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UN's SDGs and Illicit Trade Connections

Continuing on from ‘Sustainable Development – Part One, this article examines how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being stifled by the illicit trading sector. This article looks at the nature of that sector and the impact it has…

Illicit Trade

The illegal sale or possession of goods, services, humans, or wildlife, counterfeiting, tax evasion, and smuggling, are but some of the activities that fall under the dubious banner of illicit trading. The illicit trading sector has a major impact on the UN’s SDGs.

They are stripping governments of much-needed revenue (which can be critical for investment in public works, utilities, or infrastructure), placing pressure on legitimate trading activities, deposing genuine and legal employment opportunities, and causing irrevocable damage to human lives, the environment, and the natural world.

Illicit trade can be categorized as being unfair too. Where legitimate trade is regulated and must conform to rules and guidelines, illicit trade has no such restrictions. This enables it to compete in ways and by means that legitimate businesses cannot match and ultimately, can give illegitimate enterprises an advantage in the workplace.

Certainly, in developing countries where detection and enforcement measures tend to be less sophisticated, illicit trading networks can thrive and undermine the wider economy. Implementing relatively idealistic concepts in these parts of the world can then be especially challenging.

Figure 1: The UN’s SDGs vs aspects of illicit trade (conceptual connections). (Transnational Alliance to Combat Illicit Trade (TRACIT))


Figure one is a diagram that attempts to show the relationship between the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and various aspects of the most harmful global illicit trade.

It is arguable (and a point made by the Transnational Alliance) that at the very least, not enough attention is being given over to dealing with the illegality and that as a result, it is a profound impediment to achieving the SDG’s objectives.

The diagram itself is a messy one and this is deliberate. The idea behind it is to sufficiently illustrate the complexity of the problem of illegal trading. As is fairly evident, a single illicit activity can impact multiple UN objectives, and each goal itself tends to be exposed to more than one illegal activity.

Take, for example, Counterfeiting & Piracy. This harmful activity has a significant impact on nine of the UN’s SDGs. These are No Poverty, Good Health & Wellbeing, Quality Education, CleanWater & Sanitation, Decent Work & Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure, Responsible Consumption & Production, Life on Land, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.

Approaching the issue from the other direction, the UN goal of Decent Work and Economic Growth is impacted by harmful trading activities such as Agri-Foods (the wholesale process of food going from the farm to the plate), Agrochemicals and Pesticides, Alcohol, Counterfeit and Piracy, Forestry, IUU Fishing (illegal, unreported, and unregulated), Petroleum, Pharmaceuticals, Precious Metals, and Gemstones, Tobacco, Trafficking in Persons, and Trafficking in Wildlife. Jeffrey Hardy – Director-General of the TRACIT – is quoted in The Maritime Executive as saying From smuggling, counterfeiting and tax evasion, to the illegal sale or possession of goods, services, humans and wildlife, illicit trade is compromising the attainment of all 17 of the U.N. SDGs’.

Where illicit trade potentially does the most harm is when the money ends up in the coffers of groups such as organized criminal networks and terrorists. As mentioned in the Maritime Review, illicit trade doesn’t just encourage societal ills such as violence and corruption, it provides a platform upon which it can perform and thrive.

Violence is fed, corruption is bred, lawful institutions become compromised, trust negated in the rule of law, and money railroaded away from those places in society that require it. Perhaps beyond even this, when finances are directed into the hands of terrorist organizations, the very security of the world is placed at risk.


In the executive summary of the official reporting by TRACIT (‘Mapping the Impact of Illicit trade on the Sustainable Development Goals’) there are immediate next steps have been identified that need to be taken to open up the road to SDG achievement…

Attend developing countries. As touched upon, developing nations with immature economic and lawful procedures are the ones hardest hit by illegal trade. They struggle to convert their resources into wealth, struggle to foster and develop innovation, struggle to entice meaningful investment, struggle to cement robust job opportunities, and struggle to propagate economic growth.

Developed or richer nations need to intercede and help those countries implement measures that protect these areas of their society, and realize that in the longer term, doing so is in the interests of everyone.

Acknowledge the complexity of the task at hand. As illustrated above and discussed widely, the SDGs cannot and do not stand in isolation. They impact and overlap one another in obvious ways, but also in much more subtle and nuanced ones. To attack poverty as an objective, one must also consider tactics to develop financial growth, not to mention employ strategies that provide education, employment, healthcare, technology, and environmental conservatism.

In contrast, the different types of illicit trade must be addressed jointly; where one might be tackled, organized criminality could be displaced into another, and then continue to harass vulnerable people and communities. Illicit trade cannot be dealt with independently of other sectors, nor can it be dealt with independently of the SDGs themselves.

Sharing responsibility. Advertising the issues at hand is a joint obligation. This entails promoting partnerships, frameworks, infrastructure, legislation, and instruments, that open and sustain a dialogue between all bodies (public or private) and transcend international boundaries.

Through this, best-practice methods can be devised, regulatory standards established, and global stewardship and policing created. Only at that time can the right universal funding be introduced.

Policy response prioritization. The TRACIT study mapping the impact of illicit trading outlines how a ‘first order’ consideration should be in reducing the deterrent forces of illicit trading and then shore up the fiscal leaking that goes hand-in-hand with it.

The aim here is to be able to ring-fence resources and revenues for injecting back into legitimate enterprises and the global economy. In doing so, some policy tools will once again become possible, with objective timelines shortening and the elimination of impediments to goal achievement.

Generate political will and leadership. An aspect of the battle to implement the SDGs effectively is to create the will and in turn the leadership to impose them. Governmental role models at all levels are needed in order to prioritize the issues at hand and to keep wider attention on them so that enforcement measures can be introduced and solutions devised and tested.

The study itself is an early but key step in raising awareness of the threat, pitfalls, challenges, and issues, in making any attempt to achieve the SDGs. It is hoped too that the TRACIT study can act as a roadmap to policymakers, directing them to issues requiring greater attention, but also providing the means by which to address those issues.

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