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“Moving Water Uphill”

June 12, 2018


In 2010, I was in a mountainous region of the Sichuan province in China, that two years prior, had been devastated by a magnitude 8 earthquake. 70,000 people died. The survivors were left with only one option – to rebuild.

Rebuilding was the reason for my visit. We were there meeting with local farmers who had the daunting task of replanting their soybean crop and my company was trying to determine how it could help these farmers.

Their challenge? Figure out how to move water uphill.

Being an economist and not an engineer, it was a pretty surreal moment. A moment when I had to ask myself, “How exactly did I get here?”

I’ll be honest, I’m having a bit of a how did I get here moment right now.

It is a real honor and pleasure to be with all of you today… advocates and activists who work tirelessly to make the world a more peaceful, a more equitable, a more just place.

As I look around this theater, I know we have come together as development professionals for the sake of our future. Our shared vision for a better world.

So today - with that vision in mind - I’m tackling my own great engineering feat.

Because today I’m here to inspire you to embrace a radical new tool – a tool that has the power to advance and accelerate sustainable development around the world. A tool I’m afraid has been overlooked for far too long.

I am talking about... trade. 

I’m going to be vulnerable for a moment. You came here today to hear about a radical, innovative tool… and here I am… talking about… trade!

Surprise, surprise, there’s Devry, the corporate gal, talking about the thing that benefits her and her company’s bottom line. And of course it does. But that’s not why I’m here.

Trade – the great connector – is often viewed as the great divider. It is blamed for creating the very social ills we’re ALL here to defeat.

Fair trade, free trade, open trade… well, it hasn’t always been what it promised to be. And though trade has pulled many people out of poverty, there have been winners… and there have been losers. As President Macron recently said in a speech, and I’m paraphrasing, “multilateralism has been a force for good…” Yet, there’s human bias in the system that has advanced some over others and perpetuated inequities.

It’s true. The way trade has gone has given us reason for skepticism and concern.

But stick with me for a few minutes and perhaps I can encourage you to think about trade in a new way. To tip trade on its head. Maybe I can help you see that trade – when conducted responsibly and in a rules-based system – is the great connector.

That responsible trade… which is called out in SDG-2 are agreements which…

  • Ensure the sustainable use of land and water…
  • Promote quality education… gender equality… zero hunger, zero waste…
  • And, advance human rights, ensuring equity for all…

Responsible trade must be part of the solution.

And so, I believe that responsible trade is not only a part of the solution – it is the way we’ll ultimately achieve the SDGs. 

The picture you see is from one of my many visits to Cuba, a place that is very special to me.

I remember my first trip. Working to sell food under a humanitarian exemption in the embargo. Well, that’s been bit like moving water uphill.

On another visit, we rounded up about 95 of the top industry leaders and farmers to go on a learning journey… to meet with various ministries to explore opportunities for our countries. We loaded up our busses and pushed outward in to the humid countryside. It was there that the power of trade became clear.

In Artemisa, a municipality about an hour outside of Havana with good port access, we met with Cuban farmers and I was struck by how quickly the farmers in our group started to exchange ideas with them. A farmer to farmer connection.

I remember vividly, seeing them stand by old, rusty, red Russian tractors.. they must have been from the 1940s. Their engines were pulled out and sitting on blocks – but for the Cuban farmers – they represented opportunity. Untapped potential.

I can picture Jesus, with his skinny, tired… yet noticeably loved oxen… trying to draw straight rows. Farming the way his American counterparts may have farmed nearly 80 years ago. Backbreaking work.

Only 90 miles away, in the United States, farming looks so different today… so different that you may ask yourself, Why? The answer? It’s TRADE - or the lack thereof. It’s the embargo.

In Cuba alone, we have the opportunity to impact the lives of 11 million people by agreeing to restore trade… an agreement that could impact the lives smallholder farmers and rural communities in a way that tourism alone cannot.

And if you ask me… that’s pretty radical!

Of course, Cuba is just one example. I think about all your work – and mine with Cargill – collaborating with partners who are equally invested in sustainable development.

Around the world, the story is the same.

For the Muslim fishermen in the Kutch region in India, who I met on a trip with CARE….who pulled nets of fish from the sea, while dreaming of a more prosperous future for their school-aged daughters…  For the smallholder farmers from Cote d’lvoire and Ghana, who my colleagues work with every day… whose livelihoods depend not only on the cocoa they grow, but on their ability to get it from farm to market…  For Jesus from Cuba…

With every person I meet, it becomes more and more clear - and it has become my mantra: those of us who can come to the table – who have the power to agree – owe it to those who can’t. 

Today, in North Korea – a country that’s emerging from dark to light… where the vast majority of 25 million people live in poverty. Imagine the impact that open markets could have on these people.

Trade agreements are the tool that many of us have ignored, overlooked...possibly even villainized.

And that needs to end here… it needs to end today.

Responsible trade is the fuel that propels all SDGs towards our 2030 deadline.

But we’ll only achieve these goals if we shift our thinking about trade and trade agreements, and see trade as part of the solution.

To do that, trade agreements need activists. You and me.

And without our leaders sitting around the table together, isolationism becomes the order of the day… change is too slow. Or not happening. And people are suffering because of it.

So it’s time. 

  • It’s time for the US to rejoin the TPP…
  • It’s time to end the embargo on Cuba…
  • It’s time to open North Korea…
  • It’s time to embrace NAFTA, while also modernizing it…
  • And, most importantly… and here’s the most radical idea…it’s time to get our countries back around the table at the WTO.

I realize I’m asking all of us to push water uphill today. To imagine a world where we can, as different as we might be – corporate, NGO, government – come together around a shared trade agenda.

But we’ve been at the table together before. Who remembers the Doha Development Agenda? That was 2005…13 years ago. Yet, in Doha and elsewhere, we’ve so often had parallel conversations. We’ve been talking like this… Now we must come together… to talk like this. 

So… Here I am. Here you are. Together. In this room.

And what I’m asking is this: Can we simply agree to work on this together?

Can agree that we must use every tool we have – including trade – to advance the SDGs?

Can we agree that we owe it to those who can’t agree – not because they wouldn’t try – but because they don’t even have a seat at the table.

I believe the answer is yes. So, how about it? Let’s move water uphill together.

Thank you.