Implementation of Sustainable Development Goals by 2030: Discussion

I am pleased that we are joined by: Mr. Jerry Mac Evilly, project co-ordinator at Coalition 2030; Ms Suzanne Keatinge, chief executive officer of Dóchas; Dr. Stephen Omollo, vice president of World Vision International and regional director for east Africa, who joins us from Kenya; and Mr. Maurice Sadlier, director of international programmes with World Vision Ireland. They are all very welcome to the meeting, albeit virtually.

The format of the meeting, if members agree, is that we will hear opening statements from our guests before going into observations, questions and answers with members of the committee.

Before proceeding to the business of the meeting, I remind members that mobile phones should be switched off completely or put on aeroplane mode for the duration of the meeting because they cause interference with the recording equipment, even when in silent mode. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also advise witnesses giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts of Leinster House to note that the constitutional protections afforded to witnesses attending to give evidence before committees may not, in all circumstances, extend to them. I am merely quoting what I say to witnesses on all occasions. It is not that I have fears in respect of the utterances of our witnesses this morning. However, no clear guidance can be given on the extent to which the evidence given is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature. Indeed, persons giving evidence from another jurisdiction should also be mindful of the domestic statutory regime. If anyone is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter, I trust that direction will be respected by all witnesses.

If members are in agreement, we will proceed to our witnesses. It gives me great please to call on Mr. Mac Evilly to make his opening remarks. He will be followed by Ms Keatinge and then Dr. Omollo.

Mr. Jerry Mac Evilly

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.

I thank Mr. Mac Evilly for his contribution. I will hold the observations and questions from members until we hear from all our witnesses. We now move on to Ms Suzanne Keatinge.

Ms Suzanne Keatinge

I thank Mr. Mac Evilly for really setting the scene about the importance and relevance of the SDGs. I thank also the committee for inviting Dóchas. I think this is the first time we have been here this year. I hope there will be further similar opportunities to come.

For those members who do not know, Dóchas is the network of international development and humanitarian organisations in Ireland. We have about 47 members in total working on the ground in over 104 countries. More than 5,000 people work in the Irish international development sector and, as Mr. Mac Evilly has noted, the SDGs are central to much of what we do. We did a mapping exercise that found our members were covering at least 15 of the 17 goals, critically providing assistance on the ground but also, as Mr. Mac Evilly said, connecting that work back here in Ireland and making sure that our domestic policies were coherent with what we were trying to help and support local communities to do on the ground.

I also thank Mr. Mac Evilly for giving that strong overview of the interconnectedness of the goals. It is important to say they are relevant today in the response to Covid-19. What we are hearing from members is that it has been a particularly difficult year, as I am sure the committee will appreciate, but Covid is very much exacerbating those trends we already knew about, those structural issues of inequality, climate change and migration. Covid-19 is also magnifying the hidden abuses surrounding human rights defenders, environmentalists and journalists. All of these abuses restrict essential freedoms for civil society. It is important, however, that the committee hear that the 2030 agenda - the sustainable development goals - is a framework of hope and optimism, and I cannot help but feel we desperately need that right now.

In preparing for this meeting, I had a quick chat with Mr. David Donoghue, Ireland's former ambassador to the UN, who was critical in the writing of the SDGs. I checked in on the feeling at the UN and in multilateral circles. Mr. Donoghue said that while they were concerned that the SDGs would have been forgotten in the Covid crisis, they were realising that they were more important than ever. They are a positive response. We can build from this, not just to help us meet the challenges.

I see that the Chairman is physically in the room. I did not have the privilege of being there in 2015 when he signed up to this commitment for Ireland but I was there at the UN General Assembly in September of last year. The SDGs are about bringing diversity and about multilateralism in action. It was incredible to me to see the sense of energy behind them from so many different areas of the system. That is something I really want to convey to the committee today. There is real energy and optimism behind these goals. It is no mean feat in today's relatively fractured world that this is one of the few international statements that every country has signed up to.

Nevertheless, we are, as Mr. Mac Evilly stated, at a crossroads. According to a report I read in September, the social progress index of 2020 found that if we carried on at the same rate, we would not achieve the goals until 2092. Perhaps more importantly, the committee will hear from Dr. Omollo later in the meeting about what this looks like on the ground where it matters most. We have heard recent reports from the likes of the World Food Programme of the devastation that Covid is bringing, particularly in matters on which we thought we were making progress, such as hunger and poverty eradication. As a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation report stated, we have gone back 25 years in terms of universal vaccine coverage in just 25 months. That is how important this agenda is.

Three policy areas are especially relevant for the committee, the first of which is the role of overseas development assistance, ODA, in achieving the SDGs. The second is the importance of implementing the Government's international development policy that was signed two years ago, known as A Better World, and in particular its key focus on reaching the furthest behind first. The third area is the importance of policy coherence for sustainable development, which the committee has heard reference to.

In 2018, this committee's predecessor, in developing its review of Irish Aid, identified the significance of the SDGs. I draw members' attention to the importance of having robust structures of oversight to monitor progress, learn and ensure we deliver on the targets. On overseas development assistance, it will not have missed members' attention that this week was a budget week, so it is important to recognise and thank the Government for its commitment to ODA. Dóchas was delighted and strongly welcomed the fact the Government was willing to maintain ODA at current spending levels, or about €867 million. This was critical to the work our members do. The committee will hear from Dr. Omollo about what that means on the ground. NGOs, where the money is funded, are the front-line workers. They are making a difference and that is what ODA means for us.

ODA continues to have high public support. We carried out a survey in August this year just to test that. Two thirds of people surveyed said it was important even in these difficult times, even taking account of the pressure on the domestic environment. That survey was strongly validated by a Eurobarometer report in 2019 that found that 93% of respondents supported Ireland's commitment to development and tackling poverty. I do not underestimate, however, the pressure the Government is under in regard to budgets and that it will doubtless continue to be under in years to come. We ask that the committee use its cross-party support to maintain that commitment, which will be critical in the years ahead. Let us not lose sight of the target of 0.7% by 2030 that the Government has committed to and that Ireland has committed to since the 1970s, yet which figure in the past five years has been closer to 0.3%. Every year that we do not make progress towards the target, the sum increases. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has stated he expects it to be about €2.3 billion by 2030. We are at only the €900 million mark, and every year it gets tougher.

Second, it is not just about the money. As members of this committee have often reminded NGOs, it is also about the quality of delivery. That is why A Better World, the international development policy, is so important. It is important to reiterate in these Covid times that we have been checking in on that and there is a sense that this policy is more important than ever. It is fit for purpose. We are hearing from our members that the structural challenges still need to be met. Our development and humanitarian programmes need to continue in an even more active way than they have been. A central relevance for the committee in regard to A Better World is the phrase "reaching the furthest behind first". That is the one on which we need to keep an eye. It is the main objective and it is where we will make the most impact. We are asking that the committee pay particular attention to monitoring that and to understanding what success will look like, and by each year asking Irish Aid how progress is being made.

On the third issue, policy coherence for development, I will not go into the details because Mr. Mac Evilly has outlined some of the significant issues relating to why this is so important as a policy. We need to be more determined to monitor policy coherence and to have honest conversations. In the Coalition 2030 report of 2018, we specifically called for a formal policy coherence mechanism that was structured and well resourced. It may also be worth considering what the European Parliament is likely to adopt, namely, to have a standing rapporteur on policy coherence for sustainable development. We ask the committee to champion this need, to monitor progress honestly and to identify the issues of incoherence so that by 2030, we can stand together and say that, both domestically and internationally, Ireland has delivered on the goals.

I will conclude with a few key recommendations for the committee. We ask that the committee, and each party represented thereon, keep on the pressure to maintain ODA levels and, in particular, to ensure we reach the target of 0.7% of GNI by 2030. We ask it to scrutinise how Irish Aid's A Better World policy will be met and specifically in regard to reaching the furthest behind first. It might consider that when the progress report on the SDGs in respect of Ireland is written, that objective will be at its core. That is what will make the difference and it should be spotlighted.

Members will be aware that Ireland will take its seat on the Security Council next year. We ask the committee to work with civil society to highlight forgotten crises and conflicts where Ireland can make a positive difference. The SDGs are not explicit in the agenda of the Security Council, but given that it has to address the drivers of conflict, it also stresses the importance of partnership. The SDGs have to remain a guiding framework for Ireland's engagement. Last but not least, we support the call by the OECD's development assistance committee and Coalition 2030 for a strong policy coherence mechanism.

Before I hand over to Dr. Omollo to explain what this looks like on the ground, most of all we ask that the committee be a champion of the SDGs. They are really important. We need urgency, consultation about them, and each to believe we have a role in delivering this in partnership. If we do that, we will make a very significant difference for the people who are most vulnerable at this time. I thank the Chairman and the committee. I will hand over to Dr. Omollo, who will give a sense of what the SDGs mean on the ground.

Dr. Stephen Omollo

I thank Ms Keatinge and Mr. Mac Evilly for the excellent overviews. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to the committee. The work it does in boardrooms and the decisions it makes are truly significant in transforming lives not only in Ireland but beyond, and especially in east Africa, where I work.

I begin by thanking the committee on behalf of the millions of children in east Africa whose lives have been transformed as a result of the generosity of the Irish people and the Irish Government through Irish Aid.

Our task is immense but many of the pathways to change are in plain sight. A transformation of our societies and economies is required to pursue them. We need global action, local action and popular action. That is why we are here today. Children in Ireland are not aware of this meeting. Neither are the children of South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia and the larger Horn of Africa, where I work and where the work of Irish Aid is transforming millions of lives. However, this committee meeting is preparing a battleground for the future of children in Ireland and abroad, where Irish Aid is saving lives and transforming livelihoods. If there is anyone who doubts the significance of this committee and the meeting it is having, the answer lies in the story I am about to tell.

As we discuss the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the accompanying sustainable development goals, SDGs, we are preparing the present for the future and leaving no one behind. We are grateful that, while Ireland rightly continues to strive to attain SDGs at home, it has never lost its humanitarian zeal for sharing resources with the countries in greatest need. For this, I thank the committee again. Simply put, Irish Aid has brought smiles back to the faces of millions of children across Africa. Irish people should be proud of that. I want to echo something Ms Keatinge said. As Ireland takes its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it has a truly unique opportunity to implement change and advocate strongly for resolutions to the various conflicts and crises of this region.

In working with children across east Africa, we often go beyond the call of duty to give students some hope, inspiration and belief in a bright future. When I ask children what they think about the world today, I get various responses. Most of the responses touch on rights, education, health, sustainable peace, better nutrition and other issues. However, a response from a 13-year-old girl living in a displaced persons' settlement camp in South Sudan is etched indelibly in my mind. When I asked this girl what she thought about the world today, she said she feared for the future. She did not want to go home because the soldiers would take her. They would rape her or kill her. She said that if they raped her, she could get pregnant. She was truly afraid. She did not want to go back home. She said she would die.

If one asks children in Ireland what they think about the world today, I am certain the response will not be as dramatic as that. However, there is a common denominator. That common denominator is fear. Children are afraid of the future. This pandemic has only exacerbated an already fragile situation. This committee must remember that its deliberations and decisions go a long way towards bringing hope to millions of children in east Africa and beyond. This 13-year-old girl from South Sudan may live to tell a different story thanks to Ireland's aid, support and generosity.

I say this because development is faltering in many parts of the world. The gaps leave so many people behind. A lot of the communities I work with in this part of the world struggle to make enough income to survive or get a decent meal each day. They struggle to secure healthy lifestyles and access education. They have no means to protect themselves against crises. Life becomes even more precarious as forests and lands are degraded by drought and land no longer yields enough food. In east Africa, locusts have truly exacerbated an already nasty situation. In many respects, economies and institutions have failed to deliver. Not only do they make life worse for many people, they have put all of us on a course that will destroy our planet. Our only hope is to change dramatically. That is why the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to which this committee has committed calls for prosperity, sustainable peace and a clean and safe planet for all of us. In other words, it addresses the cry of this 13-year-old from South Sudan and millions of other children who are asking to be part and parcel of this prosperity, to have a clean and safe environment and to enjoy sustainable peace.

Ireland is leading the way. While other Governments have cut overseas development aid, Ireland is protecting it. It is also calling for additional supports. I thank the Irish people, the Irish Government and this committee, which have been steadfast in pushing for this agenda. If there is one thing I will take back to the children in east Africa, it is that the Government and people of Ireland will continue to accompany them and will not leave them behind.

Governments in this region are doing their part. Most governments have clearly demonstrated that, with good governance, fiscal and monetary discipline, enhanced accountability and partnerships with the private sector, it is possible to achieve some of the SDGs. Countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and even South Sudan, a country that has experienced protracted conflict, have recently shown tremendous progress. This applies even in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. We have seen progress in education and health, but we are not there yet. There is a long way to go. We are making this call in appreciation of the work Ireland does in accompanying us on this journey.

As the committee deliberates on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, I ask it to keep three things in mind. First, members should never be in any doubt that overseas development aid and Irish Aid are transforming lives. I say this in my field of practice, I say it to the children I work with and I say it to the communities and stakeholders with which I engage. I thank the committee for protecting it. I thank the Government and the people of Ireland for always punching above their weight.

Second, we are calling for heightened advocacy and transformative change. Ireland already had a powerful voice, but it has a more powerful voice today because of the seat it has secured on the UN Security Council. This should be used to galvanise the global public, civil society, business, unions, the media, academia, youth and communities to champion and practice sustainable development.

Third, I will soon go back to the children of east Africa and once again meet that 13-year-old girl in the settlement camp in South Sudan.

We must reaffirm them and give them hope and inspiration.

I have just presented a small contribution to this committee and the committee is alive to the issues and challenges we experience in the field. This committee, the Irish people and the Irish Government will not leave us behind.

I thank Dr. Omollo for that fine address and for taking time to join us in Dublin.

Dr. Omollo spoke of hope and optimism but I am afraid I do not see much of either. I base that on the migration crisis that has struck the world in recent years. I went to Sicily to meet migrants on the ground and I saw the horrific things some of them had to endure in order to escape the continent of Africa, in one particular case, to get to Europe. I made the point at the time that many of them were economic migrants and I have no difficulty with that. We have been economic migrants in this country for hundreds of years. To me, this signals a failure of overseas development. I am in my 60s and for as long as I can remember we have been donating money to various organisations in the Third World, and Africa in particular. For some reason or other, nothing seems to have improved and I find that deeply distressing and depressing. I wonder what is happening to the funding that is going there. With limited funding in this country and in countries of similar size, we have managed to use education to turn the fortunes of the country around. I hate to be negative on this matter but I wonder where it has all gone wrong.

I remind members we are also joined by Mr. Maurice Sadlier, director of international programmes with World Vision. I invite Mr. Sadlier to join us in dealing with the questions and queries as circumstances warrant.

I thank the witnesses for their contributions, which were powerful, particularly that of Dr. Omollo at the end. There was a strong message about our responsibilities and duties. That is something I hear and it comes across very powerfully.

I want to deal with the issue of the sustainable development goals, Ireland's ranking and how we are performing in terms of our commitments across the 17 different areas. I am looking at the 2019 index and comparing it with those of some of our EU neighbours. The witnesses did not go into this in their contributions but our performance has been less than satisfactory. Of 15 comparable EU countries, Ireland ranks 11th. When one looks through the SDGs, Ireland is ranked tenth in SDG 2 out of 15 comparable countries. We are also tenth for gender equality and 11th for reduced inequality. That trend continues right the way down. We rank very well on SDGs 4, 6 and 16 but the rest are disappointing. I would like the witnesses to comment on that.

One of the requests is that there would be a new national SDG action plan for 2021 and that it would be based on early consultation with civil society. I know there are only a couple of months left to go on the existing national action plan for 2018 to 2020. Contained in that plan were 17 goals and targets across a range of different areas as well as 19 committed actions. How have we performed on the existing action plan? With only a couple of months before a new action plan should be coming into place in 2021, I take it from the request earlier that early consultation with civil society would start. I also take it that, with two months left to run on this plan, this has not happened. We might get a comment from the witnesses on that.

On ODA, I hear everything that is being said by the witnesses and I also welcome the announcement in the budget to ensure there is funding for current spending to continue. It is disappointing, however, that we are not making strides towards meeting our commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA and I firmly believe we need a roadmap for that. We will be discussing our draft work programme in this committee later on as to how we will go about achieving that. As part of that conversation, maybe some of the witnesses will be back before us to deal with this specific issue.

Those are my comments, questions and points about the goals and actions Ireland has committed to in the national action plan.

I will be brief because I have to attend a meeting of the Committee on Climate Action. The work of that committee is related to this matter but I will not be able to stay.

I thank the witnesses. Dr. Omollo and Ms Keatinge gave an interesting and engaging presentation last month via webinar, which I was happy to attend, and I am delighted to engage with them again today. I was very impressed by their presentations. Mr. Mac Evilly and I have not met but his opening statement is very clear and it sets out four points on the third page for which I would like to voice my support. His request of the committee on behalf of Coalition 2030 is very clear and I am fully supportive of it. As a committee, we should do what we are being asked, which is to write to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I voice my support and I encourage other members of the committee to support that call also.

Ms Suzanne Keatinge

There was a question around the failure of overseas development. Like the history of the State, development is complex and there is no single solution but it is important to say that there has been lots of progress on many different fronts. It is challenging, however, and we are not there yet.

Perhaps Mr. Sadlier or Dr. Omollo from World Vision can give a couple of practical examples from on the ground of what overseas development aid is delivering. I also ask Ms Louise Finan to speak specifically on the point on migration.

Mr. Maurice Sadlier

It is important to note that extreme poverty has decreased year on year for the last 25 years. I would not say that we have had a failure of overseas development aid. In fact, very progressive work has been taking place, including work funded by the Irish Government that we have been supporting in east Africa and other areas. We have done a lot of work on maternal and child health. We are seeing huge increases in the number of lives saved among children who are reaching their second birthday because of the interventions during pregnancy and the first 1,000 days of lives, nutrition messaging and healthcare provision. I was thinking yesterday that not only was ODA working, but Ireland and Europe could learn some facts, given that Africa had been dealing with many pandemics for much longer than we have been dealing with Covid. We are just finishing a project where we are supporting Ebola vaccinations in east and southern Africa. We have much to learn from what countries in those regions have been doing. Not only has overseas development aid had many successes but there is much we can learn as we face into these contexts around the globe.

Like Dr. Omollo, I was in South Sudan early last year. I met many of the schoolchildren who were able to access school and could read and write because of the interventions and support of Irish Aid. I asked the parents if education was the right thing and if it was what they needed now. They told me that if they did not have education, they would find themselves in the same situation in 100 years. People see education and the various interventions supported by Irish Aid as a pathway. It is slow and gradual and we know there is no magic bullet to development. Ireland needed a lot of external support for our development and we know that this is a complex situation. However, strong improvements are being made.

Dr. Stephen Omollo

Sometimes when I hear the question of whether aid is making a significant impact in the field of practice, I understand it as asking whether government institutions are working. To be bold and brutal in response, one challenge we may face is that government institutions are not well equipped to take over the co-ordination and control mechanisms in terms of leading from the front line. In actions in the humanitarian and development field where most of civil society and non-governmental organisations and other participants are engaged, we see a remarkable improvement and advancement of the sustainable development goals, as Mr. Sadlier said, particularly in health.

I mentioned the areas in Rwanda, some cases in Tanzania and Irish Aid in South Sudan which just recently accessed affordable healthcare. The reduction in morbidity and mortality rates is evident. That is especially the case in education, where school drop-out figures are staggering. Today's drop-out rate is almost 40%. Children having access to education is key. Some of us are beneficiaries of Irish Aid. We are here today. One of the big things Irish Aid does is transform lives so that people like me can sit here today and speak to the committee because I am a beneficiary of Irish Aid. My life has been transformed. I have lived in Ireland for 26 years; it is my home. There are examples from many areas where Irish Aid's work in the area of overseas development aid has transformed lives.

There is no doubt in my mind. I speak to communities and children and also to governments. When I project my voice and advocate on behalf of students for change, I say clearly that overseas development aid and the work that is being done within the aid fraternity work. As I said earlier, our challenge is to enhance our efforts in making certain that there is capacity enhancement and technical skills to support government institutions because ultimately local ownership is key to sustainable development. That is where we need to divert our efforts. We must ask how we can build stronger institutions and infrastructure to ensure that local capacity is embedded in the community and that community ownership is respected.

I will ask Ms Finan from Dóchas to contribute briefly.

Ms Louise Finan

I am delighted to speak to the committee. On migration, more people than ever live in a country other than the one in which they were born. That applies more to Irish people than people from anywhere else. Ireland has a strong history of emigration. The key point to recognise with regard to where we are now with migration is that it is a failure, not of overseas development, but of multilateralism and co-operation between states and agreements that we are seeing people stuck on islands or drowning as they try to reach safety. Ireland has done fantastic work in recent years trying to bring about international co-operation and agreement through the sustainable development goals, the global compact on migration and on refugees. What we need to see now is implementation of those agreements and states coming together and agreeing that they will action what has been agreed. It is still a huge issue that we have not been able to home people and bring them to where they need to be but I think Ireland is playing its part where it can.

Ms Suzanne Keatinge

I will ask Mr. Mac Evilly to give some facts and figures in response to Deputy Brady's second question on progress on the sustainable development goals.

Mr. Jerry Mac Evilly

I thank Deputy Brady for his questions and Deputy Leddin for the points he made on taking forward some of our recommendations, particularly writing a letter to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, as noted in our written statement.

On Deputy Brady's comments, the Department has been clear in its progress reports and submissions to the UN voluntary national review on areas where Ireland has not been progressing as strongly as we would like. The national implementation plan has positive elements on Ireland's vision, mission and commitment to the sustainable development goals, both in Ireland and abroad, and has been providing a mapping exercise within it. Where we are falling down is that we are not seeing the types of clear procedures, accountability and governance to ensure the Government has a clear path to meeting these goals and targets by 2030. There is a commitment in the existing plan that the Government would produce a new strategy within its lifetime. That has not happened and there are only two months left of 2020. We need a new strategy with clear direction towards the targets rather than merely an updated plan.

We have engaged quite positively with the Department as part of a sustainable development goals stakeholder forum on which Coalition 2030 members sit. There is also a commitment to consult on the development of a new strategy. That needs to take place immediately. As part of that consultation, it is very important that the stakeholder forum is not used as merely a means of updating civil society. The Department should seek to facilitate concrete and direct participation in discussions. It is essential that participants have clarity on how their responses and input will feed into planning and on how their responses will be considered.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has led the way on this through the development of its international development policy. There were regional consultations and regular meetings with members of civil society. That is an approach that could also be utilised in the development of a new sustainable development goals strategy.

I thank the Chairman for facilitating the meeting for members remotely. I thank Ms Keatinge, Mr. Mac Evilly, Dr. Omollo and Mr. Sadlier for their very informative contributions.

The Government's retention of the allocation for overseas development aid is obviously very welcome. It does not go far enough towards meeting our goals but, at this time and with the circumstances associated with Covid, it is a welcome move.

Anecdotally, we have learned of many charitable organisations - in Lesbos, for example - that are finding it very difficult to fundraise. Overseas development aid is being maintained but fundraising has been hit greatly. Perhaps the witnesses have some comments on this and on how they are bridging the gap that would previously have been filled by fundraising activities.

I acknowledge the request that we write to the Department of the Taoiseach. I would like to have my name associated with the letter. Many of the speakers today raised the issue of Ireland's temporary seat on the UN Security Council. It might also be an idea to write to Ms Geraldine Byrne Nason about the strategic development goals, expressing this committee's point of view. That is just a suggestion.

We are aware that the coronavirus has affected all of us, particularly those in areas of conflict and crisis around the world. I have heard anecdotally about how we can learn from Africa's response to Ebola in terms of public health hygiene measures. Will Mr. Sadlier comment on whether Covid is affecting countries in east Africa as badly as it is affecting us?

I thank the speakers for their very worthwhile contributions. I believe Ms Keatinge said the vaccination programmes in the developing countries had been set back by 25 years. Maybe I did not pick her up correctly. If it is the case, it is very disturbing. With God's help and the help of our scientific people, we will have a vaccination for Covid shortly. If so, there will be a major challenge in ensuring it has global reach and gets to the developing countries and impoverished regions. I am interested in Ms Keatinge's comments on whether there is any way in which we can support such an exercise. Has she been thinking this through? How do we get the vaccination to the very deprived and difficult areas and have it accepted in them?

It is alleged that there have been efforts in some European countries - there are one or two notable cases - to thwart human rights under the guise of Covid. Is there much evidence in the developing world that Covid is being used as a cover for a denial of human rights, or that there is a risk that measures introduced will be used in that way and continued?

On migration, we all have to take our share of migrants and play our part. We could have done better as a country recently in the last take-up. After a particular incident, we could have taken more families. We should certainly be proactive in that area.

The witnesses will obviously respond affirmatively to my next point but I am interested in knowing the extent of progress. The clear necessity is to prevent migration in the first place. I do not know whether we are making much progress, through development aid and other methods, on thwarting migration. Achieving peace in troubled places around the world is obviously a major factor in this regard. Significant emphasis needs to be placed on giving people no reason to migrate in the first instance.

I am happy that we have maintained development aid in the present context but we need to increase it to reach our goals for 2030. I hope this process will begin next year. I was impressed by the list of achievements on development aid. It is important that people realise what they are.

One of the popular barroom accusations on development aid and donations to good causes is that they do not go to the source and that there are too many people in the middle. I am reassured that the witnesses are being vigilant in this area. I would like to hear about this matter again. Taxpayers do not want us not to give the aid; they want it to be given but they also want to know that it is hitting the spot.

I want to return to Ms Keatinge, not only to have her answer the questions but perhaps to make some brief closing remarks. I am conscious of the clock and of the very many issues raised during the course of our meeting. Maybe Ms Keatinge will make closing remarks encompassing the replies to the questions of Senators Ardagh and O'Reilly.

Ms Suzanne Keatinge

I might touch on some of the questions and bring in my colleagues. I am aware that time is short.

With regard to the difficulty of fundraising, Senator Ardagh raised a really important point. It is really important in the first instance, however, to acknowledge that Irish Aid, which gives a lot of assistance to NGOs, has been very flexible in this time of Covid such that we have been able to adapt and deliver on the ground. We need to see that continue. The flexibility has really helped us to continue our work and to have an impact in these difficult times. As the Senator said, public fundraising is a genuine concern. For us and many of our members, it will get harder. In this initial stage, there is genuine empathy around the experience of Covid in developing countries. Therefore, our members are not seeing a dramatic drop-off in public fundraising. It is obviously harder, and members are working much harder online to get funding but it does speak to people's empathy. We need that to continue, however, and to continue looking for ways to sustain funding. As has also been said, we need to go further than we have done.

To answer Senator O'Reilly's question on universal vaccination, the matter is referred to in the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation report. Again, however, it is important to state in terms of Covid that much of the conversation is about the fact that we cannot afford just to have the vaccination in the West alone. Dr. Mike Ryan always says that if we are to overcome Covid, there will have to be a response for everyone and everywhere. No one is safe until there is a global response. That message has really got through, especially in the development of vaccines. When a vaccine is available, it will be a matter of access and distribution on the ground. The framework and systems are in place to be used so it is important that there be a sense of hope if and when a vaccine is available.

On human rights, an important point to be made is that some freedoms have been rowed back on under the cover of this crisis.

That is something we need to track carefully. One of our Irish NGOs, Front Line Defenders, is doing important work on this and it may be appropriate for it to come and share with the committee what that human rights situation looks like.

I will end it there and leave a few moments for my colleagues to conclude. I again thank the committee. I hope that in the short intervention today we have convinced it that the sustainable development goals agenda is a positive framework. It is ambitious but it is exactly what we need at this time. We look forward to the committee's support and to ongoing dialogue to make sure Ireland does as much as it can to deliver on these promises.

I thank Ms Keatinge. I call Dr. Omollo.

Dr. Stephen Omollo

I will respond to some of the questions and then make my final remarks. A question was posed on whether aid was hitting the ground. Over the years, and some of us have been watching this build for a very long period of time, we have seen tremendous progress even in areas and countries that are riddled with corruption and fraud. Due to the stringent accountability measures that have been put in place, I can now say that the bulk of the aid that is provided reaches the targeted communities. We are not there yet and there are certain countries where we still struggle but, by and large, aid is reaching the ground and making a huge difference.

There was another question about specific examples of aid making a difference to the lives of communities here. I work with children in this part of the world in eastern Africa. I have visited many countries that Mr. Sadlier has visited, such as South Sudan, and we went to Rwanda together. The testimony of the difference is clear when one talks to the children and sees the benefits and impacts on their lives. There is a transformation. There are two areas where this aid has made a major difference in the last decade. The first is health and access to affordable healthcare, where people were really struggling. One of the reasons Covid-19 has had less of an impact in this part of the word, though there are many reasons for it such as mobility and other things, is that health infrastructure was greatly enhanced over the past ten years thanks to ODA. Health infrastructure has really improved. The second area is education which has also improved. We have seen free access to and passion for education growing in many areas in this part of the world. Those two issues, namely, health and education, are a key example of where aid has made a major impact.

I again thank the committee. I am truly humbled that I have been given this opportunity to speak with it for the very first time. I am taking a very powerful message back to the children, which is that Ireland, the Irish community and the Irish Government will not leave them behind. It has shown that by protecting the ODA.

I thank Dr. Omollo for the work he does on a daily basis. He has the full support and goodwill of our committee. I thank him for joining us. I see Mr. Sadlier has a virtual hand up.

Mr. Maurice Sadlier

I will just come in on the vaccines and learning from Africa. World Vision Ireland has had considerable experience working on Ebola vaccinations over the last six years. We worked with one of the leading pharmaceutical companies, Johnson & Johnson, in delivering a vaccine at community level and addressed some of the issues Senator O'Reilly raised about how we reach the most marginalised people in far-flung places and ensure the vaccine is accepted. We are holding a conference next Tuesday and Wednesday to reflect on the learning from our Ebola vaccine project, looking at the technologies we need to engage with people, the assessments we need to do and how to ensure community acceptance of vaccines. I will send an invite to that conference through the clerk. As we have seen here, already not everyone is accepting of a vaccine, so we know there is a lot of work to do and we have already done much of that thinking and planning in the African context. We can certainly learn this way, as Senator Ardagh mentioned.

As Dr. Omollo said, there are not huge impacts from Covid in these areas but we foresee quite substantial aftershocks. While the Covid figures may not be as high as feared, there are major issues of schools being closed, economies being shut down and child protection issues. We are seeing many more knock-on effects. In Ireland, very good protection systems have been put in place that have helped us somewhat but we do not have those protection systems in many parts of Africa, so we are seeing these secondary aftershocks and the secondary epidemic will actually be much worse than the Covid epidemic.

I am happy to talk at length about our vaccine experience but this is perhaps not the time. I again thank the committee for having us today.

I thank Mr. Sadlier. We may have further opportunities to deal with the issues raised and perhaps we could have a consequential meeting at some stage. I thank him for joining us. We started with Mr. Mac Evilly, so I ask him to conclude.

Mr. Jerry Mac Evilly

I thank the Chairman. I also thank Senators Ardagh and O'Reilly for their questions. I emphasise that all of Coalition 2030 would welcome the opportunity to ensure SDG targets are used to assess policy planning as part of the committee's ongoing deliberations. Trócaire and many of our members would be happy to provide more information regarding responding to Covid as well as on the SDGs.

On a related point, many of our members are quite active on the issue of environmental SDGs and the withdrawal of the UK from the EU also creates significant risks to the delivery of the environmental SDGs in Ireland and Northern Ireland. There will be many negative impacts on the environmental integrity of the island and the lives and livelihoods of those living on it. We ask the committee to address the need to maintain cross-Border co-operation on environmental protection, particularly through the use of bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement. That is perhaps something the committee can take up at a later point. I thank the committee for its time.

I thank Mr. Mac Evilly. His final point is one of great importance and one we would be happy to look at in the context of our prioritising of this issue. I remind our witnesses that this is one of our first early meetings but members were very keen to have an early presentation in response to the witnesses' letter from September. I am pleased that we have responded by arranging this meeting, which has resulted in many further tasks for the committee.

I thank witnesses for their presentations. In Mr. Mac Evilly's opening remarks, he asked the committee that a letter be written to the Taoiseach. That was also specifically raised by Deputy Leddin and Senator Ardagh. Before our witnesses leave, I ask for the committee's approval to write promptly to the Taoiseach outlining and supporting the request the request of Coalition 2030, as noted in Mr. Mac Evilly's opening statement. Is that agreed? Agreed. With that, I am charged once again with the task of thanking our witnesses.

Is Ms Keatinge anxious to come in for a final word? I see she has a virtual hand up.

Ms Suzanne Keatinge

I think this is the first virtual meeting we have had and I hope it will be the first of many. To look for positivity around Covid, one positive thing was that Dr. Omollo was able to join us here from Kenya. I hope we can take that opportunity in future to give the committee the experience on the ground and show just how important this brief is and how important foreign affairs, and Irish Aid in particular, are to us and our members.

I thank Ms Keatinge and her team on behalf of our members for their active participation. I think we managed the logistics quite well.

On my own behalf I thank the logistics team, the members of which have been particularly helpful in managing our meeting, which for some of us, myself included, is something of a first. I suggest that we meet again with Ms Keatinge, perhaps in the new year, in particular when work is under way on the completion of the new strategy.

On that note, we will complete our public session engagement and go into private session. I thank everybody.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.50 p.m. and adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 November 2020.