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Learnings from the Sustainable Ireland Conference

Liz from the VSO Ireland office reports back on the recent Sustainable Ireland Conference and Ireland's SDG strengths and weaknesses in comparison to other European countries...

At VSO Ireland, we’re massive advocates for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals which will guide global development for all countries until 2030. We promote these goals on our overseas development programmes every day but are well aware that they also apply to Ireland. Although we are globally recognised as an advocate for equality and poverty reduction, there are still many issues that need to be tackled here.

This was the main topic of conversation at the recent Sustainable Ireland Conference, a gathering of national charities, international development charities, representatives from the Irish Government and individuals who are passionate about making Ireland more sustainable. The event itself was a fantastic way of increasing my own awareness of the SDGs and finding out more about how Ireland measures up to other countries in terms of them. We heard from heads of charities, youth activists and current and former government ministers, as well as some of the groups and movements throughout Ireland working to spread awareness about sustainable development and take action. Coalition 2030 is one such groups – it's an alliance of civil society organisations working together for the achievement of the SDGs by advising and putting pressure on the government to act.

Global Goals for a reason

Ireland is due to report on its progress towards the SDGS at the High Level Political Forum at the UN in New York this July. At the time of the conference, the Irish Government had yet to produce an SDG implementation plan – it has since done so on 26th April. This was a topic of contention on the day because many felt that the government wasn't doing enough or taking the SDGs seriously. It seems like the Irish public will need to demand action from politicians to make sure Ireland implements its SDG plan and meets its targets. Our politicians need to lead on these issues and stress the importance of the SDGs – otherwise how are we to achieve them?

We discussed Ireland's responsibilities towards the SDGs at home and abroad. We need to understand that the SDGs are for everyone and all countries – even the Nordic countries have room for improvement. This brings up the idea of 'leaving no one behind' and that we need to work together to help the furthest behind. Obviously, Ireland has a lot of work to do, for instance with environment issues and the housing crisis, but it's also in a position to help other countries that are behind in areas like education and health. And within Ireland, different groups need to work together to achieve the 17 Goals – a “that’s not my job” mentality won’t benefit anyone.

Overseas Development Aid

Another point of discussion was Overseas Development Aid (ODA). In 2007 the Irish Government set a target of 0.7% of GDP to be spent on foreign aid but has yet to come anywhere near that figure – we are currently at around 0.3%. It may sound like a contradiction that we have a lot of work to do at home and yet should be sending more money abroad, but domestic development and international development are connected. The majority of VSO volunteers, for instance, go on to volunteer locally when they return home to Ireland and share the new skills they’ve learnt with colleagues, friends and families. The SDGs aim to make the world sustainable for everyone in every country, so that means Ireland needs to meet its targets at home, as well as overseas. Check out this inspiring article from Dochas’ CEO Suzanne Keatinge if you need a little more convincing.

How Ireland compares to the rest of Europe

Dr. Seán Healy from Social Justice Ireland also gave us a brief overview of their report on Ireland's progress, ‘Sustainable Progress Index 2018’. They compared Ireland to its European peers and found that Ireland ranks behind most of the EU15 (14 European countries plus Ireland with similar GDP) in 11th place. This really surprised me as, while I knew there was progress to be made in some areas, I didn’t realise we were one of the weaker links in terms of European sustainability and equality. We scored strongly for Goal 4 (Quality Education) and 15 (Life on Land), but are only keeping up or falling behind our EU peers on many other SDGs, primarily 5 (Gender Equality), 10 (Reducing Inequalities) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). A primary area for concern is the environmental SDGs, namely 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) which we came in last for as a result of waste generated, waste not treated and the percentage of water waste treated. These results strongly suggest we face significant challenges in meeting the development objectives outlined in the SDGs.

Main action points

The main take away from the day is that we need to act now. All of us need to demand action from the government and take steps to live by the SDGs in our everyday lives, for instance by reducing our carbon footprint. The SDGs may sound difficult, or even impossible, but if we don't start working on them now, they won't be achieved by 2030. That would be such a shame because sustainable development is within our reach. As Ban Ki-moon said at the launch of the SDGs in 2015, "We are the first generation that can end poverty, the last that can end climate change." It was great to feel the energy and passion my peers in the sector have for the SDGs at the Sustainable Ireland event – now it’s time to drive that forward and work together to support change.

Find out more about the SDGs and how you can do your bit here. You can also sign up for our monthly newsletter below.

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