We are all Human… Rising to the SDG Challenge

Posted on
28 May 2019
by Johnny Sheehan, The Wheel's Membership and Regional Manager

The Wheel Summit 2019 session ‘Rising to the SDG Challenge’ opened with a performance by students from Largy College, Clones, Co. Monaghan titled ‘We are all human’. Through music, dance, drama, art and spoken word, the students shone a light on the crisis of displacement affecting so many migrants. ‘I want to go home, but home is hell…’.


The performance set the scene for a lively discussion on the role that civil society in Ireland and globally can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Speakers – Suzanne Keatinge (Dóchas), Niamh Garvey (Trócaire), Salome Mbugua (AkiDwA), Dr Seán Healy (Social Justice Ireland), Dr Vincent Carragher (TCD) and Oisín Coghlan (Friend of the Earth Ireland) – and participants shared youth, community, social justice, environmental, diaspora and international development perspectives.

In Ireland, we do community very well. From the Sliabh Beag community hotel in Co. Monaghan to the Gab in Cork to the Library of Things in Dublin, communities are driving social, environmental and economic development and driving the achievement of the SDGs. The Wheel has gathered 50 stories of community sustainability and 70 communities are taking the Spark Change challenge.

The community sector in Ireland is doing a great job but not everyone is being reached. It is not enough to leave no one behind but we have to reached the furthest behind first. Those that are left behind are among us, but we don’t see them. Migrants living in Ireland, for example, have direct experience of many of the issues addressed in the SDGs. How many of us have reached out and listened to the issues of migrant women? This is a theme that was returned to in other sessions of the Summit – recognising and valuing the experience and skills of migrants.

While individuals and communities need to take responsibility in order to achieve the SDGs, the structures of society also need to change and governments need to show leadership. An active civil society holds governments to account, demonstrates a transformative vision and works collaboratively. From experience, we know that whereas governments often make grand commitments, the reality is more business as usual than radical transformative change. We need to build a movement, not just a cause and reach out from our silos, intersecting our struggles.

Civil society plays a crucial role in advocating for a politically enabling environment. We can learn lessons from the way climate policy and plans have developed in Ireland, including the significant role played by the Citizens’ Assembly in getting it onto the public and political agenda. Another example highlighted was work currently being done by civil society on business and human rights at national and international levels. We need to create a political narrative to put governments under pressure on the issues. Civil society needs to be disruptive, but in innovative ways.

The SDGs give us a framework that allows us to see how the different Goals (eliminating hunger, creating safe settlements, tacking inequality and so on) are interconnected. But it also allows us to see the contradictions in our policies. So, for example improved agricultural practices play an important role in eliminating hunger (SDG 2) but agriculture is both vulnerable to, and a contributor to, climate change. Another example was the proliferation of single use plastics in school lunches.

Lest the challenge faced by Ireland in achieving its SDGs commitments, we were reminded about our progress (or lack thereof) compared to our peers. Specifically compared to our closest 15 western European neighbours, Ireland was 11th of 15 countries for economic SDGs, 10th of 15 for social goals and 13th of 15 for environmental goals. This is a truer comparison of how we are measuring up to our commitments in relation to the SDGs than comparing us with all 27 EU member states.

Participants in the session highlighted the need for stronger accountability around the SDGs. A number of the speakers acknowledged that the UN’s High Level Political Forum was, at best, tinkering around the edges of holding national governments to account. The language we use to communicate the SDGs is essential if we want to bring different publics with us on the journey. We need to engage with people at their level and simplify the message, relating the high level goals to local issues such as housing, health and climate.

And though the Spice Girls, who were rehearsing next door, did their best to drown out the discussion, we left the session more confident in Civil Society’s capacity to drive the achievement of the SDGs in Ireland