I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak today on the UN sustainable development goals, SDGs. I congratulate all members on their new positions on the committee. It is extremely positive that the committee has decided to address this issue so early in its deliberations and I hope this proactive approach can be mirrored in other committees.
I am speaking to the committee on behalf of Coalition 2030, which is an alliance of 75 leading international and local civil society organisations. The coalition is made up of both international and domestic NGOs, including Dóchas and World Vision, which are also presenting today. Members also include youth organisations, environmental groups, academics, and trade unions. Our members work in a variety of areas, from humanitarian relief to labour rights and environmental sustainability, in over 50 countries around the world, including Ireland.
I will begin by providing a brief overview of the goals and Ireland’s response. I will then outline how the committee has a key role to play in ensuring effective monitoring and accountability. I will briefly address the policy context and finish by putting forward recommendations on how the committee can respond to these issues.
I appreciate that this is far from the first time many members will have come across the UN SDGs, particularly the Chairman in light of his previous ministerial roles, but I would like to provide some background briefly. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by Ireland and 192 other countries in 2015. This agenda is made up of 17 SDGs that provide an overarching framework "to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all". They are not merely directed at the global south. All states, including Ireland, are obliged to adhere to them and ensure they are reflected in domestic policies. The goals are designed to ensure progress is made globally by 2030 to end extreme poverty, eliminate inequality, respond to the climate emergency and stop environmental degradation. The then Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade played an admirable role in their agreement, having co-chaired the negotiations.
It is essential that this committee understand that the SDGs cannot be treated at any level of Government or in any state as a type of branding or promotional exercise. Equally, it is not an à la carte menu from which we can pick and choose which goals to prioritise. Rather, the agenda sets out an interconnected policy framework for states to follow. Beneath the 17 goals there are 169 individual sub-targets and 231 indicators across a range of policy areas which means progress, or inaction, can be systematically monitored. The point here is that this is not some vague or lofty exercise. On the contrary, the SDG framework is clear, specific and comprehensive, and must be integrated into Ireland’s policy-making and planning.
Ireland’s progress to date has been monitored against these targets and indicators by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, as well as EU and UN agencies. The State submitted its first progress report to the UN in 2018. In-depth analyses of Ireland’s performance have also been carried out by national and international authorities. I do not intend to go through the State’s performance across the 17 goals, but it has been repeatedly highlighted that Ireland does not compare well with its neighbours in the context of targets relating to the environment, climate, participation in lifelong learning and access to employment for women and disadvantaged groups. Challenges also remain in relation to targets on overseas development assistance and policy coherence, about which the committee will hear today.
How has the State responded to this? Three years after signing the 2030 agenda, a national SDG implementation plan was produced, led by the then Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The emphasis in this document on Ireland’s SDG leadership at home and abroad was welcomed, as was the recognition of the key role of the Government in delivering progress, including through departmental reporting and State progress reports every two years.
The first of these progress reports was produced in 2018 and the second, due in 2020, was recently deferred until next year. The national implementation plan, however, suffered from many of the same weaknesses of approach that we have seen in respect of climate policy. Although the plan provided a mapping of relevant policies and departmental stakeholders, it did not include tangible, time-bound actions across the Departments and public bodies on how targets would be achieved. Certain goals were linked to policies of only one Department despite being cross-cutting. In short, it was more of an SDG promise than an SDG plan. It is also important to note that neither the national planning framework nor the national development plan included a focus on the goals or sub-targets.
Of equal concern has been the seeming absence of leadership to ensure full mainstreaming of the SDGs across all levels of government. It has never been clear how one SDG unit in one section of one Department is supposed to co-ordinate a whole-of-government approach to the SDGs. From the outset, Coalition 2030 has advocated for the Department of the Taoiseach to take the lead. Concerns have also been raised that while an interdepartmental working group and a senior officials group on the SDGs were put in place, these may be aimed more at periodic monitoring and reporting on the goals than ensuring a systematic and coherent approach to meeting the SDGs.
Until recently, the Department had been engaging positively with Coalition 2030 on steps towards the development of a new plan and on necessary consultation through a dedicated SDG stakeholder forum. We were informed a few weeks ago, however, that progress on a new plan was on hold due to a restructuring decision to remove the relevant SDG unit in the Department. We understand that co-ordination is to be assigned to new staff in the Department's climate division. While this situation is far from clear or encouraging, this is an obvious moment to review how the Government is implementing the SDGs, and we again call for responsibility for co-ordination and coherence to be transferred to the Taoiseach's Department.
Where does the rubber meet the road for this committee? The SDGs must be the key guiding benchmark for assessing departmental performance. In Coalition 2030's letter to the committee in September, we addressed how the committee should take forward the recently approved Dáil motion to address the SDGs as part of its work programme. We emphasise that the committee must, first, examine the impact of domestic policies on developing countries by inviting relevant domestic policyholders such as the Minister with responsibility for climate action to address the committee; second, ensure that SDG targets and indicators are used to assess policy planning and implementation as part of the committee's ongoing deliberations; third, ensure that vulnerable groups are invited to provide their views on Ireland's response, something made perhaps more possible now that stakeholder inputs are being made online; and, fourth, address SDG implementation as a means of increasing State, regional and local resilience when examining responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the policy context, the Covid crisis has seriously jeopardised progress on the SDGs both in Ireland and globally. The committee will hear about how the effects of the pandemic are compounded by pre-existing drivers of humanitarian need and injustice such as conflict, climate change, environmental degradation and unsustainable food systems. However, the pandemic also makes the achievement of the SDGs all the more relevant. UN authorities have emphasised that the SDGs constitute a ready-made framework to increase long-term resilience and ensure a just recovery for the most vulnerable.
The experience of Coalition 2030, however, has been a gap in meaningful systems for accountability for implementation of the SDGs. The programme for Government includes a commitment "to implement the SDGs and to promote their implementation around the world". From a foreign affairs perspective, it is important to monitor Ireland's delivery of the SDGs both in terms of Ireland's support to the delivery of the SDGs globally, in particular through goal No. 17 on international partnerships, particularly in meeting commitments on overseas aid, and regarding how progress on key goals at home can impact people living in developing countries. The committee will find in Coalition 2030's written statement examples from Trócaire, representatives of which, unfortunately, could not be here today, of how inaction on climate change, business and human rights impacts those in the developing world. Ireland needs to make urgent progress on goal No. 13 on climate action. This is key to tackling the devastating effects of the climate emergency in developing countries at the front line of the crisis. Furthermore, making progress on goals Nos. 8 and 10 is crucial to strengthening Ireland's approach to business and human rights.
Finally, we emphasise that the committee should have as part of its agenda Ireland's international support to the delivery of the SDGs as well as oversight of key domestic policies. Coalition 2030 supports Dóchas's recommendation on the need for a mechanism for policy coherence for sustainable development to ensure coherence across domestic and foreign policies.
Coalition 2030 asks that the committee write to the Taoiseach to request that the Department of the Taoiseach take responsibility for leading and co-ordinating Ireland's SDG response and ensure that an SDG action plan is produced in 2021 based on early consultation. We also ask that the committee write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, first, to support the delivery of the goals internationally, particularly in Ireland's leadership position on the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly; second, to ensure that relevant SDG targets and indicators are integrated into the Department's statements on strategy and reporting; and, third, to develop a transparent and well-resourced mechanism for policy coherence for sustainable development, as previously mentioned.
I thank the committee for its time. I hope we will be able to assist the committee and engage further over the coming months.