Seán Sherlock wants private sector to deliver on climate and aid

Caroline O’Doherty asks minister of state for trade Seán Sherlock how Ireland will live up to its pledges on overseas aid and climate change. Private firms could provide at least part of the answer, he says 

Seán Sherlock wants private sector to deliver on climate and aid

If the pledge by European development ministers earlier this year to increase their country’s overseas aid to 0.7% of national income annually by 2030 sounded familiar, that’s because it has a 45-year history. It was 1970 when the UN first stated it as an objective for economically advanced countries to reach by 1975. A handful did, a few more followed over the next decade and a small group have regularly exceeded it.

But for the rest of us, it remained a vague aspiration until 2000 ,when the millennium development goals were agreed and the 0.7% target was reset for 2015.

Earlier this year, when the follow-up sustainable development goals were agreed, it was reset again — this time for 2030. Once again, Ireland nodded enthusiastically, but our record of progress towards the target gives little cause for optimism.

During the best of the boom years, we hit a high of 0.59% but cuts to aid budgets in the seven years following brought us back down to just 0.39%. The €40m increase in aid expenditure announced in October, which will bring the budget for 2016 up to €640m, means we’ll still probably just hover at or around 4%.

Even with strong growth forecasts for the economy, the prospect of almost doubling our current commitment is very ambitious. And it seems the Government has been thinking the same.

Development and Trade Minister Sean Sherlock says it’s time the private sector stepped up to the plate.

“We can no longer rely on taxpayers throughout the world to meet the trillions that are necessary to fulfill the obligations of the sustainable development goals,” he says. “I think we need to see a global commitment [from the private sector], not necessarily in financial terms, but perhaps in deploying new technologies to poorer regions of the globe, through providing personnel, through in-kind contributions.”

The idea is not entirely new. Multinationals will point to the corporate social responsibility section of their annual reports to show their good works, but Mr Sherlock is talking about a far less tokenistic response.

President Michael D Higgins touched on the same theme in an address during his visit to the US in October, when he urged the world’s megacompanies to lift patent restrictions on medicines and technology and share their knowledge for the benefit of poorer countries.

Mr Sherlock has similar thoughts but two questions instantly arise. Firstly, is it a cop-out for governments that simply want to avoid having to raise the hard cash to meet the 0.7% target?

“I think we’ve reached a moment in terms of global development where there’s a recognition that ordinary taxpayers can no longer fund through their tax dollars the necessary commitment,” he says.

“That’s why the 0.7% target that all 28 EU members have signed up to is going to be a major challenge for most countries by 2030 and I think we need to inculcate some new thinking in relation to how we’re going to achieve those targets.

“I agree that people might view what I’m saying with some degree of cynicism but Ireland is committing over €600m to development and humanitarian issues in 2016 alone so I think that gives us the right to start a discussion about how we are going to continue to fund development and humanitarian issues.

“I’m not saying that the private sector is going to provide the panacea, but I do believe that if we are developing new technologies in relation to ICT, in relation to telecommunications, in relation to health and education, in relation to mobile technology which has massive potential in delivering change right across the globe, then I think you can deploy these technologies and intellectual properties in a way that allows poorer regions to use them on a no fee basis if you’re serious about dealing with the issues that need to be dealt with from a development point of view.”

There is another question: Why would a profit-obsessed multinational come on board with such a proposal?

“I can understand the suspicion that would exist by those within the development and humanitarian community towards the private sector,” says Mr Sherlock.

“But if I am capturing the zeitgeist correctly, I sense that the global private sector wants to become involved in issues like climate change for instance, and beyond the for-profit reasons — because, increasingly, employees of these companies are exercised by the issues that affect us all.

“Increasingly, shareholders are affected by all of these global issues and therefore I believe what I’m talking about here is capturing a certain mood.”

If the zeitgeist radar is a little off, there’s always the bottom line to fall back on. An uncertain world is rarely good for business and if some of the uncertainties stoked by poverty, food insecurity, climate change, mass migration, educational disadvantage, and health inequalities can be alleviated by industry loosening its reins on patents, copyrights and short-term profit motives, that would seem to be a good investment in the future.

“There are 1.1,n people living in Africa alone,” says Mr Sherlock. “That represents a market opportunity. Irish companies are now seeing opportunities there and we’re seeing a growing middle class but you’re also seeing massive disparities in income levels internally.

“It’s in everybody’s interest to try and ensure that every citizen, no matter where they live, has a decent chance of realising their full potential. If you take a long- term view, then by providing assistance at this juncture, you can, over a longer term, develop the markets that will drive your bottom line.”

Mr Sherlock has already had some of the big-name tech companies into his office to toss around ideas, and he says they’re receptive. But he says the concept needs a much bigger forum, such as will be provided by the first World Humanitarian Summit that takes place in Turkey next May.

The concept doesn’t just have application in the developing and crisis-hit regions of the world.

At home, Mr Sherlock says that a tie-in among farmers, research scientists, and the private agri-food and food technology industries will be essential if agriculture is going to successfully tackle the twin aims of increasing production while reducing carbon emissions.

The need to reduce emissions in the sector, which accounts for more than a third of greenhouse gases produced here, is not just because we’ve signed international agreements but because, as the minister puts it looking back on the flooding of recent weeks, “we’re already seeing the effects of climate change in the Shannon basin”.

Mr Sherlock concedes that, long-term, Irish farming will look different to how it is today and that, in the meantime, our pursuit of domestic herd expansion appears to contradict our international stance on carbon reduction. He says the urgency of the carbon reduction targets should prompt private sector involvement in developing new techniques that marry the two aims.

It’s in the interests of the food multinationals to have a secure supply of high quality meat and dairy such as Ireland produces and if the only way emissions can be cut is by cutting herds, their supply chain suffers.

But whether the private sector can help Ireland meet its carbon reduction targets is as open a question as whether it can assist with meeting overseas assistance targets. And, this time, no one wants to wait 45 years for an answer.

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