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Australia downplays the UN's Sustainable Development Goals

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18 October 2016 16:17

In 2015, the United Nations adopted a new global development agenda with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Australia, however, this agenda seems to be making little headway.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000, predecessors to the SDGs, were a unifying call to action to increase foreign aid from developed countries. They were simple enough to remember and were ultimately successful, given the global reduction in poverty (thanks in no small part to economic growth in China and India).

In contrast, the SDGs have been criticised for trying to do everything and therefore prioritising nothing; the notoriously crotchety William Easterly provided one of the more blistering critiques

While the MDGs were explicitly targeted towards developing countries, the SDGs are designed as aspirations for all, making them more relevant for domestic adoption in developed countries. 

But in Australia, the SDGs have been a non-event. In 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop didn't attend the critical Addis Ababa conference to determine how the SDGs were to be financed. It is not yet clear if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has any well-formed views on the goals (though one development enthusiast tried to cherry-pick from previous speeches how he might support the goals in theory).

Outside of government, there have been more concerted efforts to understand what meeting the SDGs mean for Australia, notably through an initiative at Monash University and the Australian Council for International Development's focus on sustainable and inclusive development.

Other countries have been more overtly supportive of the SDGs. Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed Germany would be 'adopting new goals which cover the entire spectrum of global development and which apply to all, industrial and developing countries alike', and vowed to align Germany's national sustainability strategy with the SDGs. China also advocated for the SDGs as part of their G20 presidency. In the 2016 Hangzhou communiqué, G20 leaders agreed to 'place sustainable development high on the G20 agenda' and 'further align our work with the universal implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development'.

But again, this has had little impact on ministers in Australia. There are a number of possible explanations: the non-binding nature of the SDGs, the climate change focus, the lack of interest in global development given the shrinking Australian aid budget, or perhaps Australians are just  'sick of being lectured to by the United Nations'.

Some might argue that it does not matter if Australia is unenthused about the SDGs, given the 192 other UN countries that have signed up. But the success of the 2030 agenda is premised on all countries at all levels of development committing to common goals. The SDGs could even represent an opportunity 'to make Australia itself more prosperous, fair and sustainable'. It might be confronting for developed countries to recognise that they too have to address poverty and inequality.

 Photo: Flickr/ UN Photo

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