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Sustainable Development Goals and COVID-19 – Time for Progress

In 2015, the UN proposed and adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) based on 169 targets and over 230 indicators. In January 2016, the SDGs came into force. The SDGS are designed to refocus efforts towards policies that directly help people and communities in the long run. They aim to provide both a pathway out of poverty for about a billion people in the world, and a pathway to a sustainable future for all countries and peoples.  The social and economic response to the current crisis demands the type of thinking that led Ireland to have a crucial role in the development of the SDGs.  While we have not performed as well we could in progressing the 2030 Agenda in recent years, now is the time to do better.

Since the adoption of the SDGS, there have been several attempts to track countries’ progress on achievement of the goals. In February 2020, Social Justice Ireland published its Sustainable Progress Index 2020 (authors: Clark, Kavanagh and Lenihan). It examines Ireland’s performance on the SDGs in the context of its peers in the EU – the focus is the EU15 countries. Comparing relative performance among countries from a similar regional or income group is valuable. Variations observed in small groups of similar regions should encourage policymakers to better understand reasons for divergence and design strategies for achieving the SDGs by 2030.

Data and Method

Data collection for the analysis was far-ranging. The UN Indicator Set (2017) is the starting point for data selection and the final indicator set is as closely aligned as possible with this list. Simple but important rules are used to guide the selection of data, including relevance, quality, coverage, etc.  The criteria identify 80 indictors across the 17 goals.  (For full details on methodology see Clark, Kavanagh and Lenihan, Sustainable Progress Index 2020).

So How does Ireland Compare?

Table 1 presents the results of Ireland’s ranking by each SDG. We can see that Ireland scores well on SDGs relating to Quality Education (SDG 4) and Peace and Justice (SDG 16). However, Affordable and Clean Energy (SDG 7); Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12); Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (SDG9); Climate Action (SDG13); and Life Below Water (SDG 14) all score in the bottom third and Ireland faces significant challenges in achieving the objectives of these SDGs. The remaining SDGS are in the middle (ranked 6-10), implying there is still scope for improvement. Going forward, it is critically important to continue to monitor all relevant indicators under SDG to track progress towards these goals.

Agenda 2030 sets ambitious targets across the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. Clustering the goals by the three dimensions -economy, society and environment - provides country rankings across these dimensions. Ireland is ranked 11th on the Economy Index; 7th on the Society Index and 15th on the Environment Index. Overall, Ireland ranks 10th out of 15 peer countries. These results highlight the scale of the challenge facing Ireland across all key areas.  

Table 1 Ireland’s Rank by Dimension and by SDG

Government Policy and the SDGs

The well-being of people, both now and for future generations, is the goal of public policy.  Policy goals such as economic growth can be a means to help achieve the goal of social well-being, but a short-term focus on economic growth alone, in the hope it will support a “return to normal” will do little to improve the lives of the most vulnerable.  In fact, the evidence suggests that for rich advanced capitalist countries, economic growth is not the most efficient way to promote social well-being and many things carried out in the name of economic growth are the primary cause of our environmental challenges. The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted both the deficits in current policy thinking and the need for a new way of thinking and a new Social Contract.  This Social Contract should be aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals to work towards a recovery where no one is left behind.