Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: In Coherence Lies Opportunity

Nov 30, 2006

Leaders of 191 nations in 2000 put forth a far-reaching proposition: The Millennium Development Goals. These men and women agreed to collaborate to cut global poverty in half by 2015. They also promised to improve health, promote peace, and advance human rights and environmental sustainability at home and abroad.

But the Millennium Development Goals also reflected a new approach to global governance and international cooperation—one that the United States with new Congressional leadership could truly advance. The leaders agreed that poverty whether in the industrialized world or in the developing world is not simply the absence of money, but instead a lack of access to resources and opportunities.

In other words, poverty is a human-rights as well as a development problem. In order to successfully reduce poverty, the leaders committed to coordinate their human rights, development, and trade policies at both the national and international levels. In short, they agreed to make policy coherence a priority.

Such a coordinated approach is in the interest of citizens of the developing world, as well as taxpayers in the industrialized world. Human rights, governance and development are intertwined. Equitable policies aim to ensure equality of opportunity and avoid inequalities in outcome. When policymakers promote equity they contribute to development and economic growth. Moreover, when policymakers in the industrialized world place human rights in their development policies, they are ensuring that their human rights, development, and trade strategies are consistent and cost-effective.

In the heady days that followed the Millennium Declaration, many officials seemed keen to ensure that trade liberalization was a central component of this coherence recipe. In 2001, the members of the World Trade Organization agreed to focus a new round of trade talks on the needs of developing countries. The Doha Development Round was supposed to ensure that all citizens, especially the poorest in the developing world, could reap the benefits of global markets.

At first, that promise seemed attainable. In Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002, industrialized and developing countries redefined development as a mutual responsibility. Developing countries agreed to put in place sound economic policies and good governance, tackle corruption, and invest in their people. Meanwhile, industrialized countries agreed to provide more funding for development, reduce trade barriers that harm the world’s poor, and foster a trade capacity building partnership.

But while world leaders made progress regarding coherence between human rights and development, they struggled to achieve consistency between human rights, development, and trade liberalization. The United States and the European Union insisted that developing countries focus on agriculture and also make commitments in sectors such as services. Unsurprisingly, many developing country leaders grew increasingly frustrated with the focus on the demands of industrialized countries. After some two years of fits and starts, WTO Director General Pascal Lamy in July 2006 suspended the Round. He said that it was "now obvious that the costs of failure, and the missed opportunity to rebalance the trading system, would hurt developing countries more than others."

Some might argue that, in the absence of trade talks, coherence between human rights, development, and trade is unattainable. But this is an opportunity for the new leaders in Congress to reassert American leadership in the global economy and support for development. Many of the newly elected Democrats are concerned about the impact of trade liberalization on the economic futures of their constituents. As a result, they are often portrayed as protectionists. But growing numbers of these leaders also recognize that protectionism is at best a stopgap measure: It cannot help local officials attract job-creating investment.

A coherent approach to human rights, development, and trade would mean, for example, that industrialized country policymakers should provide generous trade capacity building and infrastructure assistance for market access concessions and consideration of issues such as services. In return industrialized countries should make their markets more accessible and reduce agricultural supports. Industrialized country policymakers should also demand that, as a condition for participation, all WTO members should agree to a clause that standards not be lowered. This clause would offer policymakers a roadmap toward stimulating economic growth at home and abroad.

If global leaders are serious about reducing poverty, they are really talking about efforts to provide the world’s poor with the public goods and the human rights protection that many governments have been unable or unwilling to supply. They are talking about encouraging developing countries as well as local officials to invest in the skills and resources citizens need to become productive members of society. In coherence lies opportunity.

Susan Ariel Aaronson, Ph.D., is the author (with Jamie Zimmerman) of Righting Trade: Public Policies at the Intersection of Trade and Human Rights (forthcoming Cambridge University Press).

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