New Sustainable Development Goals, an Opportunity for Tea?

I was reflecting on some of the recent media coverage of living conditions in the tea industry when the World Bank Global Monitoring Report on progress towards elimination of poverty crossed my screen. Available to download from the World Bank website, it is well worth a read. Its conclusions are extraordinary, principal amongst them that, globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by 1.2 billion – from 37% of the world population in 1990 to under 10% today. I found this statistic remarkable and counter-intuitive, after all, is it not true that economic development only impacts the few and not the many, is not globalisation leaving the poorest impoverished? Well, apparently not, growth in many countries has, according to the World Bank, been “pro-poor.” Further, the report is also clear about the recipe for building prosperity, which includes strong leadership and governance – and market orientation and integration into the world trading system. I felt encouraged by this because these are all things that we, as international customers in tea, play an important role in supporting and developing.

However, despite progress across all regions, it is Asia Pacific, including China, that has led the way with dramatic falls in the incidence of poverty on the back of economic development, trade, slowing population growth, and urban migration. As a consequence, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are now home to over 80% of the world’s poorest as classified by the World Bank (i.e. those living on under $1.90/day). This matters enormously to us because these regions are home to many of the world’s largest tea growing and exporting countries, so poverty is a depressing part of the current backdrop in which our industry operates. So with the UN and World Bank calling for another massive step towards the elimination of poverty over the next 15 years, it is clear to all of us who care about this industry that tea must play its part in progress, measurably and unequivocally.

This will not be an easy task. Global economic growth is slowing and, as the World Bank observes, “the deepest pockets of poverty may be less readily reached through growth since many of the remaining poor live in narrowly diversified natural resource based economies…” They could be talking about tea communities here. When I was in Assam last year for example, I saw the lack of diversification for myself – just miles of tea gardens and rice paddies or so it seemed. Also, whilst income based components of poverty have been improving, progress on “non-income” dimensions has been more mixed. Areas such as nutrition, health, sanitation, and education remain very challenging across the developing world, especially in rural communities. Here again, for those of us working in tea, this is not a surprising conclusion because we know that moving the needle in these areas takes years of concerted leadership and investment.

The leadership energy that is essential to drive change must come first and foremost from leaders on the ground in tea growing areas. International customers can help but it is they who know the local circumstances and are the only ones who can direct resources to where they are needed. They are also tuned in to the local political climate, which is crucial since so much of what needs to be done has a political dimension. I hope that this moment of a new call to action on global poverty reduction will inspire leaders in tea growing areas to set objectives against which progress on the new Sustainable Development Goals can be measured. Some of this, as my colleague Vikram Singh wisely observed in his recent blog, is about mindset.

As an industry we need to be more open about the living standards of our employees and the huge amount of work and investment going into poverty related, issues but we also need to be clear about the very serious obstacles to progress. Foremost amongst these is the growing scale of the plantation population that our industry is often called upon to support. Jobs on tea estates remain hugely prized in many areas and governments rely on them as an alternative to state funded welfare systems in the countryside. A new approach is needed if living standards are to rise as the World Bank report makes clear.

At the ETP, we are determined to play our part and we are building some experience since the issue of poverty and its consequences has been front and centre of our work with our various partners over the last few years. Examples include, ground-breaking work on understanding wages in the tea sector, working with the Tea Association of Malawi on living wages, educating smallholders in Africa to help them improve quality and yields, supporting trustea in India to improve standards of production for the domestic market, and building an alliance with UNICEF to improve the prospects of 25,000 young women in Assam. There are plenty of others. Our members have supported these programmes enthusiastically both with their funding and leadership. This is tough work and the cliché “no easy answers” applies, but we remain committed to working with producers to move things forward and to identifying areas where we can make a difference.

When the final report on progress against the new Sustainable Development Goals is written in 2030, it is important to all of us that some of the most vibrant case studies reflect the progress that has been made in tea communities.