May 19, 2022

The Labor Party has said the SDGs will be a blueprint for Australian development. What do you make of this?

In their national platform, the Labor Party has committed to using the Sustainable Development Goals to guide the international aid program, and as a blueprint to end extreme poverty. But with a suite of 17 goals – what does this really mean for Australia?

Ahead of Saturday’s election, we asked three experts what they make of this.

Dr Cameron Hill
Senior Research Officer, Development Policy Centre

The SDGs provide an important framework for holding national governments, donors and international partners to account when it comes to addressing core global development challenges – poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality and climate change. They are a critical part of the “rules-based order” that Australia says it wants to protect. The SDGs set benchmarks like the longstanding commitment to provide 0.7% of Gross National Income as Official Development Assistance.  Australia has signed on to this commitment but with our aid generosity set to fall to a historic low of just 0.17% by 2025-26, it is high time that an incoming Australian government commit to a legislated, time-bound target to achieving it by 2030.  

But it’s at the country level where the rubber really hits the road when it comes to our investment choices and priorities. Australia’s development partnerships must be long-term and must be driven by partner countries’ own development targets, strategies and circumstances, as well as clear-eyed assessments of our capacity to make a difference. The SDGs are a useful guide to the kinds of objectives we should be focussed on, but they are very broad and won’t necessarily be decisive in these assessments.

And, if we really want to know how we and our partners are travelling on progress against their own development strategies, including the SDGs, robust systems to measure and track performance is key.  This needs to include timely, rigorous and published evaluations of whether our investments are delivering on their objectives and represent value-for-money. Re-establishing the Office of Development Effectiveness and the Independent Evaluation Committee (both of which were inexplicably abolished in 2020), re-investing in DFAT’s aid management capabilities, strengthening our partners’ public finance systems and strengthening the Parliament’s oversight of the effectiveness of the aid program would be a good start if a Labor Government is serious about returning poverty reduction and human development to their rightful place at the heart of Australia’s development assistance.

Cam is one of those unicorns who can turn his hand to analysis, practice, and management with equal skill (and sharp wit). At the Lab we like Cam for his lightning-fast research skills and his generous conversations over coffee whenever he stops by.

Julie Boulton
Sustainability Strategist, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

The SDGs absolutely should be a blueprint for Australian development - they provide a structure for both how we develop domestically as well as internationally. After all, when they were adopted by 193 countries, including our own, they were described by the UN as ‘the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. 

However, implementing this blueprint will require a transformation in how we approach development. Implementing the SDGs is not simply a process of drawing a line from what we currently do to one of the 17 goals. To get moving on this transformation, we need clarity on four things: a long-term vision; what our impacts are now and what we want them to be; how we will measure our progress; and, perhaps most significantly, how we will work in effective partnerships. I’m not convinced we’re clear on this yet. 

The second thing we will need to work on to implement this blueprint is a holistic, integrated approach, from both Government and the development sector, that ultimately leads back to a healthy planet. After all, the SDGs were designed as a set of indivisible objectives (people, prosperity, planet, partnership, and peace). This approach requires two things – managing the interlinkages between the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainable development, and recognition that strong economies come from having a functioning, equal, and healthy society. Importantly, this integrated approach is only possible if we start by prioritising the health of our environment. 

So, what can we expect next of Labor’s proposal? In 2018, Australia produced its first and only Voluntary National Review (VNR), the mechanism by which countries report on their progress against the SDGs to the UN. Perhaps, as a first step, a Labor Government could commit to producing a second VNR that both interrogates and outlines what Australia’s commitment is – both at home and though the aid program - to achieving sustainable development for all.

Julie is an expert strategist and storyteller. Having worked within AusAID, DFAT, NGOs and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, she has a wealth of knowledge on development, frameworks for sustainability and the SDGs. If her bright and bubbly website doesn’t give it away, she’s an innovator who’s changing things up.

Marc Purcell
Chief Executive Officer, Australian Council for International Development

The SDGs are vital to help the next government set out its development priorities. It is a positive sign that Labor announced it will use the SDGs as a blueprint for international development as it shows that the party is in step with the values and goals of the UN and member states that have national development plans to realise the SDGs. It is also a sign that Labor would re-engage with global agreements on human and environmental development and would contribute to Australia’s leadership in international development. To have our political leaders in-step with the SDGS would absolutely be welcome.

In practice, the SDGs are a way to unite developed and developing countries alike, in the pursuit of social, economic and environmental progress. They are a foundation of genuine partnership in addressing the reversal of human development progress we’ve seen since the COVID-19 pandemic devastated public health systems and economies.  

Encouragingly, the SDGs have strong buy-in from corporate Australia – Australia Post, Boral, and BHP - domestic civil societies, and international NGOs. They unite all development actors – private sector, national leaders, governments and civil society alike - with common language.

Marc has been at the helm of Australia’s peak body for NGOs, the Australian Council for International Development, for over a decade. He brings his sharp analysis of the latest debates and eternal optimism into any room that he enters. His endless generosity never goes unnoticed at the Lab.

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