Special Economic Zones as Engines for the Sustainable Development Goals

Special Economic Zones as Engines for the Sustainable Development Goals

The concept of SDG model zones

This event occurs in Geneva Time (CET, GMT+2).

Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in their various forms are expanding globally, especially in developing countries. According to UNCTAD estimates, there are more than 5,000 SEZs in the world with upwards of 90% of these in developing countries. Since many first-generation zones often pursued an investment attraction strategy centered around low wages and lax employment conditions, SEZs have been criticized for not adhering to adequate social and environmental standards. Although some newly created zones are going against this trend, widespread adaptation of measures that would in addition to unleashing the economic potential of SEZs, also make them drivers of sustainable development remains elusive. Recent research by UNCTAD presents the economic case for a ‘role reversal’: switching from a narrow focus on cost advantages to becoming champions of sustainability. In this backdrop, UNCTAD recently presented the framework for the sustainable development goal (SDG) model zone which functions as a menu of options for gearing SEZs towards the 2030 agenda, with the key objective to make SEZs work for the SDGs, from privileged enclaves to widespread benefits. Conceptually, the options are built around three key elements:

  • A strategic focus on attracting investment in ‘’SDG-relevant’’ activities
  • The highest level of environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) standards and compliance
  • Promoting inclusive growth through linkages and spillovers

The proceedings of the event will be summarized in the form of a brief practical booklet for policymakers to assist them in planning SDG model zones.

Issues to be addressed:

  • What does an SDG model zone practically entail?
  • How can SDG model zones make sustainable development impact a new locational advantage?
  • What role can international partnerships between financing partners, SEZ developers, host countries, investment promotion agencies (IPAs) and outward IPAs play in the transition towards sustainable-development oriented zones?


  • James X. Zhan, Director, Division on Investment and Enterprise, UNCTAD


  • Nilgün Tas, Deputy Director of the Department of Environment, UNIDO
  • Samir Hamrouni,Chief Executive Officer, World Free Zones Organization
  • Bernd Oellermann, Director of Regional Industrial Development at the South African Ministry of Trade, Industry and Competition
  • Mohamed Jameel Al Ramahi, CEO, Masdar City Free Zone [TBC]
  • Daenia Ashpole, Director, International Trade Specialist, Jamaica SEZs Authority [TBC]
  • Douglas Zhihua Zeng, Senior Economist, World Bank
  • Bostjan Skalar, Executive Director and CEO World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies
  • Ahmed Bennis, Secretary General, Africa Economic Zones Organization
  • Gustavo González de Vega, President, Asociación de Zonas Francas de las Américas


  • Mr. Jacopo Dettoni, Editor, fDi Intelligence, FT Specialist

Event Manager: Ms. Amelia U. Santos-Paulino

Contact email: Amelia.Santos-Paulino@unctad.org