G77: Supportive global economy is crucial for new goals

Developing countries stressed the importance of international economic factors and means of implementation in formulating the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The third session of the United Nations General Assembly Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals took place on 22-24 May in New York. The thematic clusters were food security and nutrition, sustainable agriculture, desertification, land degradation and drought, as well as water and sanitation.

The opening statement of the Group of 77 and China (G77), delivered by Ambassador Peter Thomson of Fiji, focused on several key areas, including international trade rules and financing and investments in agriculture, which critically affect the ability of developing countries' prospects to achieve food security and sustainable agriculture practices.

The OWG is one of the key outcomes of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, tasked with preparing a set of SDGs.

The meetings thus far have been based on interactive exchanges among the 30 groupings of Member States, supported by expert panelists and background papers prepared by the UN Technical Support Team. A total of eight meetings of the OWG have been scheduled through to February 2014.

Rio+20 did not elaborate specific goals but stated that the SDGs should be limited in number, aspirational and easy to communicate. The goals should address in a balanced way all three dimensions of sustainable development and be coherent with and integrated into the UN development agenda beyond 2015.

(The OWG was established on 22 January 2013 by UN General Assembly resolution 67/555 - A/67/L.48/rev.1 -  of the General Assembly. The Member States have decided to use an innovative, constituency-based system of representation that is new to limited membership bodies of the General Assembly. This means that most of the seats in the OWG are shared by several countries, thereby increasing the level of participation.)

The G77's opening statement underscored the importance of linking international factors to an "enhanced global partnership", the critical role of means of implementation, together with national actions and efforts to be taken by countries at the national level.

The three-component approach is essential because the formulation of laudable goals at the national level will not be attainable unless structural factors, including international factors, are addressed.  Similarly, developing countries require international cooperation in finance, technology transfer and capacity-building if they are expected to achieve the SDGs.

The G77 asserted that the OWG should discuss means of implementation of each of the topics as well as more concrete elements that could be part of a specific goal.

The Group also stressed that it is critically important that countries adhere to the criteria agreed upon in Rio+20, namely that the SDGs must be "global in nature and universally applicable to all countries while taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities."

In Agenda 21, the plan of action that was the outcome of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, nations acknowledged the need for "major adjustments in agricultural, environmental and macroeconomic policy, at both national and international levels, in developed as well as developing countries, to create the conditions for sustainable agriculture and rural development". This statement is still relevant 21 years later and the international community cannot afford to postpone collective efforts any further, it said.

(The other major outcome of the 1992 Summit was the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development with its 27 principles, including the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.)

Skewed global trade rules constrain paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture

At the outset, the G77 affirmed that agriculture, which is broadly understood to include crop and livestock production, fisheries, and forestry, is the most important sector in many developing countries and is central to the survival of millions of people, and at the core of national and regional aspirations to achieve food security and sustainability.

In this context, the Group said, it is to be stressed that agricultural subsidies and other trade distortions by developed countries have severely harmed the agricultural sector in developing countries, limiting the ability of this key sector to contribute meaningfully to poverty eradication, rural development and sustainable, sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth.

Elimination of such subsidies is a fundamental part of the global effort to promote agriculture, rural development and eradicate poverty and hunger, it said further.

Equally important is market access (given) to developing country agricultural products. In this regard, the G77 stressed the necessity of a timely conclusion of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations, which must fully respect its development mandate and take into account the needs and priorities of developing countries. A successful outcome of the Doha Round will help to ensure growth in global trade and create new market access opportunities for developing countries.

The Group also said that trade-related subsidies in developed countries act as disincentives to the transition to sustainable agricultural practices in developing countries, and must be modified to ensure an expansion of local food production. The Rome-based UN agencies, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), WFP (World Food Programme) and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), with mandates and programmes to promote sustainable agricultural practices, should provide relevant technical support to enable developing countries to prioritise sustainable agricultural practices.

As long as current conditions prevail, it is difficult for developing country agricultural producers to implement a paradigm shift towards sustainable agriculture, the Group emphasised. Many developing countries, particularly the Least Developed Countries that were once self-sufficient in food or were exporters of food, have become dependent on food imports as a result of significant distortions in developed countries' farming sector as well as international trading rules, which are skewed against the developing countries.

Challenges to agricultural sustainability

The G77 said that the challenges facing agriculture in the next few decades are complex. With increased global population growth, there will be increased demand for food, feed, fuel and fibre.

While increasing food production is vital to meet these new demands, the Group held the strong view that the current practice of wasting one-third of food produced - 1.3 billion tonnes per year - is not sustainable and must change. Agriculture systems worldwide must become more productive and less wasteful.

Sustainable agricultural practices, including both production and consumption, must be pursued from a holistic and integrated perspective encompassing, at various scales, from the local to the international level, the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Moreover, public financing and transfer of appropriate technology by developed countries are needed not only for the adoption of sustainable agriculture but also to put in place the required infrastructure, communications and other enabling conditions.

The Group stressed that the increasing involvement of non-commercial actors in the market of food and food-related commodities, or the so-called financialisation of the sector, has played a major role in the emergence of the problem of the excessive food price volatility.

This large inflow of speculative capital to commodities, particularly food and other agricultural commodities, contributed to a large extent to the worsening of food insecurity. Vulnerable populations in developing countries have had their economic and social right to food and nutrition threatened, reinforcing inequality and exacerbating poverty. It is imperative therefore, that the root causes of excessive food price volatility, including structural causes must be addressed seriously.

The G77 registered it strong belief that commodity markets should operate in a properly regulated manner that avoid excessive volatility and speculative activities and serve the real needs of both producers and consumers.

Effective national policies require a development role for the State

The G77 highlighted that most agricultural production in developing countries involves small land holdings, mainly producing for self-consumption and accounting for approximately 85% of the world's farms. To support the economic viability of smallholder agriculture and thus reduce their vulnerability, policy actions are required to enhance smallholder producers, particularly women, indigenous people and people living in vulnerable situations to credit, markets, secure land tenure and other services.

In terms of policy and investment choices at the national level, eliminating hunger involves investment in agriculture, rural development, decent work, social protection and equality of opportunity. Other enablers include, among others, sustainable agriculture, infrastructure, education, water, health, the empowerment of women and gender equality.

In this regard, the G77 asserted that the developmental role of the State is vital. The State needs to play a pro-active developmental role in investing and building infrastructure conducive to sustainable agriculture, such as water supplies and rural roads that facilitate access to markets. It can also assist smallholder producers, through developmental-friendly policies to enhance production capacities, and encourage efforts to diversify and increase the value-added of agricultural products.

On the topic of desertification, land degradation and drought (DLDD), the G77 emphasised that these issues represent a serious concern for developing countries. Addressing this phenomenon will enable countries to deal with several global policy challenges, such as food security and adaptation to climate change.

While parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) should fully support the implementation of that Convention, the promotion of exchange of knowledge on best practices and lessons learned from global, regional and cooperation in combating desertification, land degradation and drought should be encouraged. Sustainable development goals and targets on DLDD should address the drivers of DLDD.

They should also look at the preventive and corrective aspects of DLDD. Sustainable land use by all and for all could be the goal with targets on sustainable land and forest management, preservation, and regeneration or restoration of degraded lands.

Reiterating the Group's statements at the previous two OWG meetings, Ambassador Thomson stressed the importance of mobilising and channelling adequate and predictable financial resources, in this case to help address the effects of desertification and improve the livelihoods of vulnerable people affected by them.

The Group supported commitment to achieve a land-degradation neutral world in the context of sustainable development and the establishment of an intergovernmental scientific panel on desertification, land degradation and drought.

The water and sanitation challenge

The G77 also emphasised that it is of great concern that today, about 2.5 billion people still live without improved sanitation, and over 800 million people are without access to an improved water source, and many more remain without safe and sustainable water supply. The water challenge goes beyond access to water, sanitation and hygiene, it stressed.

The vital importance of water to sustain habitat and species' survival and human existence was also acknowledged in the Muscat Declaration on Water, adopted by the First Ministerial Forum on Water of the Group of 77 in 2009.

The Group was of the view that improving and promoting easy access to water and sanitation production, irrigation and hydro-energy production will lead to tremendous progress in the eradication of poverty and food insecurity, in accordance with the Millennium Development Goals and Integrated Water Resources Management.

In the context of formulating the SDGs, considerations must be given to equitable and universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, while ground and surface water should be developed and managed sustainably in an integrated manner to satisfy human needs while respecting the fragilities of our ecosystem and its limitations. Also, in order to provide access to water, all states benefiting need to contribute to the costs involved in water infrastructure and maintenance.

OWG process and modalities

The G77 also expressed its concern that, while appreciating the healthy and productive nature of the discussion in the OWG, the outcome or conclusion of the first round of exchange may not have been captured in a manner that signals to members or could give guidance to them, on possible elements that may form the basis for future thematic negotiations on the SDGs. At the closure of the last meeting (17-19 April 2013), a 15-page document of what comprised a compilation of the interventions made was circulated as a summary of discussions.

While the Group appreciated this effort, it was worried that should this continue, members will find that come February 2014, too much time will be spent deciphering these compilations. This will leave member states hard pressed for ample opportunity to engage each other in really meaningful negotiations, it cautioned.

The solution proposed by the G77 is to focus on ensuring that building blocks are created from now until the start of the drafting of the report, so that the best use of time is made. The Group thus proposed that an arrangement be made, for instance, for the Co-chairs, in addition to their summary, to also circulate a 6 or 7 bullet point summary of what they perceive to be the general parameters of consensus of the members during the session.

Subsequently, member states should have space and time to react to those bullet points in a constructive manner.  Alternatively, members or group of members could submit written positions on what they perceive to be their take on the broad areas of consensus.

The next session of the OWG is on 17-19 June 2013. It will focus on the themes of employment and decent work for all, social protection, youth, education and culture, as well as health and population dynamics.

Source: SUNS #7592 Tuesday 28 May 2013, Bhumika Muchhala