Why you should care about the Sustainable Development Goals?

Last week, the Australian Government released its first voluntary national review of the progress of achievement towards the Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 goals in total to be achieved by 2030. So how is our nation tracking in this global endeavour?

It’s often taken for granted, but the current level of unified effort for the betterment of all of the earth’s citizen’s is a fairly recent development (excuse the pun). Landmark changes in how nation states cooperate together was pioneered in the Sustainable Development Goals predecessor; the Millennium Development Goals. Birthed in 2000, the leaders of countries world-over agreed to 8 ambitious goals within a timeline looking 15 years into the future.

The reasonable success of the MDG’s was somewhat of a pleasant surprise to a skeptical world. It also demonstrated how much more action would required to meet the idyllic results the MDG’s aspired to. Riding this momentum, the Sustainable Development Goal’s is the second iteration of the movement, expanding to 17 goals and 15 additional years, that is, to 2030.

As part of tracking the ongoing progress of the SDG’s, all member countries are called to submit regular voluntary reviews. These reviews are designed both to keep accountability in-country and learn from other nations, as well as help inform the annual UN High Level Political Forum for Sustainable Development (HLPF) which is due to convene next month. These reviews are submitted and available on a publicly accessible database, which currently holds 142 reviews.

On this database, Australia has recently submitted our Voluntary National Review (VNR). The review is extensive, though not exhaustive, with the main takeaway message being that Australia’s efforts to reach the SDG’s are nationwide (in the broadest sense), complex, challenging, but deeply committed, and built on innovation and the value of a ‘fair go’.


According to the review: Australia’s progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

This VNR is the first large scale capture of the current people, practices and ideas in place in Australia that address the SDGs. Each participating nation is expected to submit a minimum two reviews over the 15 year period, but more frequently is encouraged. The SDG’s are numerable and mulitlayered, so all 17 won’t be covered here. Some goals are particular to poverty in developing nations and therefore lend themselves more to Australia’s overseas aid. Other goals stand out as challenges that face Australia today and into the future.

SGD1 End poverty in all its forms everywhere

With one of the highest disposable incomes in the world, Australia has what is commonly referred to as relative poverty. Even so, disadvantage and poverty in our nation is recognisable and real, robbing people of opportunities, bringing financial distress and sometimes resulting in long term reliance on welfare.

Australia’s primary response is through our social security and welfare system, focusing on the most vulnerable populations; older Australians, families with children, people with disabilities, veterans, carers and unemployed people.

A snapshot from 2016 provides a good insight

  • 3 million families received rental assistance
  • 288,000 accessed homelessness services
  • $10 billion was provided in housing assistance.

While it is encouraging to see so many Australians successfully reached through social security measures, there are evidently ongoing challenges to reaching this goal of ‘not leaving anyone behind’ when fighting poverty, even in our prosperous nation. The review recognises the gap between what the government can and is able to provide, and the nuances of people’s needs. For this reason, participation by both the private sector and ‘civil society’ is seen as crucial in truly ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.

Beyond our overseas development assistance, Australia also combats poverty through providing advice to developing nations in our region, such as Indonesia, on social protection policy. Broadly this entails things such as targeted public spending, strategic subsidies and establishing comprehensive databases.

SDG2 End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture

Australia’s agricultural industry produces enough food to feed 60 million people, and we export more than 2 thirds of this – literally harnessing the abundance of our vast land and small population to make food available for other nations. Advancements in technology and understanding have helped, with productivity in agriculture, fisheries and farming doubling in the past 25 years.

Despite this, a longstanding challenge remains in providing access to fresh and affordable food for our regional and remote communities to ensure a standard of nutrition. Soil degradation and salinity will need our continual focus as adjustments to climate change will need to be made.

SDG6 Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

As the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia has unique expertise in managing water and is well placed to assist other nations as the reality of water scarcity looms uncomfortably close. With no change, it has been predicted that the world is likely to face a 40 percent fresh water shortfall by 2030. That is hardly over 10 years away – children entering kindergarten today will only be part way through their secondary schooling.

SDG5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Australia has made improvements in gender equality in recent years in some areas; for instance the wage gap between men and women has dropped from 18.5 percent in 2014 to 15.3 percent in 2017. However other areas are lagging, such as our female political representation, which is ranked 52nd in the world.

The review also recognised a darker underbelly to gender inequality in Australia, with unsettling statistics on gender based violence. For Australian women, since the age of 15, 1 in 3 have experienced physical violence, and 1 in 5 have been subjected to sexual violence. The inequality deepens when we learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised from family violence.

Despite our own challenges here, at an aid level Australia is still committed to gender equality overseas, with 80 percent of development assistance required to address gender issues in their implementation.

SDG14 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and resources for sustainable development 

Many of the current threats to marine life are a result of land-based activities, meaning while climate change remains a present and increasing threat to our waters, actions ought to be altered to protect our rich marine life. Two particular initiatives to address the goal are commented on in the review, the joint Queensland and Australian Government’s Reef 2050 plan, and an announcement this April of a $500 million investment into the reef.

While Australia’s fishing practices are considered sustainable, there are intrusions from illegal fishing practices, often as result of overfishing elsewhere. Aside from Marine enforcement, Australia can also take the lead in demonstrating good sustainable aquaculture practices and enhance food security through overseas development assistance. This paints the picture of sustainable development goals being a global initiative particularly clearly.


Other Highlights of the VNR

There is a lot of action detailed in this review, the above goals a mere taste. Other encouraging developments include a national firearms amnesty in 2017, which collected over 57,000 firearms as part of SDG16 to bring peace and justice. AIME has been praised as a highly successful tutoring program connecting Indigenous high schooler with university mentors, significantly boosting university attainment. This program is now replicated in other nations with similar challenges, such as South Africa and Uganda, a win for education as part of SDG4. A SDGs online ‘Hub’ for businesses has been created, described as a ‘living, interactive resource’, to provide tips and encouragement for Australian businesses to join in this global effort.

The timeline the goals need to be achieved in is ticking onward as we speak – wheels need to begin turning now. The more people who are aware that millions of others from across the globe; governments, civil societies, businesses, community groups and faith-based groups, are all committed towards these goals, the more the momentum is enabled to build.

The most exciting element of the SDG’s is just how open they are to creativity and collaboration. Depending on your ability and scope, you can continue to encourage government policy to mould SDGs into activities and legislation. You could find the most relevant SDGs to your workplace and encourage positive steps to be made, and maybe even implement them! Then there are countless efforts in the not-for-profit sector that are based upon or aligned to these global goals, and could always use one more champion.


Image credit: UN Global Compact