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UN Sustainable Development Goals a wake-up call

Globally, 57 million children of primary school age don’t attend school (image/ Wikipedia Creative Commons)

The United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight growing inequality in New Zealand and should serve as a wake-up call for the Government to address its causes, say development studies lecturers from Massey University.

Professor Regina Scheyvens and Associate Professor Glenn Banks, from the School of People, Environment and Planning, commented on the ramifications of the SDGs for this country. The goals were endorsed last week at the UN General Assembly in New York, where UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called them a “paradigm shift for people and the planet.”

“To New Zealand’s shame, any economic growth we have experienced in the past 20 years has been concentrated in the hands of those in the upper echelons of society, while inequality continues to rise leaving the poor and the lower-middle classes in a continuous struggle to make ends meet,” Professor Scheyvens says.

“The goals will require us to look beyond dairy pay-outs and mortgage interest rates and consider social wellbeing and the environment alongside the notion of inclusive economic growth, which presumably means all should benefit from any growth which occurs.”

Slow progress meeting some goals

The new goals follow on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the international community in the optimistic euphoria of the turn of the new millennium.

“The success of the international community in meeting the MDGs has been mixed: there have been spectacular successes such as the lifting of over a billion people out of abject poverty in the last 15 years, another 2.1 billion people now with access to decent water and sanitation facilities, and huge strides in terms of addressing the empowerment of girls through education,” Dr Banks says.

“But there has also been much slower progress towards other goals: there are still 57 million children of primary school age not attending schools, and the MDG for reducing child mortality will not be reached - 16,000 children aged under five still die each day, mostly from preventable diseases.”

New sustainable development goals for all

The new set of goals is an expansion of the MDGs into 17 diverse thematic areas that cover poverty, hunger, education, gender equality and health, as well as a new raft of environmental concerns (oceans, terrestrial environments, climate change and water) and broader social justice issues – inequality, decent work, peaceful and inclusive societies, and accountable institutions.

Professor Scheyvens and Dr Banks say some critics see this spread of topics as unrealistic and unconnected to the global community’s ability to actually move on them – like “a generous wish list for Santa Claus” as one UK media commentator put it.

“What the extended list of goals does do is recognise the interrelated nature of the challenges that humanity faces over the next decades, with a population that will continue to grow and place increasing demands on the earth’s resources,” Professor Scheyvens says.

She notes that the “wish list” represents the aspirations of a wide range of players, many from the G77 group of developing countries, who “actually got to have a say in the formulation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which was not the case with the Millennium Development Goals.”

The new goals are also universal, applying equally to developed and developing nations, says Dr Banks. “Inequality, environmental degradation, and resource over-use apply as much to the United States and New Zealand as they do to Uganda or the Philippines.”

NZ ranks poorly on waste generation and obesity

A recent report that provides a baseline measurement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the “rich world” has New Zealand ranked 16 out of 34 within the OECD.

“We do well on measures of gender equity, energy from renewable sources, and low levels of corruption, but are towards the bottom of the table for consumption patterns – including waste generation per person and the third highest rate of obesity in the world – inequality, and our capacity to actually monitor the MDGs,” he says. “We just don’t measure a lot of things effectively that we need to if we wish to say anything meaningful about our progress towards a more sustainable society.

“The SDGs will force all countries, including ourselves, to think seriously about our own societies, and our relationship to the rest of the globe. They provide an opportunity to envisage where we want to be in 2030 as a society, and force us to reflect strategically on what we need to do to get there, rather than focus on the immediate and the short term.”

Dr Banks was in New York last month to talk with UN Department of Political Affairs staff about development issues and challenges in Papua New Guinea. He was lead author of the Papua New Guinea National Human Development Report 2014: From Wealth to Wellbeing: Translating Resource Revenue into Sustainable Human Development, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

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