at the same time, can have risks that need to be managed. The objective of this book is to map out a triple-win scenario: when good trade policy spurs international trade, contributes to development-friendly outcomes, and supports achieving the SDGs. This book provides guidance by leading experts on how to best achieve this.

The nexus between trade and development is not new. Traditionally, trade policy specialists have focused on the income channel, i.e., that openness to international flow of goods and services can increase national income, which in turn enables moving forward on resource- intensive development issues. This argument has been received with a certain skepticism; however, there are various other channels through which trade can contribute to achieving the SDGs.

For example, many countries use tariff and non-tariff measures on pharmaceuticals and other medical products. These policies hinder poor people’s access to those goods, and undercut the goal of promoting healthy lives in developing countries. Free trade in health-related goods and services could potentially improve developing countries’ health care access, with corresponding positive impacts on people’s lives.

Trade in health services is subject to even bigger barriers that heavily impede access to health care by millions of patients worldwide. The same logic applies to environmental goods and services, where tariff and nontariff barriers increase their cost, hampering the fight against climate change.

This book covers the trade linkages with all 17 SDGs, except for Goal 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.” Institution building often goes hand in hand with economic development and trade opening.

Furthermore, the accession to international trade regimes, such as the World Trade Organization, or the signing of regional and bilateral trade agreements, might also streamline institutions. However, we consider the relationship overly loose to cover it in an analytical piece.

We do not follow the 17 SDGs in order, but divide the book into five parts. Part I introduces the topic, including an analysis of changes in perception of the trade-development nexus. Part II addresses poverty, hunger, and inclusive growth. The chapters of Part III study the links between trade and education and health. Finally, the last part looks at all other linkages between trade and the SDGs, such as urbanization and infrastructure.

The authors of the individual chapters are among the leading experts in trade and development. Each chapter holds the latest knowledge of one or several specific “trade and…” issues, and examines ways in which trade opening can support achieving the SDGs. The chapters also analyze the types of complementary policies that might be necessary, in particular to deal with resulting local losses, as well as adjustment costs.

All chapters are stand-alone. The book is conceptualized as a key reference for both the trade and development communities. The book complements the emerging literature on the SDGs themselves by focusing on how trade policy can be used sensibly and pragmatically to support medium-term sustainable development.


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