President gives the opening address at the 2016 Irish Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals

Thu 5th May, 2016 | 13:30
location: Croke Park

“Achieving Sustainable Development” Opening Address at the 2016 Irish Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals

Croke Park Stadium, Dublin, 5th May 2016

A Chairde Gaeil,

Is mór an pléisiúir dom é an chomhdháil tábhachtach seo a oscailt. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháíl le Dóchas as an ócáid seo a óstáil, agus le bhur gCathaoirleach, Sharan Kelly, as cuireadh a thabhairt dom labhairt libh inniu. Tá áthas orm an deis seo a ghlacadh chun macnamh a dhéanamh ar na hathruithe atá tagtha ar pholasaithe, ar struchtúir agus ar ghnásaíochtí a chabhróidh linn creatlach um forbairt domhanda a chur i bhfeidhm ar fud na cruinne.

[It is my great pleasure to be opening this important conference which tackles the most fundamental challenge facing all of the nations on Earth at present, namely that of achieving the change in policies, structures and indeed behaviours that will enable us to fully implement the new, universally applicable framework for global development.]

May I thank Dóchas for hosting this event and your Chairperson, Sharan Kelly, for her warm words of welcome. Let me respond in kind, and congratulate Dóchas for their determination to galvanise attention in Ireland on the crucial significance of global sustainable development for the future of humanity. Dóchas and its member organisations have played a leading role in highlighting the importance of this issue over the past few years, and I hope that you will consider my speech today as an encouragement to carry on with your good work, and to identify possibilities to do even more.

The timing of today’s conference is very appropriate. At the beginning of last year, when I addressed a similar audience of Irish NGOs at the launch of the European Year of Development, in Dublin, I suggested that the international community was called upon to take crucial decisions that would shape our lives together on this fragile planet for decades to come.

Two of those crucial decisions were taken, first on global sustainable development, in September in New York, and then on global climate change, in December in Paris, making 2015 a milestone on the path towards a more just world. It will be remembered, I believe, as a year when the nations of the world renewed their commitment to eradicating poverty and hunger in poorer countries while also addressing problems of unsustainable patterns of consumption and production in the richer world.

We are now, in 2016, entering another crucial and, perhaps, more difficult, phase – that of implementation and action. How can we keep the momentum going? How do we retain the public interest in those issues? Can we keep up the tempo of diplomatic activity and exchange of information? How do we get, in short, from words and promises to actual change, in a challenging context of population growth, unprecedented levels of migration and worrying levels of conflict and political instability in so many regions of the world? 

In my address today, I would like to suggest that the necessary change in international development policy requires no less than a shift in paradigm – a radical rethink of the theoretical models that have informed international policy in such areas as trade, aid or debt for the last few decades. This is a task for our scholars as well as for our diplomats and policy-makers at national, international and multilateral level, but it is also a shift to which Non Governmental Organisations can contribute in a most significant way.

It is indeed my profound conviction that each and every one of the NGOs represented here this afternoon can play a part in fostering a transformative approach to global sustainable development and global social justice.  Before I proceed to develop this point, may I reflect for a moment on the significance of the new and universal framework for sustainable development that was adopted last September, at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York.

I had the pleasure of attending that Summit, which saw one of the largest ever gatherings of world leaders recognise the need for a redefinition of the very notion of “development” as it had been understood previously. Traditional mind-sets had to be set aside to achieve this seminal advance in multilateral diplomacy: the new Sustainable Development Goals are universal; they apply to all countries, and not anymore primarily to those labelled ‘developing’ or ‘poor’. They go beyond previous dichotomies in public discourse between ‘North’ and ‘South.’

This is as it must be. After all we have, in the so-called ‘North’, levels of poverty, unemployment, and exclusion, that point to the existence of ‘a South in the North’, while conversely, many features associated with the industrial North have migrated to the South.

In fact, one of the basic premises of the new framework for sustainable development is that all countries are inherently unfinished projects. No country is ever fully ‘developed’; all of them are ‘developing countries’, continuously transforming and seeking new ways to respond adequately to fluctuating global circumstances and to the fundamental challenge at the heart of every society: that of guaranteeing the well-being, flourishing and full participation of all its citizens, both today and in the future.

The new 2030 Agenda provides a comprehensive blueprint for an integrated continuum of action at international and national levels, stretching from the necessary response to emergency situations in the short term, to the need to empower vulnerable communities in the long-term. Importantly, it insists that there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development. For the first time at multilateral level, peace, political stability and good government are recognised, together with the economic, social and environmental pillars, as a virtual fourth pillar of development policy.

The challenge now is to act on these words. It is to ensure that action follows the principles to which governments have committed, not just themselves, but their peoples – and this is where NGOs have a crucial part to play.

I think that we can all rejoice at the fact that both the climate and the development agendas have attracted huge public interest in all of our countries. The voluntary pledges made by all participating countries in Paris are public commitments, which should allow civil societies to hold their governments to account more easily. As for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed in New York, they are fleshed out by 169 targets, to be complemented, as you know, by indicators that can galvanise the participation of NGOs, concerned citizens and activists, as they monitor their governments' actions in combating, for example, poverty and hunger.

Credible and transparent mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of the new Development Goals are fundamental to the 2030 Agenda. They are still under discussion. Momentum in this important process must not be allowed to flag in the face of immediate crises. Without clear indicators to monitor progress, there will be no way of holding governments to account for their policies. I very much hope, therefore, that all of you here will seize on those new indicators, ensure that they are widely disseminated and understood – that you will, in other words, fully embrace this opportunity to boost democratic participation around the issue of development.

Last September in New York, I met a delegation of Dóchas representatives at the margins of the Summit and I took the opportunity to salute the strong role that civil society organisations had played throughout the various negotiation processes leading up to the adoption of the new Goals. Such concerted advocacy on the part of NGOs provides, I believe, a template for future international negotiations on matters of universal interest, and those coordinated efforts must now be sustained throughout the implementation phase.

In ensuring accountability, innovative tactical approaches may be taken up and tested. NGOs may consider, for example, if I may put forward a modest proposal, asking the prospective candidates for the post of Secretary General of the UN to state their approach to securing the implemention of the Sustainable Development Goals.

NGOs will also be called upon to engage firmly with deep-rooted issues of cooperation and coordination that lie at the heart of international action, or indeed sometimes inaction, in the areas of development and climate. The new Agenda for sustainable development recognises that effectively tackling inter-linked challenges such as extreme poverty, climate change, subsistence farming, and migration will require coherent policy responses across a variety of sectors. Without such policy coherence, we will not rise to the challenge we have set ourselves. Here there is a real problem between and within states.

As I have emphasised in a number of my speeches, institutional silos are not suitable for the achievement of universal goals in a global context. The SDGs are a tapestry of goals and targets which have to be pursued together, making progress in one area dependent on progress in others, and requiring integrated and authentic policy responses. This reflects, not just the global and interrelated nature of the great challenges of our times, but also the reality of people’s lives – the fact that political, social, economic and environmental dimensions are interrelated in our everyday experiences.

While this is beyond the scope of my speech today, I am mindful that the case for a reform of our multilateral system, in the face of an ever growing body of evidence of failures to address the challenges of our time, is more pressing than ever. It is, admittedly, difficult to be optimistic that any radical reform of the UN institutions will happen in the short term; yet we might at least hope that the critical issues of representation, coordination and cooperation will be considered in some depth in the course of the forthcoming process to select the next Secretary General.

In framing our responses, greater coordination is required, therefore, between different UN agencies, but also, of course, between different government departments and institutions at national level. Effective implementation of the SDGs will require a broad and integrated domestic policy response involving a whole-of-Government approach as well as a deliberate and sustained outreach to a broad group of stakeholders, including, it goes without saying, the non-governmental sector.

Of course real progress on any of the 17 Goals agreed in New York – be it climate change or food security – is predicated upon the international community’s ability to secure appropriate levels of funding. This was, as many of you will know, the subject discussed last July 2015 during the Addis Ababa Conference, which preceded the New York Summit.

As we look at new ways of financing development, I strongly believe that it is imperative that we keep the issue of debt at the centre of our discussions. Indeed the unsustainable debt position of so many countries, rich and poor, gravely undermines their capacity to plan and execute long-term sustainable development programmes. No serious or plausible agreement on development can ignore debt management issues, and more particularly, may I suggest, the central question of the role of the state and its financial capacity.

In that respect, the Addis Ababa Conference did not dissipate the real concerns that exist in relation to a possible over-reliance on the private sector, rather than the state, and the implications of this when it comes to funding development. In a recent keynote address I had the honour of delivering to the 10th UNCTAD Debt Management Conference, in Geneva, last November, I suggested that each state should be given a mandate to “ensure that core social goods are established as a matter of the first order of economic priority, and that the international institutional system should support such a prioritisation.”

I mentioned some outrageous example, whereby countries dealing with the consequences of the Ebola crisis, striving to ensure the delivery of such basic health services as would prevent a recurrence of the disease, were asked to give precedence to servicing their debt.

The Sustainable Development Goals have quite a radical potential precisely in that they provide a framework that might encourage governments to establish a “social floor” in the years ahead. This is a concept that has relevance for both richer and poorer countries, and one which, I believe, could be very productively integrated to the advocacy of NGOs operating both here in Ireland and abroad – offering, for example, sustainable development in Africa, and social cohesion in the European Union.

Dear Friends,

The scale of the change required, in both policy and mindset, may cause many to feel overwhelmed or even powerless. The new agreement is global in its reach and in its implications, leaving us with the challenge of delivering a global consciousness and globally responsible actions. Yet, I believe that it is precisely the scale and ambition of the 2030 Agenda that should serve to inspire us. We should not be hesitant in saying – deep change is needed. These new Goals and Targets cannot be met by simply continuing as we are now.

When I spoke to you in January last year, at the launch of the European Year for Development, I highlighted the great opportunities associated with the then emerging global consensus on sustainable development, now laid down in the Sustainable Development Goals. Opportunities to depart from biased practices and to deliver a new architecture of global decision-making institutions, based not on raw power, derived from a narrow theory of interests, but on democratic mandates. Opportunities, also, to examine the theoretical foundations of our development policy. Opportunities, finally, to re-think the role of the State and of citizens and non-governmental organisations.

If I may start with the latter, I would suggest that citizen literacy is the necessary substructure to any advocacy of a nature to foster compliance on the part of governments. This requires a sustained investment in the ability of all citizens to understand and participate effectively in the accountability process. Communicating the entire sustainable development Agenda, its Goals and Targets, in clear and simple language, to the widest possible audience is therefore a crucial first step, and indeed it is one our NGOs have already firmly undertaken.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate Dóchas members on your actions during the European Year for Development, throughout which you creatively highlighted the progress already achieved by the Millennium Development Goals. Through initiatives such as ‘The World’s Best News’ or your slogan – ‘It’s not about what we give, but how we live’ – you have drawn attention to the power of citizen action and the wealth of innovative ideas already in existence. You have made an important contribution to the fight against cynicism, pessimism and inaction.

I have no doubt that you will find new and equally creative ways to continue to engage Irish citizens and policy makers throughout the entire implementation phase of Agenda 2030. Indeed Dóchas member organisations are very well placed to make a direct contribution to the implementation of the new Goals, first and foremost through what constitutes the core of your activities, namely your actions on the ground. You play a critical role, together with Irish Aid, in empowering some of the world’s most vulnerable communities to set their own path for prosperity and flourishing.

Such work involves, I would suggest, being able to deal effectively with the most dramatic consequences of extreme poverty, while never losing sight of the wide-ranging policy, institutional, but also intellectual change that is necessary for global sustainable development to become a reality. The challenge for our NGOs is, therefore, both a practical and an intellectual one.

Indeed we must never allow ourselves to forget that the unresolved issues of global poverty, food insecurity, desertification, unsustainable levels of debt, distorted trade, are the legacy of paradigms of thought that have failed, and continue to fail us as a global community.

It is not only our institutions that require more integration, but our very mode of thinking. There is an urgent need, in particular, for new theory and new thinking grounded in a reconciliation between economy, ethics and ecology. Our NGOs should seek new ways of supporting long-term thinking and responsible environmentalism, locally and globally.

Equally importantly, our common development goals must be located, may I suggest, within the context of our different cultures and allow for a considered anthropological sensitivity to the communities in which and for which policies are being implemented. Placing these universal targets and aims within a framework of cultural diversity is, I firmly believe, one of the key issues of the future – one that cannot be avoided.

With this in mind, may I offer, in summary, a few thoughts of some of the ways in which our Irish NGOs can contribute to advancing the new agenda for global sustainable development.

            1. New possibilities for advocacy

The new Global Goals provide a clear mandate, and also the tools, for NGOs to go beyond the provision of services, and achieve their ambition to give voice to the voiceless by supporting communities who demand participation and accountability.

Moving beyond the extremes of the neoliberal moment and its socially defective philosophy, when civil society was regarded as a substitute for an inefficient state, or even at times used as a tool in a wider ideological drive to undermine the state, it is important, I believe, that any future advocacy recognises the crucial role of the state in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable. NGOs must work alongside state services, not serve as a substitute for those basic services.

Any advocacy embracing the new paradigm for development forged in  New York should also, of course, start at home. The UN Summit Outcome Document ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ calls on each member state to develop its own national strategy on the Global Goals and to “conduct regular and inclusive reviews of progress at the national and sub-national levels”. This is significant, as it means that Ireland’s contribution to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals is not confined to our aid programme or our foreign policy. Our Irish NGOs must contribute to encouraging policies that can deliver the Global Goals for all those living in Ireland and across all the areas covered by sustainable development.

This requires, as I know you are aware, the articulation of an ambitious and widely shared vision for a sustainable Ireland, indicating how all state bodies will work towards the achievement of the Global Goals, be it the eradication of poverty and gender violence, the support of small-holder agriculture, or the delivery of appropriate health and education services, and how they will do so alongside the private and voluntary sectors. In short, the first step towards the achievement of the new Sustainable Development Goals in Ireland demands the articulation of a stand-alone national strategy on sustainable development, integrating the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda into clear national priorities, action plans, responsibilities and budgets.

The collection of data is, as many commentators have noted, another important dimension of any effective advocacy, data that can then be made available to the legislation and decision-making process. To eradicate poverty and to tackle inequalities, we need to know who is living in poverty and where, what their basic needs are, and in what way proposed policies are likely to affect them.

This holds true both domestically and internationally and I would encourage all Dóchas members to actively engage in the ongoing ‘big data’ drive – to collect detailed data on the communities you work with and to add your information to the rapidly growing global knowledge bank that can provide the scaffolding for future solutions to current global problems.

            2. The importance of citizen literacy in issues of political economy

Secondly, if I may go back with a slightly different focus to my point on citizen literacy, I believe that it is important that such literacy includes a strong awareness of political economy issues.

Domestic political debates and processes are not separable from the issues of development and climate at hand. The notion of global citizenship, if it is to gain substance, requires the strategic organisation and informed participation of our citizens into discourse and decision-making at the national and local levels too. As for NGOs, they should be encouraged to go beyond their current situation, where their advocacy is tolerated within a particular mindset and ideological status quo, so as to inspire people to challenge policies and structures.

In other words, political economy should, in my view, be a core part of our NGOs’ knowledge and skills, enabling them to grasp and explain power dynamics and the increasing inequality, throughout our world, in the division of wealth and resources. It is important that as many NGO workers as possible do not just understand political economy, but are also enabled to teach it. They should, for example, be able to explain how the global infrastructure of commodity trading undermines the fundamental objective of food security, or how the current international taxation agreements serve the interests of a limited number of multinational corporations while depriving poorer countries of vital revenues.

Spreagann agus cuireann na Spriocanna Forbartha Inbhuanaithe iachall oraibh sna heagraíocht neamhrialtasach bhur gcuid oibre a shamlú i gcomhthéacs níos leithne.

            3. Towards a culture of sufficiency

Finally, we must recognise that the nature of citizen participation has already started to change throughout the world. Many of you have built up a remarkable and admirable track record in delivering services for those overlooked by the states they live in. Your ability to reach out to and serve the most marginalised communities is your lifeblood.

But the new framework for sustainable development encourages us to go even further and to examine critically our own behaviours and lifestyles. It is clear that current patterns of consumption and production lie at the root of the environmental crisis we face; and these cannot be addressed without confronting the underlying challenge of achieving fair and sustainable mechanisms of trade, consumption and production. Transparency and accountability in the production and supply chains are essential in this regard, as are concerted programmes of public education at all levels.

A Chairde Gaeil,

Mar fhocal scoir, creidim gur ceart agus gur comhair dúinn a bheith bródúil as an méid atá déanta againn in Éirinn le céad bliain anuas in aghaidh an choilínithe, an leatroim agus an ocrais domhanda. Tá ról tabhachtach glactha ag an tír seo i gclár oibre nua le haghaidh todhchaí a bheidh cóir agus inbhunaithe a bhunú.

Governments and civil society can no longer be satisfied with simply applying earlier dominant models of policy, nor can they sustain current patterns of living, producing, trading and extracting natural resources. By adopting a new set of transformational Global Goals, we have given ourselves a mandate to craft a reflective and holistic vision for development and social progress. We have a historic opportunity to lay the foundations of a new model for human flourishing and social harmony – one that is shared between all those who dwell on this planet, and one that is shared, too, between this generation and those yet to come. Let us commit, today, together, to make this promise thrive and bloom.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.