Suppressing Post-Pandemic with Sustainable Development

Photo Credit: A general view of Long Street, usually one of the busiest and most popular entertainment areas in Cape Town, South Africa, under a billboard reading ‘Stay Home’ amid a coronavirus lockdown, on April 3, 2020. (Rodger Bosch/AFP)

The United Nations have expressed concerns through its Secretary-General report regarding the reversal tendency of COVID-19 on the decade long progress in the fight against poverty. In the report, a declaration that, ‘This is much more than a crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis. The pandemic is attacking societies at their core also communicated that the pandemic has negative impacts on almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus, the UN calls for solidarity and widespread cooperation to build a more resilient approach in tackling such pandemics, climate change and other challenges. As we are today, the societal and economic disruption has already been exacerbated in many countries, and even more so in poorer nations.

The IMF has reassessed the prospect for growth for 2020 and 2021, declaring that we have entered a recession as bad as or worse than in 2009. The economic challenges arising from this pandemic – shut down of economies, capital outflows and price shocks, have taken a toll on emerging economies due to the reduced global demand for their exports such as tourism, commodities and manufactured goods, that provide critical streams of foreign exchange. UNCTAD projects that developing countries, as a whole (excluding China) will lose nearly USD 800 billion in terms of export revenue in 2020. Such a drastic fall in their foreign exchange earnings will add to the challenges already posed by currency depreciations vis-à-vis the US dollar. UNCTAD also estimated a $2 trillion to $3 trillion financing gap facing developing countries the next two years, on top of the deteriorating global conditions, fiscal and foreign exchange constraints over the course of the year. Therefore, international solidarity movement like the UN’s call for US$2.5 trillion crisis package for developing countries was announced as a global action to address the unprecedented economic damage on two-thirds of the world’s population.

Given UNFSS’s focus on the poorer societies in the agri-food chain sector, the pandemic’s impact on trade has had severe fallout associated with production in developing countries – demand from high-income markets for goods and raw materials is decreasing, value chains are being disrupted due to delays in the delivery, and other factors, including policies e.g. movement restrictions for goods and people that have severely affected production process. Millions of people from the rural areas rely on agriculture as one of the most powerful tools for raising incomes and it has been an integral part of ending poverty and boosting shared prosperity for the world’s poorest. In that respect, a prolonged global economic slowdown will have an adverse impact on the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

“A hard truth is that we could have been better prepared for this crisis. The MDGs and the SDGs could have put us on track towards a world with access to universal health coverage and quality health care and more inclusive and sustainable economies. Instead, most countries have underinvested in health systems; facilities are insufficient for the level of the unexpected demand and rely heavily on imports. Most countries are characterized by weak, fragmented health systems that do not ensue the universal access and capacity needed to face the COVID-19 health crisis.” – The United Nations Secretary-General Report on ‘Responding to the Socio-Economic Impacts of COVID-19’.

This pandemic is a call to scale-up sustainable solutions in order to cope with the impacts. The United Nations listed fourteen recommendations under three key principles that reiterated sustainable development – 1) Global measures to match the magnitude of the crisis, 2) Regional mobilization and 3) National Solidarity is crucial to leave no one behind.

  1. Countries must commit to do their utmost to protect labour force, including workers who depend entirely on daily earnings and those in the informal sector and support their employment and income. The simultaneous collapses in both supply and demand, calls for the first truly global fiscal stimulus, which should be channelled not only for business sector and lead firms, but to the workers and SMEs worldwide that underpin the global economy. It is not enough to protect major businesses. We need to protect their suppliers and the global consumer demand, the household income that will usher the global economy back to life. This must be the goal of all coordinated fiscal and monetary actions.
  2. Resist the temptation to resort to protectionist measures. It remains critical to dismantle trade barriers, maintain open trade and re-establish supply chains. Tariff and non-tariff measures as well as export bans, especially those imposed on medicinal and related products, would slow countries’ action to contain the virus. It is vital to ensure that medicines, medical equipment and supplied and other essential goods and serviced must reach the most vulnerable countries.
  3. Developing countries need international support, given their ability to fund expansionary stimulus is already limited, and has been further limited in recent days by currency instability. 40% of least developed and other low-income developing countries are at risk or in debt distress, making debt restructuring a priority. The UN is calling for $2.5 trillion coronavirus crisis package for developing countries through an international solidarity global action.
  4. Strengthening international public finance provision can address the impact of post-crisis by providing the resources to all countries to have adequate fiscal space.
  5. Sanctions imposed on countries should be waived to ensure access to food, essential supplies and access to COVID-19 tests and medical support. This is a time for solidarity, not exclusion.
  6. On the regional aspect, free flow of goods and services within and across all regions is essential. Innovative tools such as UN eTIR/eCIMR systems and other tools that allow exchange electronic information without physical contact and facilitate the flow if goods across borders should be used.
  7. Coordination at regional level to engage with the financial sector, including insurance companies, in finding solutions and aiding recovery through sustainable investments would be helpful.
  8. Robust and comprehensive environmental policies addressing priority transboundary issues may prevent and mitigate future pandemics, simultaneously banning trade of wildlife (which can contribute to health risks), harmonizing sanitary standards and addressing the interacting threats due to illegal trade, habitat loss, climate change and different sources of pollution by developing collaborative policy frameworks.
  9. On the national front, countries need to undertake fiscal stimulus and support for the most vulnerable. Measures may include a variety of means to preserve access to health and basic living conditions – eg. cash transfers, paid sick leave, support for enterprises to retain workers through time-bound financial/tax relief, employment retention schemes and employment services.
  10. Protect Human Rights and focus on inclusion in order to heighten preparedness, response and recovery spectrum. Age, gender and migratory status are factors, among others, to be considered. A human-rights based approach to COVID-19 also implies ensuring that information is consistently available in readily understandable formats, languages and adapting information for people with specific needs, including for the visually- and hearing-impaired.
  11. Direct support to enterprises, particularly to SMEs is urgent. Governments can provide assistance to firms to maintain the flow of essential inputs, final products and services. This is also the moment to consider support systems for the evolution of the informal sector, constituting 80% of enterprises worldwide, who are generally out of reach of public policies.
  12. Economic recovery goes hand in hand with social justice and decent work. International labour standards provide a tried-and-trusted foundation to inform policy responses that are coherent, respectful of human dignity and place recovery on the trajectory set out in the 2030 Development Agenda.
  13. Support education through inclusion and equity to avoid a further deepening of inequalities to access education, with special measures taken to jointly meet the health, nutrition and learning needs of the more vulnerable and marginalized children and youth, as well as policies to address connectivity and content challenges. It is also crucial that the international community support governments not only in providing distance learning solutions that use multimedia approaches to ensure learning continuity, but also in supporting teachers, parents and caregivers in adapting to home schooling modalities. There is a window of opportunity for Public and Private Partnerships during this period to leapfrog significant challenges confronting countries while keeping in sharp focus the SDGs.
  14. Prioritize social cohesion measures through free access to educational and cultural resources in order to overcome social isolation. Investing in social cohesion of special important for countries experiencing fragility resulting from protracted conflict, recurrent natural disasters or forced displacements.

The crisis has re-enforced the interdependence of our world. The urgent need for a global action to meet people’s basic needs, save our planet and build a fairer and resilient world has been the blueprint of what has been commonly known as the Sustainable Development Goals, a decade long effort to end poverty, protect our planet and ensure prosperity for all.

“While we must scale up the immediate health response to curb the spread of COVID-19, the response to the pandemic cannot be de-linked from the SDGs.”Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway and Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana.

This is the moment where we cannot deny the fact that such adversity has taught us, as global citizens, the value in being each other’s keeper by leaving no one behind and prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable. While we try to restore the detrimental impacts of the pandemic and global prosperity, we must not relent our efforts towards achieving the SDGs.

Echoing to the Secretary-General’s climate-related and human rights actions to shape the recovery of this pandemic, UNFSS will continue our deliberation to help developing countries achieve the SDGs. Though it may prove challenging in the current juncture, front-loading feasible Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS)-related capacity building activities can now lead us to be better positioned in tackling the sustainable development challenges in order to restore from post-pandemic. This is also the time for governments to expand and rethink socio-economic models that emphasise sustainable consumption and production by highlighting the criticality of the lives and livelihoods of the vulnerable societies. In such an interconnected global community, rapid spreading of viruses and other potential risks can be avoided by first recognising each and every being. It goes without saying, “we are all in this together”.

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The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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