Time for more government leadership on the Sustainable Development Goals?

Last month the SDG Summit in Wellington included representatives from across the New Zealand economy. Among the ideas raised was a call to have a government commissioner for the Goals.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were first created in 2015. They cover everything from ending poverty to peace and justice. They have rapidly gained traction as a potential global framework for sustainability thinking.

The recent SDG Summit was well attended. But sustainability veterans noted the meeting was largely the usual suspects saying the usual things. Several speakers argued that if the SDGs are to rapidly reach their potential as a ‘common language’ for sustainability and development, clearer leadership is needed. This will ensure the SDGs are much more widely understood and accepted.

Professor Girol Karacaoglu is one of those leading the calls for a single point of government responsibility for the SDGs. He is Head of the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington. He is also a former chief economist at the New Zealand Treasury.

The university is strongly advocating for a minister to be appointed to coordinate the implementation of the SDGs here. It’s an idea that was aired repeatedly at the Summit. Currently, responsibility lies across a number of government departments. This includes that of Climate Change Minister James Shaw, who spoke on the day, and Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

The SDGs were written into the Green Party’s confidence and supply agreement with Labour. And while not directly supporting the need for single point of contact, James was candid about the challenging work that has begun.

“It is a bit frustrating, I know,” he said. “Because of course the last Government signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. As far as I can discern literally not a single action has been taken to act on that commitment. That is essentially what we are doing at the moment. We’re actually trying to build them into the way that the Government can make decisions.”

He also pointed out that there is a lack of crucial data on aspects of sustainability, including waste. This was making even committing to current international reporting standards difficult.

Rachel Brown is SBN’s CEO. She said the call for a single point of contact was understandable. In her view the SDG system has yet to establish a clearly defined system of practical implementation.

“The SDGs are very powerful aspirational goals,” she said. “For us the priority is to provide businesses with really practical, genuine opportunities to engage with them. This needs to become an integral part of their overall strategy. It is our hope that the new government will be able to focus resources onto that work; however it chooses to structure that support.”