I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for this opportunity. I am the CEO of Dóchas, the Irish platform of international development organisations. One of the two subjects to be discussed today is the sustainable development goals, SDGs. I had the privilege of being in New York in July of this year so I want to give the committee a little bit of the flavour of that meeting but we also want to talk about the EU development funding, which is the second subject.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, as we speak, we are receiving more and more reports about the Indonesian tsunami. Some 14,000 people have died so far but that number is likely to increase. Some 62,000 people are displaced. The United Nations is saying about 200,000 people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. It is just a reminder of the importance of international aid, bearing in mind that we have at least three Irish agencies on the ground, and also a reminder, I hope, of the vital work of NGOs in international development.
I last appeared before the committees in October last year. It seems a long time ago. Then we were all together for the launch of the committee's report in February this year. That report was very welcome. Some of the conclusions of the committee in the report comprise a good frame for the discussion today. In particular, I draw members' attention to the importance of the SDGs underpinning Irish Aid's new aid policy but also Government policy and programmes.
The committee mentioned the importance of the Government increasing funding on overseas development aid, ODA. With budget day very much to hand, it is important to remind ourselves of that. ODA is so critical if Ireland wants to continue to be a credible leader on international development and the SDGs in general.
The committee referred in its report to robust structures and oversight mechanisms in regard to policy coherence for development. That theme will be repeated today. It is vital to keep our eye on that and continually ask how we have those prompt and good oversight mechanisms.
Articulated very well in the committee's report is the overarching theme of Ireland needing to maintain a strong principle-based aid policy with poverty eradication at its core. Untied aid very much features. It is also about strengthening the role of civil society. These principles will need to be robustly defended, particularly in the ongoing negotiations on the EU budget.
It is worth noting by way of background that, on Tuesday, the Tánaiste echoed many of these themes in his launch of Irish Aid's annual report for 2017. In commending the excellent work of Irish Aid and the impact it is having, he opened his remarks by saying, "I stand here this year with the responsibility of a rich country." He also talked about the need for Ireland to play, more than ever, an international leadership role in development. He said we do not do big military spending or defence but that we do development as a core pillar of foreign policy. That is an important context to our remarks today.
I will talk briefly about the high-level political forum in July. Accompanying me today are Dr. Róisín Hinds, senior policy co-ordinator at Oxfam Ireland, and Ms Niamh Garvey, head of policy in Trócaire. They are present to help us with questions members may have and some of the detailed evidence and policy to back up some of our remarks and recommendations.
Let me turn quickly to the SDGs. As many might know, it was on 17 July that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, presented Ireland's first voluntary national review at the UN high-level political forum. It really was an important first step in Ireland's journey to implementing the SDGs. It is important to acknowledge the role of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which in particular supported many civil society actors to be in New York and share that experience of Ireland.
For all the fanfare that comes with these kinds of high-level meetings, however, we need to ask ourselves, three years into the process, why Ireland has only just got into the starting blocks. Members all know we led the negotiations on this transformative agenda through the role of Mr. David Donoghue, the UN ambassador, in September 2015 but we now find ourselves playing catch-up. In particular, we draw members' attention to the limited time given for genuine stakeholder engagement as we got ready for New York. For example, an outline of the voluntary national report was shared at a stakeholder meeting but there was no detail or time for substantial input. As a result, Coalition 2030, of which Dóchas and many of its members are part, produced its own shadow report, which I am happy to share with members today. It gives a very different perspective on progress on the SDGs.
It is also important to note that we were given an opportunity to feed back on this national implementation plan on the sustainable development goals, SDGs, which we now have done, and yet we struggle to see that any of our suggestions were taken on board when it was finally produced in April of this year by the Minister, Deputy Naughten. We were particularly concerned that the implementation plan is far too general, with very little effort at prioritisation or identifying where the extra funding is going to come from. Perhaps most relevant for the conversation today, however, is its weak mechanisms for stakeholder engagement and oversight.
The following are key themes that came out of New York and, in particular, our dealings and conversations with civil society. First and foremost is that civil society’s voice is still not being heard in the voluntary national review, VNR, process. Indeed, it is very worrying trend that for many countries it is not there at all. Civil society is being silenced, both globally and in Europe.
Countries continue to report at the high-level political forum, HLPF, as if it is a tourist profile, a chance to say how fantastic we all are, without a genuine, honest reflection of some of the obstacles to achieving this transformative agenda. It is important to acknowledge that Ireland in its report was perhaps more honest than most. I need to point out, however, that we have only got to the stage of how we are aligning with the goals rather than tackling some of the challenges. In particular, the critical criteria around policy coherence is completely absent in most member states' reports. The accountability mechanism is consequently too weak to hold these countries to account, especially where there are serious human rights violations.
We also recognise that the UN is not playing the strong co-ordination role that it needs to play to get all stakeholders into the room, in particular, civil society, nor has it the clout to ensure that greater political accountability and leadership. Here again it is worth briefly referencing the Tánaiste's recent speech where he went so far as to say that the effectiveness of the United Nations as a platform for negotiation and compromise can no longer be taken for granted. It is this weakness of multilateralism that has to be of great concern to us all.
These few reflections from the high-level political forum resonate greatly with our own experience in that it is comforting to know, perhaps, that we are not alone, but we do acknowledge that some progress has been made. In particular, we commend the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has been genuinely engaging with the SDGs through the White Paper consultation process, which is happening right now. We are encouraged by their commitment to the “leaving no-one behind” principles, to understanding and critiquing what this means, and to identifying the most marginalised and how we can reach them. Similarly, we very much welcome the consultation process around the White Paper, which is a very good example of stakeholder engagement, and we need to see more of it.
Today is not the time to ponder about what we have done but to think about the SDGs and what we need to do in the future. In particular, the next 12 months will be critical. At the high-level political forum in July next year, there will be discussion around the reform process and the accountability mechanisms around the SDGs.
The following are four key recommendations that we believe are particularly relevant to this committee. First, Coalition 2030 has consistently called for the Office of the Taoiseach to take the lead. It has to take this responsibility for the delivery of the SDGs if there is going to be the whole-of-government approach that this delivery demands.
Second, we need to see a much more credible stakeholder forum established, which includes Members of the Oireachtas. This forum needs to consider an independent oversight function of progress on the SDGs, as well as allowing a space for critical dialogue.
We would also ask this committee to consider proposals to ask the Committee on Budgetary Oversight to request Government to SDG-proof, as it were, the budget each year. Only then will we truly know if we are on track and that we are monitoring these goals as they need to be monitored.
Underpinning the success of the SDGs for developing countries will be funding through overseas development assistance, ODA. We support this committee’s own report, which asked that the Government to publish a roadmap with sustainable percentage increases to ensure we meet the 0.7% target of gross national income, GNI, on ODA. Very specifically on budget 2019, we need to see an increase of at least €147 million. That equates to just 0.05% of GNI*, but it will at least see us back on track to an upward trajectory to meet that 0.7% target.
It is important to reference the significance of public awareness if this global commitment is going to make it. Public awareness is very weak across Europe and here in Ireland, and this should be a concern for us all. In Ireland, the Minister, Deputy Naughten, accepts that there is insufficient effort to raise public awareness both at home and abroad. There seems to be an expectation that this is what civil society will do, and yet there is no serious funding to do this.
Let us be clear that unless the Irish citizen is behind this bold vision of the SDGs, it will struggle to gain political traction and the prioritisation that it deserves. We need to see the Government and all political parties putting greater effort into meaningful public participation around this whole-of-government approach.
On the future of EU development funding, as the committee knows, the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, will determine the budget of the EU for the next seven years, from 2021 to 2027. The negotiations are upon us now and over the next six months, so this a real opportunity for Ireland to translate its development and humanitarian aid commitments into reality. It is also a huge opportunity for us to influence the EU and get it to agree on our vision for development co-operation, as rooted in those European values of global solidarity. Let us be clear as what is at stake here. The budget for external action alone under the MFF will equate to roughly €108 billion in real terms. In addition, there is a peace facility and a humanitarian instrument.
Discussions on the MFF are taking place against the backdrop of Brexit. We heard recently from the head of CONCORD, our European national platform, when he talked about the divisiveness in Europe and how it is turning increasingly inward. Migration and security preoccupations and attracting private sector investment without sufficient safeguards in place have become the new narrative and, perhaps, priorities.
The European Commission published its overall MFF proposal in May 2018, outlining its main priorities. The main proposal is to bring the European Development Fund and other external instruments into a single instrument, known as the Neighbourhood, Development and International Co-operation Instrument, NDICI. This will essentially combine 12 previous external instruments ideally into a more simplified and interlinked way of funding. The proposal around the NDICI was released in June this year and it is important to say that it does contain some positive elements, including an overall increase in funding for development. It also re-emphasises the re-commitment of the EU states to devote 0.7% of GNI to ODA. We also welcome the European Commission’s proposal to keep humanitarian aid separate and to increase this budget from €7.1 billion to €11 billion, in recognition of the reality of the global humanitarian needs that have almost doubled.
However, the overall direction of the negotiations around the NDICI is taking a worrying turn. In short, the EU self-interest appears to be prevailing over the need to keep the EU’s actions focused on poverty eradication, the achievement of the SDGs, and its own consensus on development. Especially worrying from one of our members, Front Line Defenders, is the talk about the lack of specific support to human rights and civil society space. It also points out, for example, that poverty eradication, which should be the primary aim of the EU’s development co-operation, is not explicitly mentioned in the NDICI. Financial allocations to the work of human rights defenders and civil society is expected to be reduced, and there is a real concern that funds for sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, will not be sufficiently protected.
It is important to remind the committee that Ireland’s commitment to the EU is significant and is a huge part of our ODA, running at about 26% of the annual aid budget, which is about €192 million in 2017. We recognise very much the importance of this contribution. The added value of working within the EU in development and humanitarian action is essential and allows us to give economies of scale and efficiency and enable a stronger impact.
However, we need to acknowledge that, with Brexit, we expect a deficit in both funding and policy influence within the EU, and we are calling on Ireland to step into that vacuum and play that leadership role.
To do that, we make some specific recommendations. We need to see significantly more resources to ensure strong oversight around the strategic direction of the new NDICI. This will need to include resources for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Irish civil society to play a stronger policy role to bring strong evidence to bear on the debates within the European Union.
We also ask the committee to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade ahead of the next Foreign Affairs Council on 26 November to share some of civil societies concerns and request regular reports on the committee, particularly over the next six months, to understand Ireland's position around the negotiations on the MFF. We feel this committee needs to have a stronger oversight role, for example, calling on the Department at least once a year to provide information on whether funds are being used in line with its stated policy. It is essential that we ensure that Ireland's ODA contribution is used for the intended purposes of poverty eradication, untied aid and supporting civil society.
We welcome the fact that Mr. Brian Hayes, MEP, is part of the development committee of the European Parliament. There are elections in May, and while we are not sure what the outcome will be, we will be urging very much that an Irish MEP remains on the development committee to ensure strong oversight of funding.
I thank the committee for its time and I am very much open to questions.