Australian senate inquiry asks what it takes to implement the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals icons. Photo by: BR&U / Bernal Revert / CC BY-NC

CANBERRA — Despite the Sustainable Development Goals being adopted in 2015, many United Nations member states are still grappling with the question of how to implement them to achieve the 2030 agenda. Unlike the eight Millennium Development Goals, which were primarily designed to assist developing nations in reducing poverty and improving equality, the 17 SDGs are targets for all U.N. member states to achieve — including gender equality, equal access to quality education, sustainable living, and sustainable use of oceans.

Member states are required to look both outward and inward to achieve effective change within 12 years.

In December, the Australian government announced a new senate inquiry into the SDGs. Currently seeking public submissions, the inquiry aims to understand a range of issues that could impact a national implementation — including government and community awareness of the SDGs, the potential costs and benefits of a domestic implementation, governance structures required to achieve meaningful outcomes, how results can be communicated to impact society, and whether Australia’s support of the SDGs through its official development assistance program needs to be focused on core areas for more sustainable outcomes.

“This is the first SDG inquiry the Parliament has held, and gives an 11-month window for politicians and the community to focus on how Australia can meet the SDGs,” Alice Ridge, policy and advocacy adviser with the Australian Council for International Development, told Devex.

A report with recommendations to government is expected by November, and is likely to take into account the outcome of Australia’s first Voluntary National Review which will be delivered in July to provide a benchmark of national progress against the SDGs.

The inquiry is focused on a range of important questions that need to be asked to achieve global development targets within a timeframe that is rapidly narrowing. They are questions that need to be addressed globally.

To be successful, the SDGs will require the participation of all

Australia is just one nation asking the challenging questions of not only how the SDGs need to be included and monitored within their ODA program, but internally — building awareness and action throughout all of society.

The challenges in bringing this together are complex — it requires high level buy in, rigorous governance, and social change.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet are leading a whole-of-government process to coordinate the implementation of the SDGs, as well as developing the VNR. This requires coordinating with Commonwealth agencies including the Department of Health, Department of Education and Training and Department of the Environment and Energy, which are experts on specific development goals.

A whole-of-government response gets further complicated considering the three tiers of government within Australia — the national coordination requires engaging with six state governments, two territory governments and 537 local governments.

And this is before the consultations that need to occur with civil society and business stakeholders.

“Going forward, a whole-of-government implantation plan will be critical to integrating the SDGs into Australia’s domestic and international policies and raising public awareness,” Ridge said. “The plan should mandate analyses and monitoring of government policies against the goals to ensure we are meeting our commitments.”

Bringing the SDGs home will help international development

While the inquiry will investigate the implementation of the SDGs within Australia’s aid program to support developing countries, focusing inward is important in drawing attention to the role everyone needs to play in creating a more sustainable world — an intentional aim from Australia’s NGOs who were a strong force in pushing for this inquiry to occur.

“The success of [the] SDGs is not dependent on one government department, a few leading businesses or the charitable sector, it requires everyone to do their part,” Ridge said. “Engaging every corner of the Australian community will require sustained effort, but we are optimistic that in 2018 we will see a step-change in awareness and implementation.”

For ACFID in particular, Ridge explained that the universal application of the SDGs provides a critical opportunity to change the way aid and international development is generally considered — at home and abroad.

“Implementing the SDGs means rejecting the outdated narrative of ‘us and them’ to one focused on meeting common global challenges collectively,” she said.

What lessons are there for other governments?

As one of the first countries to submit a VNR, Australia will be looked to for SDG implementation lessons. Combined with the inquiry, the report produced is likely to have impacts beyond Australia’s borders.

Analyzing business and social benefits of the SDGs versus the cost of implementation is critical information to assist in determining whether staged implementation is required. Who partners and stakeholders need to be to grow influence and reduce costs will also be important.

But so will the questions on education.

The development and humanitarian sectors understand the language of the SDGs and what they aim to achieve. But outside of this group, do politicians, policy makers, businesses and the public get it? It is an important question for developed nations, especially those that may be sheltered from the daily impact of war, famine and inequality.

Who should submit a response?

Australia’s NGOs will contribute to the inquiry but to be successful, submissions need to come from far and wide.

The SDGs aim to impact society widely and the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee, responsible for overseeing the inquiry and providing a report back to government in November, want to receive responses from as many sectors and individuals at they can to understand how Australia can effectively contribute and benefit from the 2030 agenda.

Organizations outside of Australia, with examples of SDG best practice, are encouraged to contribute.

“The realization of the SDGs means leaving no one behind,” Ridge said. “At home, this means tackling gender inequality, closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and driving greater inclusion of people with disabilities. Overseas, we must ensure our aid program is underpinned by the same commitment and Australia contributes its fair share to achieving the SDGs.”

Submissions are open until March 29, and will be made publicly available through the inquiry website.

Read more Devex coverage on Australian aid.

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.