Posted by Alastair Usher

Jobs and the 2030 SDG Agenda

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted last week. The 17 undeniably ambitious goals are likely to set the international development agenda for the next fifteen years and it is notable that they increasingly, and more explicitly than the MDGs they replace, give a central role to decent jobs, reflecting the results of the world’s largest-ever consultation exercise which found that ‘better job opportunities’ were the third most significant concern of all respondents worldwide.

Jobs as a Goal

‘Decent work’ was retrofitted into the MDGs after the 2005 review, and as a lowly target under MDG1, rather than a fully-fledged, stand-alone goal. The target was not time-bound or fully quantified and was broadly seen as an aspiration, with limited effects on policy formulation (and budget allocation).

The new SDGs see jobs promoted to the status of a Goal – or at least part of one. SDG 8 is to ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all’. (How long before this becomes abbreviated to ‘promote economic growth’? Only time will tell.)

Whereas the MDG target provided no deadline, SDG8 sets out to achieve decent work for all by 2030. (‘Full employment’ as a time-bound goal has raised more than one eyebrow.) There’s also a clear target for eradication of forced labour, and of all forms of child labour by 2025.

This status upgrade reflects a number of factors, not least effective advocacy on the part of the ILO and its constituents. Moreover, courtesy of the 2013 World Development Report, the view that development happens through jobs (but some of them are better for development) has become something approaching axiomatic.

The global context has also changed. The global financial crisis has seen employment and social protection become priorities in rich and poor countries alike (and these new SDGs, unlike the MDGs, apply to all countries, OECD club-members included). This emphasis has broadened the scope of the international development agenda beyond the MDG focus on the reduction of extreme poverty. While the MDG period saw significant success in lifting people out of extreme poverty, the SDGs recognise that they remain vulnerable and their livelihoods precarious unless there are wider conditions for inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth: namely opportunities to work – and carry on working – out of poverty.

However as Oxfam’s Rachel Wilshaw asks, if ‘working out of poverty’ is the idea, minds need to be concentrated on the rather fundamental issue of the adequacy of wages to meet the basic needs of workers and their dependents. On wages, the best we have is SDG 10.4: to ‘adopt policies, especially fiscal, wage and social protection policies, and progressively achieve greater equality’.

Productive capacities are back…

The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang quipped the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) described ‘development without development’. What he was getting at was the MDGs’ focus on poverty eradication, without necessarily upgrading countries’ productive capabilities to achieve sustainable economic growth. The new SDG framework begins to address the drivers of change, including economic growth, job creation, human capital development and reduced inequality.

Indeed, by incorporating the productive sector, the new SDG framework takes us closer to the issue of how much-vaunted ‘private sector development’ can really happen – as IFC reminds us, nine out of ten jobs created in developing countries are in the private sector. Developments in productive capabilities mainly occur through work in productive enterprises, and this in turn, requires the development of collective institutions that encourage different economic actors to work together, including labour market institutions (active labour market policies, social protection, skills development, effective regulation) and functioning industrial relations within firms.

… but it’s not just a straight choice between ‘social’ and ‘productive’ sectors

The two broad strands of thought on development policy – the ‘productive capabilities’ and ‘social sector’ agendas – are not usefully opposed. The creation of virtuous circles between economic and social aspects of development is essential. Broad-based growth is needed to sustain decent jobs for all. The Brazilians coined the phrase ‘productive inclusion’ a few years ago: sounds about right.

On one side, the SDGs imply the need to take individuals more seriously as producers. They refer expressly to rural workers, industrialisation, workers in the health and education sectors, workers in tourism, unpaid care and domestic work, migrant workers (women migrants in particular), and small and medium enterprises in value chains.

The other side of the coin is, of course, that the vulnerable still need protection. Social protection is a core target for action under the SDG poverty goal and is mentioned together with wage and fiscal policies as a means to address inequality. It is interesting to see, then, that the recent Joint World Bank-ILO statement takes a pluralist moment to recognise that ‘there are many paths towards universal social protection’ – social protection can be provided through social insurance, tax-funded social benefits, social assistance services, and public works programmes.

None of this can happen without the empowerment of (all) women and girls

While the MDGs arguably failed to tackle a number of key issues on gender, including women’s economic empowerment, the SDGs include a stand-alone gender goal: SDG 5 focuses on key issues – recognising the value and impact of unpaid care work, tackling violence against women and girls, and women’s equal rights in economic resources.

The SDGs acknowledge that gender inequality has too long been seen as a woman’s problem; it is everyone’s problem. Gender inequality is a societal and a human rights sink, with a huge negative multiplier effect on economies and communities. ‘Women’s skills are needed for Africa’s industrial boom’, says the AfDB. The SDGs don’t work without empowered women.

Influence on the private sector

The role of the private sector in realising the SDGs is widely declared. Indeed, the Global Reporting Initiative, the UN Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have joined forces to mobilise the private sector, under the aegis of the SDG Compass Project.

Make no mistake, private sector capital flows are already happening, in a big way. Official development assistance comprised 70% of the resources flowing from developed to developing countries in the 40 years after 1945. By the year 2000, the weighting had shifted decisively – with private investments making up the majority of capital flows to developing countries. The point is: how can they be optimised in their developmental effects?

Value chains have a vital role to play here. If value chain upgrading is partly addressed by the sorts of support for productive capacities (not least human capital) described above, then the SDGs also reflect the experience of the past decade’s work on decent jobs in value chains. Not only do they highlight the fundamental importance of voice and agency for workers to realise their rights, but they also seek to link sustainable production with sustainable consumption (back to the ‘purchasing practices’ agenda, anyone?).

But do they have any teeth? The SDGs are not enforceable norms, but they can serve to reinforce existing international norms, including international labour and human rights instruments, and can strengthen existing monitoring, verification, and reporting processes. The majority of goals highlighted here are, after all, underpinned by existing international human rights law.

And as an internationally recognised framework, they are likely to influence the policy direction – and funding allocation – of a variety of players, including development finance (DFIs) and international financial institutions (IFIs). Accordingly, these publicly funded or mandated institutions can also expect to be under greater scrutiny to demonstrate the positive (quantitative and qualitative) job-related development impacts of their financing. This will have an impact on private sector financial bodies too, given the current emphasis on leveraging private capital.