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Warming Up for the Headline Act in New York

08/07/2015 12:23 | Updated 08 July 2015

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The Sustainable Development Goals: Will small-scale farmers be included in the headline act or left sitting on the sidelines? Toledo Cacao Growers' Association, Belize © James A. Rodríguez

For every headline act there's a supporting artist. Even the biggest names have started out as warm-up acts: early in his career, Elvis opened for Bill Hayley, and the Beatles once settled for fourth slot on tour.

So it is at the United Nations in New York this week, where delegates meet ahead of the main event: the much-heralded UN summit on Sustainable Development at the end of September. Like any good opener, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development aims to get the crowd excited before the headline acts (aka the heads of state) roll into town.

It'll be a sell-out gig. But who's being sold out? The ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs - everyone in development loves a good acronym) - covering everything from poverty and hunger to climate change and inequality - are still in draft form. My colleagues from Fairtrade America will be pounding the UN corridors and meeting rooms this week, making sure that the perspectives of world's 500 million smallholder farmers and one billion agricultural workers are not forgotten. And we're pleased that Fairtrade's formal statement to the forum (translated into six languages) is included in the official documents.

The jury's out on the SDGs. As expected, their predecessors the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have had many hits - and some flops. With such far-reaching global goals, that was to be expected. But they did their job in focusing global attention. Likewise, the much broader SDGs could be a major step forward towards achieving a fairer global trade system. They include commitments on food security, improved nutrition, sustainable agriculture, equality for women and girls and universal education. Most excitingly, they talk strongly about 'inclusive growth', and the importance of ensuring that 'no-one is left behind'. But the devil, as always, is in the detail.

For example, SDG 17 aims for an "equitable multilateral trading system". So far, so good. We love "equitable". But read the details of SDG 17 and you'll find this is to take place under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) - so is that in reality a cover for more trade liberalisation? Because certainly liberalisation does not guarantee poverty reduction - indeed, it can make matters worse. At the moment, all the sugar smallholders to whom we talk are staring disaster in the face, as changing EU rules have left them unable to compete with European beet. One recent report found that ending the EU quota could push 200,000 sugar farmers in developing countries into poverty by 2020.

Likewise, SDG 8 promotes "sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth." We are cheering from the sidelines here. But the big question remains - how to achieve that sustainable growth? Certainly if trade is going to deliver sustainable growth, then it's pretty obvious that fair prices must be paid! So how are we going to achieve that critical shift in corporate culture? Away from maximizing profits tomorrow, towards a longer term view of building sustainability. For example, in order to pay their workers a living wage, farmers must receive the cost of sustainable production. But global supply chains are dominated by a small number of retailers and traders, who drive down the terms of trade for farmers and workers. Just four corporations trade 90% of the world's grain and five retailers control half of all European food sales. No wonder they can turn the screw on their suppliers, and keep all companies locked in an unsustainable race to the bottom.

We all know that there are no quick fix solutions. For sure, inclusive growth relies on involving farmers and workers, consumers and companies in finding solutions - and it needs Governments to step up their responsibilities too. The problems faced by farmers and workers in developing countries result from centuries of marginalization and exploitation. The SDGs will only be delivered successfully when the voices of smallholder farmers and workers are heard - and acted upon - at the highest levels of government and commerce.

It's hard to find a single one of the 169 targets listed under the 17 SDGs which isn't connected to food and farming. Each one of us has a vested interested in making them work. Take Goal 2 - to "end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture." Given that 70% of the world's food is produced by smallholder farmers, that farming is the single largest employer in the world, and that more than 800 million people have abandoned the country for the city in the last 50 years, I'd say that was a no-brainer. Gets my vote!

Or take Goal 5: to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." According to the UN, women are responsible for 60-80% of global food production, yet the number of women living below the poverty line has increased by 50% since the 1970s.

SDG 10 aims to "reduce inequality within and among communities". A poll by the World Economic Forum (a body not conspicuous for championing the cause of the world's poor and vulnerable) found that global leaders rate rising inequality as the top security challenge facing the world in 2015. Hardly surprising considering that - as Oxfam memorably put it - the richest 85 people on the globe, whose combined wealth is greater than the poorest 50%, could squeeze onto a double-decker bus. Once the shocking preserve of socialists, today everyone seems to agree that inequality has gone too far.

Another themes being discussed this week is "Managing the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs: What it will take?" We would reply that for a start, the world's farmers and workers must be heard, front and centre, in any negotiations with a seat at the table. They're the ones who know best what's best for them. They're the ones who live, day to day, with the consequences of unfair trade and who will benefit most from a more equitable global system. How can we implement policies to support them if we do not actively involve them in decision making?

The SDGs - ambitious, global, tackling inequality head-on - already provide a clear framework for all those working to social change. As we in Fairtrade set out our strategy for 2016-2020, we are aligning with these global goals to make sure we deliver maximum impact for farmers, workers and producers.

As support acts go, this week's UN meeting isn't likely to make many headlines, but it is the crucial final stage before the main event in September. When the world's leaders gather for the Sustainable Development summit, I hope they will remember that however big the headline act, it's what happens after Elvis has left the building that really counts.

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