Sustainable development goals are all very well, but they do not mean much if those aiming for them are ignoring their targets, says Éamonn Meehan
UNDER the shadow of the New York skyline, thousands gathered to celebrate the dawn of a new era.
After the UN Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the party moved to Central Park for a giant open air concert with pop stars such as Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé topping the bill.
It was hard not to be caught up in the spirit of the moment. If aspirations were enough to change the world, this party would represent a revolution.
Yet, despite the hope, there is a sense of the summit having been overtaken by events. The shadow hanging over this city and the UN — that great institution built on hope — is Syria.
It is difficult to celebrate a set of idealistic goals when a great human tragedy continues to unfold. A river of distressed humanity flows into the heart of Europe from this conflict.
While the overwhelming European response is to welcome these people, there is also a realisation that something important and irreversible is taking place before our eyes. It is the strong sense that we can no longer isolate ourselves in our secure and wealthy fortress Europe from the rest of a humanity suffering poverty, war, and injustice.
The Syrian crisis also now masks a deeper and even more fundamental one — millions of people are on the move from Africa, Latin America, and Asia towards Europe, North America, and Australia in search of peace, prosperity, freedom, and opportunity.
Human beings have always migrated, but the scale is now vastly different. Inequality, conflict, and oppression are the principal drivers. It is wealth redistribution through direct action. It will continue because we live in a truly unequal world which is no longer sustainable.
The SDGs — a set of 17 goals which, if achieved, could transform life for the poorest people on the planet — are extremely important. Ireland, in particular, deserves enormous praise for having co-chaired, along with Kenya, the process that has seen these ambitious targets formally adopted by every country on the planet.
Yet I feel torn between the desire to hope and a sense of dejá vu. Will these goals bring about the transformative steps the world urgently needs?
What difference will they make to the families fleeing conflict in Syria, Somalia, and South Sudan? What will they mean to the children of the tiny island of Tuvalu, whose future is being eaten away by rising seas? Will they seriously address the fact that half of global wealth is now in the hands of the richest 1%?
There are huge unanswered questions around how these admirable goals and targets will ever become practical, lived experiences for the people of this world? The World Bank has said that the cost of implementing the SDGs will be in the trillions, far above what is currently pledged by governments.
It is 45 years since it was agreed that each developed country would set aside 0.7% of its national income — just 70c in every €100 — to tackle global poverty. Almost half a century later, just five countries — the UK, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, and Sweden — have reached this modest target.
Ireland currently spends less than 0.4% on overseas development assistance, while Poland and Slovakia do not even reach 0.1%. Our failure to respond to those most in need — which stands in sharp contrast to the speed with which trillions of dollars were found for broken banks — does not bode well for the delivery of the SDGs. The statement by Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the UN General Assembly that Ireland is still committed to achieving the 0.7 % target is most welcome.
The UN system, which responds to humanitarian crises around the world, is broken. The UN this year appealed for a record $18.8bn to meet the needs of 78.9m people across 37 countries. Mid-way through the year, just $4.8bn had been committed, leaving a funding gap of $14bn. Is it any wonder why desperation drives people to flee their homes when there is such apathy towards helping them where they are?
If the international community is unable to fund the most basic needs for the truly most vulnerable people on earth, can there be any real hope that the $3trn per year needed to fund the SDGs and support adaptation to climate change can ever be found?
The past four decades are littered with broken promises. The absence of any concrete new public finance or aid commitments to fund the SDGs is a worrying sign and it remains unclear how the costs will be met. There does not seem to be any real enthusiasm to enhance the role of developing countries in decision making in international, financial and economic institutions. The UN Security Council seems more and more out of date and incapable of action.
There is an increasing emphasis on the role of the private sector in development. While this can be a good thing if decent and sustainable jobs are created and legitimate taxes are paid, it is not a substitute for public investment. There is a real danger that public financing will be replaced by new cycles of international unsustainable debt.
The SDGs have the potential to transform the lives of millions of people. The loud promise to “leave no-one behind” will raise expectations across the whole world. Thwarted aspirations lead to frustration and eventually desperation.
As the thousands of people making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea demonstrate, the world will not wait indefinitely.
Éamonn Meehan is executive director of Trócaire, the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
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