The need for the Government to appoint a minister to coordinate New Zealand’s implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals was highlighted repeatedly during the country’s inaugural Sustainable Development Goals Summit, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with their stated aim of ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all, were adopted by UN members in 2015 and NZ was among the signatories.

Attended by 300 leaders, influencers, scholars and creative thinkers from across government, business, higher education and community and other sectors, this week’s summit was an opportunity to assess NZ’s progress toward the 2030 target set to achieve the SDGs and to identify the priorities ahead.

A coordinating figure to bring together SDG-related activity across different parts of government was considered very much a priority — along with an independent commissioner to act as an extra-political force able to hold government to account for seeing through the goals no matter who is in power.

Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft spoke for many, and received resounding applause, when he said: “I’m sandwiched between three government officials [on the panel discussion he was taking part in]. I’m an independent watchdog and my bark today would be, ‘Tell us what the plan is for moving us forward.’ Who’s the coordinator? Where in a sense does the buck stop? Who do we go to with ideas?”

Currently, Green Party Co-Leader James Shaw said later in the day, the buck stops in effect with Grant Robertson and him — as, respectively, Finance Minister and Climate Change Minister, Statistics Minister and Associate Minister of Finance.

This was partly because the SDGs would mean decisions about revenue, spending, investment and debt.

Determining which agencies would eventually be responsible for which SDGs and which agency would be responsible for overall coordination “isn’t clear yet but it is under active consideration and negotiation between agencies”.

The SDGs are “a massive programme of work but it is early days and we are up for it”, said Shaw, who earlier pointed out the goals are part of the Greens’ confidence and supply agreement with the Labour Party.

The Government’s action to combat child poverty is one early example of SDG-related policy, said Shaw, with next year’s Wellbeing Budget another.

“It is a bit frustrating, I know, because of course the last Government signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 and as far as I can discern literally not a single action has been taken to act on that commitment. But that is essentially what we are doing at the moment—actually trying to build [the SDGs] into the way that the Government can make decisions.”

Statistics NZ and agencies are preparing “a comprehensive set of measures” to give the Government a complete picture of the existing situation and what the SDGs will require.

“That is why we have not yet committed to exactly when we’re going to be looking at a Voluntary National Review [of NZ’s SDG status, as encouraged by the UN].

“Because we’re busy getting our house in order in terms of the data we will need in order to be able to do it accurately and well.” Shaw spoke about recent releases of System of Environmental-Economic Accounts and the Our land 2018 report.

“Both of those are as fascinating not so much for what’s in them but for what’s not in them. I was astounded when I got the System of Environmental-Economic Accounts to discover that it didn’t include any information on waste.

“Why not? Well, because we haven’t been gathering data comprehensive or high quality enough to actually include in our System of Environmental-Economic Accounts. The land report included some data that only ran out to 2012, six years ago. Why? Because funding for gathering that data ran out in 2012. And it’s a time series. That’s not terribly useful.

“So building the bases of this [SDG] programme is incredibly important. It is vital to be able to glean any of the information of knowledge that we need to ultimately be able to make any of the decisions we want to be able to make.”

Earlier in the summit, Andrew Kibblewhite, Chief Executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, emphasised the importance of ongoing reporting.

“We’ve got to be a bit clever about how we build an enduring political commitment to a thing that matters,” said Kibblewhite.

“That’s where legislating not necessarily for specific targets but for a government to report against indicators provides a tool whereby you can actually have a greater chance of building a political consensus to that underpinning foundation.

“Create an expectation of reporting, of groups like this insisting that reporting is done and that it is commented on, so that you can actually build a dialogue that can take place over years with legislated requirements to feed it with information that will hold governments to account.”

Throughout the day, the summit heard about work already being done toward the SDGs across different sectors.

Connecting the SDGs to “the average everyday civil society person who has been doing this [in everything but name] for many years” is a challenge, said Anaru Fraser, Executive Director of Hui E! Community Aotearoa.

People need to know how they can collaborate on the SDGs, he said, because “it’s going to take a collaborative effort. We can’t all do this on our own, although by default civil society has been doing it on our own for a very, very long time”.

“We are waiting for the likes of the Government, who agreed to this global goal, to actually stand up and take some leadership on it. And we don’t actually need much leadership. At the very least we’d like to know who in government are leading this on behalf of the Government, because we want to know who to talk to. Once we know who to talk to, we are ready, we are ready to go. You show us what you want to do and we’ll show you what we can bring.”

Asked by summit MC Kim Hill how consumers could be sure the products they buy are genuinely green and not just ‘greenwashed’, Abbie Reynolds, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Business Council, said ‘green hush’ is a bigger issue in NZ.

“What I know from working with a bunch of businesses is there is extraordinary work going on. I’ve just come back from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Conference in Switzerland and what I saw there makes me realise our leading businesses are keeping pace with their international counterparts and in fact in some cases they are leading the charge.

“What we struggle more with in NZ from the business perspective is having the courage actually to talk about the great things we are doing … Part of it is risk aversion … [It is] the fear that if they don’t have it perfect, if they don’t have it absolutely rock solid, people will find reasons to poke holes in what they’re doing.”

Reynolds said she is seeing “a huge amount of momentum” at all levels of business.

“We’ve got lots of people I know here who are sustainability managers, but I’m hearing CEOs talk about it. In fact, boards of directors are talking about it. We had a dinner for a group of board directors recently. They spontaneously added the global goals to the agenda and one of them is working on an international collaboration in support of the goals.

“So what I’m observing is us getting very close to a tipping point around the importance of the goals and how we use them. I think what I see from business is they recognise the community sector as a source of great insights but just aren’t necessarily that good about knowing how to work with them. That’s starting to unfold.”

Another recurring theme of the summit was the need to ‘tell the story’ of the SDGs better so the wider NZ public knows of, and understands, them.

“I can’t help but observe,” said Becroft, “as I travel around the country that this group of fantastic enthusiasts [at the summit] must be just about the sum total of adults in NZ who know about the SDGs. Today, in our bubble of enthusiasm, I hope we can do things. I hope we can burst [the bubble] and pollinate that enthusiasm around the whole country and inculcate knowledge of the SDGs”. 

Sustainable development, said former Prime Minister and Administrator of the UN Development Programme Helen Clark in a video message, “is not something somebody else somewhere else has to do. We have to do it. We in NZ have to make a contribution to having sustainable human development”. 

See also Better lives, a better NZ.

Leave a comment