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David Donoghue: 'The SDGs can end extreme poverty'

02 March 2018

David Donoghue co-delivered the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a historic global plan to end poverty by 2030. Ahead of delivering the annual Trócaire Lenten Lecture on March 6th, he gives his thoughts on how to deliver this ambitious agreement.

Girls education

Rugiatu (9) from Sierra Leone. Ensuring access to education for girls is a key target of the SDGs. (Photo: Mark Stedman)

David Donoghue has one word to describe the challenge handed to him: daunting. 

The task was to get every country in the world to agree answers to the biggest questions facing humanity. How to end hunger? How to end inequality? How to ensure a safe world for future generations?

To find these answers, the United Nations turned to the Dublin-born diplomat. 

Along with his Kenyan counterpart, Macharia Kamau, Donoghue was asked to co-facilitate the process. 

“It was the biggest negotiating process I had ever been involved in,” he says. “We had to get agreement from 193 states. On top of that, we had civil society groups, private sector organisations and UN agencies all watching the process very closely so it was daunting.

“Myself and the Kenyan Ambassador were tasked with getting it over the line. There was a great amount of persuading and cajoling done. We had all-night sessions and there had to be certain trade-offs, but we got there in the end. There was a huge sense of satisfaction but I think mostly it was relief.”

Ending povery by 2030

What emerged from those long and complex negotiations was the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This global agreement – signed by every country in the world – outlines seventeen goals and 169 targets for delivering a world free from extreme poverty by 2030. 

The targets include:

- Enough nutritious food all year round for everybody
- Access to primary and secondary education for all girls and boys
- Universal access to safe and affordable drinking water

Worthy ambitions, but how do these targets get turned into reality?

“The emphasis has been on process up to now,” he says. “For example, how have states changed their internal structures to deliver the SDGs? How have they aligned their own national development plans? However, there comes a point when the rubber has to meet the road in terms of showing tangible progress. It is still very early days in the process but it is only a 15 year time span so the clock is ticking.”

Over sixty countries have completed voluntary reviews of their progress to date. Ireland’s review takes place this summer. 

Donoghue believes the national reviews are vital. Not only are they a chance to highlight progress, they also shine a very public spotlight on areas where individual countries are failing. Do not underestimate the desire to keep up with the neighbours, he says. 

“The SDGs are not legally binding but they are politically and morally binding,” he says. “Nobody wants to be fingered as the country which isn’t willing to do its bit to save the planet and humanity. If a country is lagging behind it is politically embarrassing for them. There will be pressure from the neighbours to pull their socks up.”

Rwanda food

People in Nyarugeti village, Rwanda, celebrate the success of their Trócaire-funded food growing project. (Photo: Alan Whelan)

'The mood is optimistic'

Like any global agreement, it is only worth the paper it is printed on if all countries stick by it. The Paris Agreement on climate change hit stormy waters when the US decided to withdraw. Was Donoghue fearful that the SDGs might experience a similar fate?

“There are no particular threats,” he says. “The US reneged on the Paris Agreement but there is no sign that they are turning their attention to the SDGs. The mood is still optimistic. Everybody has signed up to the same agenda. Everybody wants to be part of the club. Even the sceptical countries took the decision to sign up and see how things go. This the first time in history there is an agreed agenda and an agreed set of targets for the world.”

That is not to say that it will all be plain sailing, of course. Among the challenges of delivering such an ambitious plan is finding the money to deliver it. It is estimated that the SDGs will need €3-5 trillion every year for 15 years. That amounts to an investment of anything up to €75 trillion. 

“The private sector will have an important role to play in providing that funding,” he says.

The next big moment comes in September 2019 when governments will meet to “renew their vows”, as Donoghue puts it. 

Despite the enormity of the task, he remains hopeful that the SDGs will deliver clear results. 

“I would love to think that we will achieve them by 2030,” he says. “That is possible provided everybody shows the same political will as has been evident so far.”

He delivered the daunting task of setting the goals. Now it is over to governments around the world to make sure they are met. 

Listen to David Donoghue's talk, 'Leave No One Behind'.