After 2 years of negotiation in the United Nations, on 2 August 2015, 193 governments agreed to adopt a new development agenda—the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”.This was the culmination of not only protracted debate between governments, but also intensive civil society engagement and contribution—including by APWLD’s members. This Agenda will shape priorities for international development for the next fifteen years.

While the scope and content of the new Agenda is a considerable improvement on the donor-driven, technocratic Millennium Development Goals, the foundations are missing for an Agenda that purports to be genuinely transformative, create equitable, sustainable development, and bring us back from the brink of environmental collapse.

The first major flaw in the Agenda is a failure to commit to the systemic, structural change necessary to tackle the roots of extreme poverty, economic inequality and the rising concentration of wealth. This requires challenging the model of neoliberal development that has weakened and undermined the role of the State despite its role as duty-bearer of human rights and provider of public goods; skewed international economic governance in favour of developed countries; empowered an unregulated private sector; and led to a world in which there is a net transfer of financial and non-financial resources from the global South to the North.

The second major flaw in the Agenda—one that threatens to undermine the implementation of the whole Agenda—is the lack of commitment by governments to financing. Without adequate financing for an Agenda that is expected to cost at least USD$3 trillion per year, the rhetoric in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will never become reality.

How Governments in Addis Ababa failed the world’s women

The lack of commitment to financing the new Agenda was confirmed by the extraordinarily weak outcome of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA). The Financing for Development (FfD) negotiations have their own critically important mandate independent of the Post-2015 development agenda which, as feared by developing countries and civil society, was significantly weakened by the attempt by developed countries to focus the FfD Conference on the means of implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.

In the end, however, the AAAA delivered neither the means of implementation nor any real progress in relation to the core FfD mandate. Indeed, there are no new financial commitments in the entire AAAA document, despite the extraordinary shortfall in financing for development. This shortfall is not only caused by the failure of developed countries to meet their obligation of committing 0.7% of their Gross National Income to official development assistance (ODA), but also by global financial, trade and taxation architecture that strips developing countries of their resources, including through illicit financial flows that costs countries up to ten times as much as they receive in ODA.

Governments roundly failed to address this highly inequitable architecture: they failed to commit to the creation of an intergovernmental tax body that would allow for developing countries to have a say in the development of international tax rules; they regressed from previous commitments to address lending practices that push countries into sovereign debt crises; and they failed to make specific commitments to reform of a financial sector and international financial system that have barely changed since the 2008 financial crisis. The only positive elements in the AAAA are the long overdue establishment of a Technology Facilitation Mechanism, including a multi-stakeholder forum to discuss technology issues; anda commitment to an annual follow-up and review process for the FfD outcomes, including the Doha Declaration and Monterrey Consensus.

On the whole, despite rhetorical commitments to women’s human rights and gender equality, the AAAA does little to challenge the status quo and entrenches some of the aspects of the current development model that are most harmful to women’s human rights and their livelihoods, including empowering the private sector. Two of the key areas of concern for women in Asia and the Pacific are the implications of the AAAA for women’s decent work and access to land.

Decent Work

Women in our region are overwhelmingly concentrated in employment that lacks basic security, benefits and safe working conditions. Women workers comprise the majority of workers in the garment industry, service industries and subsistence farming, and the majority of women workers in Asia continue to be employed in vulnerable employment. There are a number of references in the AAAA to labour rights, including decent work and (highly qualified) social protection. However, even this language is contradicted by an endorsement of international trade and finance policies that undermine women’s livelihoods and confine them to the most exploitative forms of employment.

For example, the AAAA recommits governments to a multilateral trading system which it claims, without qualification, to be “an engine of inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction.” This is despite the fact that the rise in women’s employment as a result of increasing manufactured exports in developing countries has been in labour-intensive, low-wage industries in which women are denied their rights at work. In fact, companies that outsource operations to developing countries in global value chains operate on the basis that the low pay, causualisation and informalisation of women workers gives them a competitive advantage. Women farmers, who are mostly engaged in subsistence-oriented small-scale production, have also been routinely disadvantaged and impoverished by the liberalisation of agricultural markets.

While the AAAA makes reference to the need to better integrate small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it does nothing to address the many structural constraints faced by women-owned SMEs. These are not merely limited to the difficulty women face in accessing financing and training–one of the greatest challenges women face is the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work for which women retain responsibility even while working. There is no commitment at all in the AAAA to recognising, revaluing or redistributingwomen’s unpaid care work despite the fact that it is one of the principal barriers to women’s economic participation and undermines the exercise of women’s full range of human rights.

To ensure women’s decent work, governments must be permitted the policy space to design appropriate social, economic and industrial policies. Instead of protecting this space, the AAAA adopts ambiguous language whereby policy space can only be exercised “while remaining consistent with relevant international rules and commitments.”

Further, governments removed language that appeared in an early draft of the AAAA that recognised the need to properly review investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses in trade and investment agreements. These clauses have been used by companies to sue governments for introducing policies that are perceived to reduce the value of their investment, even when those policies are in the public interest. For example, Egypt is currently being sued by a French company for increasing its minimum wage, and other governments have been sued for taking measures to protect the environment and public health. An ISDS clause is also likely to be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which is currently being negotiated by a number of governments in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and North America. It is therefore unacceptable that, while the AAAA considers the impact of trade and investment agreements on sustainable development, it fails to take a key step in ensuring that there is coherence between the two.  Consistent calls by civil society for human rights impact assessments for trade and investment agreements were also ignored. This is especially alarming in light of a recent observation by the UN Working Group on the issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice that trade and investment agreements that cede increasing power to transnational corporationsvis-a-vis host States have led to corporate abuse and violations of human rights, of which most of the victims are women.

Women’s Access to Land

A second key area in which the AAAA undermines women’s human rights is by promoting a model of development that threatens one of the most important sources of women’s livelihoods: their access to land.  While the document includes some highly qualified language on giving women access to land, it entirely neglects the need to address the phenomenon of land-grabbing, which has led to communities losing tens of thousands of hectares of land to foreign investors each year. Approximately 19.2 million hectares of land have been acquired in untransparent deals with foreign investors in Asia alone.

Much of this land-grabbing is driven by agribusiness which seeks to expand export-oriented crops like palm oil. Far from challenging the role of agribusiness and the structures that empower them to act, the AAAA encourages private sector investment in agriculture on equal terms to public investment. While committing to both “scale up efforts to end hunger and malnutrition” and to respect human rights, the approach in the AAAA is completely at odds with the right to food and the inherent requirement to protect local food systems and access to land.

Further the emphasis in the AAAA on creating an “enabling environment” to encourage private sector investment is reminiscent of the World Bank’s promotion of private investment and the commodification of land through its “Doing Business” indicators. These have been connected to the lowering of social and environmental safeguards that have facilitated large-scale land-grabbing. This, plus the endorsement of an international trading system that continues to impoverish smallholder farmers through the maintenance of agricultural subsidies for developed countries, cannot be reconciled with the rhetoric in the AAAA purporting to support women farmers.

Another threat to women’s access to land results from the emphasis in the AAAA on facilitating and financing large-scale infrastructure projects, in which a key role is played by multilateral development banks (MDBs). The enthusiasm for large-scale infrastructure—one of the ‘key deliverables’ in the AAAA—ignores the evidence that these projects often entail enormous social and environmental harm, including mass displacement of local communities, and place considerable burdens on public sector resources. Indeed, even an IMF working paper recently concluded that there is “little evidence of positive long-term impacts” of large infrastructure projects. Many of these projects are currently financed by MDBs in the absence of adequate environmental and social safeguards, and the AAAA does nothing to promote the advancement or strengthening of these safeguards. To the contrary, the AAAA encourages safeguards that are “efficient and time-sensitive”.

The AAAA also envisages a key role for private finance in infrastructure financing. Consistent with the overall attitude towards private finance and the private sector in the AAAA, it is assumed that even in the absence of binding regulatory frameworks, the private sector can be trusted to act in an accountable manner that is consistent with sustainable development and the realisation of human rights. This is despite the central and recent role that the private sector has played in precipitating the climate crisis and the global financial crisis; mounting evidence that public-private partnerships in development assistance do not work; and the role that the private sector continues to play in undermining attempts to align its activity with binding human rights standards. Even so, the AAAA overwhelmingly endorses a voluntary approach to encouraging businesses act responsibly.

A Shaky Foundation for Sustainable Development

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda is therefore an extremely shaky foundation on which to rest the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The legitimacy of the outcome of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development has been further called into question by the untransparent nature of the negotiations that shaped the content of the final outcome document.

The dissatisfaction on the part of developing countries and civil society with the AAAA invigorated calls during the final stages of negotiation of the 2030 Agenda for it to only play a complementary and supporting role in the means of implementation of the Agenda. However, the final language adopted by Governments was to endorse the AAAA as “an integral part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. Governments are thus likely to look to the AAAA for the means to finance the extensive commitments that they have made in the 2030 Agenda;an exercise that will prove to be futile.