3 Feb 2020 - by Andrew MacKay

Harnessing the Law to Eradicate Poverty: The Decade of Action

Saturday 25 January 2020 saw the launch of A4ID’s Law and Development Training Programme with the opening module: ‘Harnessing the Law to Eradicate Poverty’.

With interactive sessions delivered to legal and development professionals, the opening module addressed topical issues such as: conflicting targets within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); the economic implications of global inaction; and the alleged incompatibility of economic growth (SDG 8) with ethical and sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12). Expert speakers gave a thorough insight into the misconceptions around poverty and sustainability, emphasising that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be universally applicable to ensure that no one is left behind.

Assessing Member States’ Commitment to the SDGs

Farooq Ullah, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) opened the discussion, posing the question: to what extent is the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development legally binding?

In practice, the principles outlined in the SDGs are non-binding and voluntary, relying largely on the good-faith of signatory nations. Although legislation has successfully been drafted and implemented on the back of these principles, the principles themselves represent a soft legal mechanism. So, how does the rule of law apply and how can we make sustainable development an attractive economic proposition?

The greatest resistance to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda was from developed countries, with representatives from China, Russia, the US and the UK pushing back against principles such as the ‘Loss and Damage’ clause, which would require these countries to accept liability and pay reparations to nations dealing with the repercussions of their irresponsible climate action.

In order to encourage the active participation of all nations to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’, sustainable development summits (Brundtland Commission 1983, Earth Summit 1992 and Earth Summit 2012) have traditionally addressed state sovereignty as a priority. To quash resistance from developed countries, the 2030 Agenda was tailored to be an anti-poverty and pro-prosperity agenda.

What Are the Economic Implications of Ignoring the SDG Agenda?

In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government axed the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) as part of spending cuts. The SDC published a report shortly thereafter, comparing the £70 million savings from their proposals to reduce waste and energy, with the £3 million cost of resources to keep the SDC running.

Farooq Ullah motioned to alarming statistics in the World Investment Report 2014, showing the climbing cost of inaction in relation to implementing the SDGs, with countries like Nigeria needing an estimated USD$81 billion to implement the SDGs in 2019, compared with USD$87 billion in 2022 if no action has been taken in the interim. Farooq Ullah referred to the urgent timeframe in which to effect sustainable investments as the “Decade of Action”.

With a background in business analytics, Farooq Ullah’s technical and data driven approach to ending wealth inequality and eradicating poverty, allowed attending lawyers to understand how corporate social responsibility and good investment can be reconciled with a client-driven approach.

Legal Mechanisms to Reduce Poverty

Session two was delivered by Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, and present UN Committee Member. Presenting the landmark legal case: People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Another v. Union of India & Others, Olivier demonstrated how social movements bolstered by the enforcement of new legislation can directly impact the lives of millions of people living below the poverty line, thereby tackling SDG 1 to end poverty.

In order to avoid what economists refer to as the ‘Matthew effect’, where only those who are already advantaged can easily benefit from economic reforms, close monitoring is needed to ensure the proper and fair enforcement of legislation. Indeed, close monitoring was key to the success of the 2001 Rights to Food Campaign in relation to: People’s Union for Civil Liberties v Union of India. The case saw the collaboration of Rajasthani activists and human rights lawyers in a public interest litigation, proposing the enforcement of subsidised food grain prices in India, making access to food a human right. Following the implementation of new ordinances, Indian commissioners were appointed to monitor the enforcement of the subsidised food prices, ensuring that the benefits were reaching the 800 million Indians living below the poverty line, particularly in exceptionally poor communities like the indigenous Tiwa community.

How Protecting Land and Property Rights Can Alleviate Poverty

Finally, the University of York’s Ruth Kelly, based at the Centre for Applied Human Rights presented the session: ‘Protecting Land Rights to End Poverty and Hunger’. Addressing the systemic injustices faced by those who have their land taken away by global corporations, Kelly focused on indigenous land rights, tracing the protection of property rights back to the Magna Carta. Like the economic implications of the ‘Matthew effect’, the Magna Carta of 1215 reinforced the property rights of English nobles, protecting them from the arbitrary but divine rule of King John. However, it was the property rights of the poor that needed the most protection in 1215 and still needs the most protection today.

At present, organisations such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) are working to defend those who are most vulnerable to land rights abuses, including those in slums and squatter settlements. Kelly encouraged the afternoon’s participants to consider how rethinking investment flows and protecting the land rights of local communities could prevent further marginalisation of those living in extreme poverty.

Enabling Lawyers to Apply the SDG Agenda to Their Work

Module 1 on ‘Harnessing the Law to Eradicate Poverty’ addressed the theoretical ways in which those in the legal sector can apply the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to their practice. Whether by raising awareness of the sustainability targets; advising on good investments; or considering the economic advantages of sustainability, the three speakers questioned the limited adoption of the SDG targets in the UK, whilst identifying how those in corporate firms with an international clientele, can advise on sustainable development, both domestically and globally.

A4ID’s Law and Development Training Programme aims to bring together high-profile speakers at the forefront of sustainability-conscious work, and encourage the participation and contribution of legal professionals, who are passionate about implementing the SDG targets in their day-to-day work. If you are interested in attending future modules, more information about the full programme is available here.