'Revolutionary changes': What Australians think of the SDGs

Children hold up an Australian flag at the Gerehu Markets in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Despite having worked on the planning of the SDGs for three years, the real work for the Australian government is just beginning. Photo by: Ness Kerton / AusAID / CC BY

The Sustainable Development Goals and our ability to achieve the ambitious targets was a topic of debate Thursday at a forum hosted by the Development Policy Center in Canberra, Australia.

Highlighting the issues involved was the Australian launch of a new report from the Overseas Development Institute at the forum, demonstrating that — according to best available projections — no goals were on target to be met by 2030 and five goals (inequality, cities, waste, climate change and oceans) were heading in the wrong direction entirely.

How much work is there to be done?

“No goal is on track to meet targets and no country is on track,” Chris Hoy, from the ODI told the audience.

He warned that, in order to meet many goals, “revolutionary changes” would be required. And within some developing countries, the change would need to be more profound than others, since the level of progress required differs dramatically worldwide.

Joy Kyriacou from Oxfam Australia said the data and research available was “a wake-up call” for the amount of work that needed to be done to achieve the goals.

But Natasha Smith, from the multilateral development and partnership division within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said that it was important to have lofty goals.

“The SDGs have to be ambitious,” she told the audience. “The point is to stretch the targets.”

With unprecedented buy-in from governments globally, something not seen with the Millennium Development Goals, Smith said there is a push from each country to get their development priorities in the new U.N. goals.

Australia, for example, pushed strongly for sustainable economic growth, governance and gender, while Papua New Guinea pushed strongly for climate change and oceans-related goals. Bringing those goals together, she said, pushes us above and beyond the current global progress trajectory.

How will we report on the progress?

A question of consistent data and reporting for the goals by country and region was still a work in progress, according to Smith.

“Follow up and review work is ongoing, with more information expected within six-nine months,” she said.

But it was a priority issue that countries were taking seriously, Smith said, with high-level discussions on data collection and reporting that included organizations like the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Kyriacou said it was important to understand the value of reporting to developing countries themselves, in order to see how they were progressing — in East Timor, for example, the MDGs were incorporated into the national development plan, enabling better reporting and monitoring of the goals.

“Where we can, it is important to put resources into reporting,” she said.

How will the Australian government respond?

Kyriacou called for Australian authorities to dedicate more funding to the Australian aid program to help achieve the SDGs, saying that on current projections only 0.15 percent of gross national income will be going to foreign aid by 2030.

“Australia is one of the wealthiest countries and needs to lift its game,” she said.

But Smith said the aid budget would be playing a “catalyst” role in the future, with the aim of the government to help engage new partners, including the private sector, in regions to produce sustainable economies.

For Australia’s aid program, the SDGs and other multilateral agreements are being used to create a “2030 agenda.”

“There is no point having goals if you don’t decide the means of achieving them,” Smith said. “The ODI report is telling us we have to work out the means of achieving these goals.”

Despite having worked on the planning of the SDGs for three years, the real work for the Australian government is just beginning. The starting point for each goal varies greatly, but Smith said the goals will open communication channels between governments.

“The SDGs provide us with a valuable opportunity to engage partners in the region,” she said.

Why is there lack of buy-in from mainstream media?

One of the most interesting discussions to come out of the forum was questions on educating the public and lack of coverage for the SDGs in mainstream media.

Lack of public awareness was a cause for concern, with Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama and the boyfriend of Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop more likely to be of interest to the mainstream media than the SDGs themselves.

“Something like the SDGs are not going to make the front page of The Australian,” Smith said.

Kyricou agreed: “It is hard for something complex and difficult to make the front page.”

Both encouraged the audience to be the communicators, teaching others about the goals to help spread the word.

But for the long-term success of the SDGs, especially within Australia where public knowledge on the foreign aid program is problematic, a strong government message will be needed to ensure ongoing support from the people who vote them into power.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a freelance data journalist based in Canberra, Australia. 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 has recently been awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.