Health and trade: What hope for SDG3?

Health and trade: What hope for SDG3?

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Emma Woodford
“… the forces of power, particularly corporate power, are impatient with what is adequate for a
coherent community. Because power gains so little from community in the short run, it does not
hesitate to destroy community for the long run.”
― Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place
In case you had been asleep for the last ten days, last week in New York the UN finally ratified the
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aiming to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure
prosperity for all . Rockstars, heads of states, football stars and even the Pope himself rallied round
to congratulate each other and themselves on laying out a framework to save the world’s poor. But
away from the media sparkle, meeting in churches, parks and university rooms across the city,
people’s movements from the Global South and citizens willing to scratch the surface are meeting
this week to analyse, assess and critique the SDGs. This article aims to contribute to these debates by
setting the scene for deeper investigations into the impact of global trade policies and laying open
questions around the related potential for achieving SDG3 on health and well-being. Implementing
the SDGs will require good governance, strong commitment and public health friendly legislation.
This article questions whether this is possible in a global trade and investment climate driven by
international competition to have the first and the best free trade agreements that are not designed
to improve the many variables of international development.
The Sustainable Development Goals call for environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive
development. The 3rd of the 17 Goals focuses on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being
with 12 comprehensive targets (see below). These relate mainly to developing nations but are also
important for regions where substantive health inequalities exist within and between countries, such
as the US and the European Union.
Despite these lofty ideals and the massive celebrations, even by New York standards, none of the
Sustainable Development Goals are legally binding. While governments are pledging to invest in
their implementation, many are also on the other hand – as brilliantly argued by the Campaign for
People’s Goals for Sustainable Development – committing to legally binding future trade agreements
such as the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)
and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). These proposed trade agreements,
as the Health and Trade Network Bulletins have been highlighting since their first publication, will do
little to encourage health and well-being and will most likely end up having an adverse effect.
Linking our concerns about the trade agreements with the Goal 3 targets throws up more questions
that can be answered without a concerted effort to research the implications of the FTAs on the
achievement of the SDGs. What follows is a summary of a few areas of concern relating to a selection
of the health targets.
Universal Healthcare Coverage (UHC) and financial risk protection
Achieving universal healthcare coverage underpins most of the targets, without it, the lowering of
infant and maternal mortality rates, for example, would not be possible. Nor would it be possible to
‘eliminate AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-
borne diseases and other communicable diseases.’ Achieving UHC requires strong, transparent and
accountable government policies that ensure healthcare provision reaches the poorest of the poor,
women, men and children. The liberalization of healthcare services encouraged by the TTIP, the
Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) and associated procurement chapters in the trade agreements go
against these aims pitching profit making healthcare companies against social protection policies in
what often manifests as a battle between right thinking liberals and the politics of the left when, in
actual fact, healthcare should be about providing the best services in the right circumstances to
everyone.
In addition, the TTIP’s regulatory cooperation chapter intends to create a system whereby all
proposed and reviewed legislative acts submit to an assessment (by the opposite trading partner) of
their potential to damage transatlantic trade. If this is to be the trend in trade agreements around
the world as the Commission hopes, how will this balance with the governmental investments and
regulations needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals? Take, for example, the very real
example of the Dutch Company Achemea suing the Slovak government in an international
investment court to prevent the feared expropriation of their profits after the Slovak government
proposed to renationalise their health insurance system: how can actions such as these possibly help
to achieve universal healthcare and financial risk prevention?
Access to Medicines
The SDG targets aim to ensure ‘affordable essential medicines and vaccines, in accordance with the
Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health which affirms the right of developing
countries to use to the full the provisions in the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual
Property Rights.’ Provision of medicines for all is interlinked with UHC, and yet also under threat
through the legally binding proposed increases in patent terms in a number of trade agreements and
potential threats to the European system of pricing and reimbursement procedures in the TTIP. With
the Indian Prime Minister Modi meeting President Obama in New York this week and increasing
pressure from the United States on India to change their patent laws – a move which would
potentially kill off access to cheaper generic medicines for millions of the world’s poorest people, the
future of the TRIPs Agreement needs to be protected so as not to undermine SDG3.
Tobacco, alcohol and environmental toxins
The single target to strengthen the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is worth applauding
and a great deal of investment. With the current preponderance of ISDS cases and threatened ISDS
cases against countries attempting to implement or proposing legislation to regulate tobacco
packaging and the size of health warnings however, there is a strong danger that this will be
rendered unachievable given the potential regulatory chill effect of ISDS. A recent article written
jointly by HaT and ASH described how richly financed and persistent lobbying by the tobacco industry
on both sides of the Atlantic in the TPP and TTIP is aimed at protecting their lethal products and their
markets. While the presence of this target in SDG 3 is surely a testament to the excellent lobbying by
the tobacco control community, it may also indicate, more depressingly, that the tobacco companies
are simply not interested in the SDGs because they know where the real power lies. Likewise for the
prevention of alcohol related harm: the alcohol industry is a constant presence in TTIP stakeholder
meetings around the negotiations. The European Commission has also publicly stated that it views
pricing control mechanisms established to protect public health in the United States as discrimination
against European wine exporters. For years the WTO has included alcohol control laws as technical
barriers to trade, with this being reinforced by the proposed FTAs, what hope is there for
improvements in alcohol control measures called for by SDG3?
A recent paper by Sharon Treat and the Centre For International Environmental Law succinctly
outlines how the TTIP threatens to ‘Gut US State’s Ability to Protect on Toxic Chemicals.’ If, as it is
often stated by officials in the European Commission, the TTIP is setting a ‘gold standard’ in trade
agreements, how will the predicted downward harmonization and loss of political independence
enable the target ‘substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals
and air, water and soil pollution and contamination’ to be met? The common perception is that it
won’t, that the TTIP will to lead to a lowering of standards starting with the EU-US trade agreement
then exporting those lowered standards throughout the world in other FTAs.
Trade in the SDGs
Goal 17 of the SDGs aims to ‘Revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development’ in three
areas: finance, technology, capacity building and trade. Already, the trade section appears
astonishingly out of touch. The goal calls for three trade targets:
1. To promote a universal, rules-based, open, non-discriminatory and equitable
multilateral trading system under the WTO and conclusion of the Doha Development
Agenda
2. Significantly increase the exports of developing countries to double least developing
countries’ share are global exports by 2020 and,
3. Realise timely implementation of duty free and quota free markets on a lasting basis
for all least developed countries including by ensuring that rules of origin apply to all
imports from least developed countries are transparent, simple and contribute to
facilitating market access.
The gap between Goal 17 and the reality of the patent extending, regulation bending, unequitable,
secretive, and bilateral rule setting of the TTIP and TPP alone is enormous. Conspicuous by their
absence in the SDGs, the existing and proposed regional and bilateral trade agreements (and the
lobbyists behind them) simply appear to have completely ignored the SDG process as they push on
with their negotiations in Brussels, Washington and Hawaii. The reduction of tariff barriers in
agriculture between the EU and the US alone threatens to decrease exports to the EU and US from
Africa and Asia where many of the least developed countries lie.
And Finally… are these forms of development still relevant?
The one thing that the SDGs and the trade agreements do have in common is a stated aim to
increase national Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Never mind that the GDP measurement as a
standalone indicator of development is flawed, the trading powers still claim that increasing the
gross domestic product of a country or region will contribute to development and improve incomes
across the board. While they may indeed bolster the development statistics of a nation, GDP figures
do not reflect the complexity of human development and the importance of different types of
poverty, gender and social inequalities, educational levels and the well-being of human populations.
The UN’s Human Development Index which measures human rights, health, educational attainment
and variations in income per capita is closer to the spirit of the SDGs; however trade agreements –
where all the actual commitment of the world’s leaders in the US, EU and China really lies – have yet
to be designed to address these more holistic and inclusive development indicators.
Neither trade policies nor the SDGs challenge the obsession with growth and development. It is
beyond doubt that it is deeply unfair that millions of people still live in poverty while the rest of the
planet exists comfortably off or enjoying privileged lifestyles: can growth and development ever ‘pull’
the poorest nations up to a more equivalent standard of living? Perhaps we should be asking if the
wealthiest countries (and individuals) would be prepared to de-develop in order to create more
equal societies and improve well-being? This would mean using less energy, travelling less, procuring
services locally, relying more on information technology for sharing ideas to spark innovation in open
fora, minimising the costs to healthcare systems by banning tobacco, limiting alcohol and using the
savings to provide healthcare for all and maybe even developing medicines in national research
centres for national markets: in other words a complete turnaround of economies of scale, and the
direct opposite of what the multinationals advocating for the trade agreements are asking for. Are
the people in power really prepared to do this rather than fund displays of wealth and good intention
on the one hand, whilst snuffling away our right to health and well-being in secret trade deals on the
other?

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