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‘Public procurement, a powerful tool for sustainable development’

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As governments respond with unprecedented spending to combat the novel COVID-19 pandemic, a new report released by the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS), has urged them to ensure that public procurement does no harm to people and the planet.

The report, “Scaling up Voluntary Sustainability Standards through Sustainability Public Procurement and Trade Policy,” the fourth edition, explored how government spending could boost Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS), which are special rules that guarantee that the products consumers buy, do not hurt the environment, and people that make them.

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The report said VSS could help ensure that products are made and transported in accordance with certain sustainability metrics, such as its environmental impact, basic human rights, labour standards, and gender equality.

Speaking on the report, Deputy Head, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Isabelle Durant, said the integration of VSS into public procurement and trade policies can scale up their adoption.

She said VSS has been recognised as potentially transformative tools for governments to realise their sustainability commitment, noting that if used appropriately with trade policy, they could change the human course toward sustainable development.

However, she said that governments must also ensure that small scale producers and businesses are not left behind because of some stringent VSS requirements that they cannot meet.

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Meanwhile, UNCTAD coordinates UNFSS, a group of five UN agencies that promote VSS, including the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), International Trade Centre (ITC), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

COVID-19 has obstructed economic growth, increased unemployment, exposed inequalities, and raised poverty and global hunger, rolling back the progress made in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
While government spending and relief is at the heart of the COVID-19 response, Durant stressed the need for a long-term focus on ensuring that actions today do not scupper the sustainability goals.

According to her, public procurement represents on average, 12 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and up to 30 per cent of GDP in developing countries.

Although the VSS adoption rates vary significantly by country, she maintained that sustained effort by governments to use sustainable public procurement could boost its adoption.
“The coronavirus has exposed vulnerabilities and risks in our systems and business models. We now need to take this opportunity to build a more sustainable future and thus put the SDGs at the heart of policy-making,” Durant said.

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Meanwhile, the UNFSS report stated that integrating sustainable development in public procurement and national trade policy would be a starting point, noting that adoption rates are more feasible for open economies with diversified economic sectors such as those that belong to large developed and middle-income countries.

According to the analysis, true adoption of VSS standards by lower-income nations require a relatively well-functioning government system, government capacity, and the ability to meet the global demand for products.

The report also showed that poorer people and producers struggle to meet VSS certifications due to time, cost, and capacity challenges as they get “stuck at the bottom” while wealthier producers, and nations easily certify and invest in systems that support certification.

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The report says more national focus on VSS and sustainable public procurement holds the key to wider adoption of these standards globally, noting that there was an upside between 2010 and 2017, as VSS increasingly featured in free trade agreements, driven by the European Union’s promotion of fair and ethical trade in its trade policy.

The report proposed five key steps that countries can take to integrate VSS into public policy, which includes enhancing national capacity through a governance model that involves independent certification bodies to cope with rising demand as the number of VSS grows.

It also proposed the incorporation of VSS within the trade regime with a database that uses the Standard International Trade Classification to provide an overview of the commodities covered by the standards, and the avoidance of the proliferation of VSS systems through convergence and divergence of recognition mechanisms.

It stated that curbing over-certification through appropriate measures and conducting political dialogues on the benefits of scaling up VSS by countries would help to further integrate VSS into public policy.

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