How the Sustainable Development Goals can help change the way we evaluate Federal Budgets and election platforms

Election season is on us again, and Twitter feeds and daily news updates are full of potential elected leaders making policy promises and giving warnings about how the opposing parties won’t be able to bring us the Australia we need.

But how do we know what the Australia we need is? Depending on political leaning and personal values, this is going to vary from voter to voter. But when deciding on which policies to support, it can be useful to try and have a framework by which to evaluate platforms and the societies they are wishing to create. Megan Weier suggests that, if we want an Australia in which there is a ‘fair go for all’ (the classic Australian dream), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a useful benchmark to look to.

The 2030 SDGs. Image credit:

The 2030 SDGs. Image credit:

The SDGs are a set of 17 goals that were agreed by 193 Member States of the United Nations Sustainable Summit in 2015. Australia was one of the countries that are aiming to achieve the 169 targets by the year 2030. Various Australian organisations have signed on to the SDGs, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading (DFAT) have worked to try and engage the private sector to help achieve the Goals. Despite the fact that Australia is signed on to these Goals, most Australians don’t know they exist - or what this means for policy if we genuinely want to try and achieve the Goals by 2030.

Many of the Goals – such as ‘Zero Hunger’ (Goal 2) and ‘Clean Water and Sanitation’ (Goal 6) – can be seen as ‘international problems’ in which Australia can and should be contributing to other countries and their development (particularly focusing on ‘third-world’ countries that often require foreign aid). But as members of the sector recently told a federal inquiry into the Australian implementation of SDGs, these are also issues that require attention and policy change within Australia. This is perhaps a complication of the SDG portfolio being held by DFAT – there is an implicit assumption that the focus is international. But there is always room for improvement within Australia.

DFAT released the first Voluntary National Review of their progress towards the SDGs in late 2018. While the report uses a case-study approach to demonstrate the efforts being made to achieve the goals, there is a noted lack of available and appropriate data by which to mark our progress. Another report suggested that Australia’s performance has been mixed, and is facing major issues tackling inequality and climate change. A major problem is that while Australia has signed on to the SDGs, there is not currently an implementation plan in place for how we are going to get there.

The SDGs currently are a list of ‘nice to have’ ambitions for the world in 2030, but it is disingenuous to think that they are politically neutral targets. To achieve these targets, decisive policies that directly target inequality, as well as climate and environmental damage are needed. They are Goals that can’t just be ‘supported’ but need to be acted upon.

What can the voting public do with this? I suggest the SDGs can also be an incredibly useful too by which to evaluate the policy platforms that parties are putting forward. Considering the upcoming election, how do each of the political parties locate themselves on at least some of the 17 Goals?

1.       No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

2.       Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

3.       Good Health and Wellbeing: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.

4.       Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

5.       Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

6.       Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

7.       Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

8.       Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

9.       Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.

10.   Reduced Inequalities: Reduce inequality within and among countries (emphasis added).

11.   Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

12.   Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

13.   Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

14.   Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

15.   Life on Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

16.   Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

17.   Partnerships for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.

Regardless of political leaning and priorities, it is likely that the above Goals address at least one social concern for most voters. It can then become an exercise of enquiring about how each party proposes to address the Goals (there are 169 individual targets that act as measures of achievement). This could also be done for Budget announcements and responses. For example:

  • How would reducing income taxes impact Goal 1 – No Poverty? Perhaps fewer people will live below the national poverty line (Goal 1.2.1), but would this also impact the proportion of total government spending on essential services? (Goal 1.a.2)

  • Investing in cheaper, cleaner energy may address Goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy. Does this plan also intend to address Goal 13 – Climate Action, or is it primarily about reducing household energy costs?

The SDGs present a challenge both globally and nationally for how we are going to create a more just and equitable society. Political parties often talk about wanting Australians to have a ‘fair go,’ but won’t talk about what needs to be given up or changed in order for this to be achieved. This election, the SDGs could be a useful way of evaluating whether the various parties have policies in place that will help each Australian get their ‘go’. 

Dr Megan Weier is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact, UNSW. Part of her research is currently focusing developing a measure of Australian social progress, and whether this can be used to help measure progress and implementation of the SDGs.

Planetary health and the philanthrocapitalist paradox

A great deal of work and advocacy has been done by research centres and advocacy groups that would remain un(der)funded if not for the contributions of philanthropy. Global health problems, in particular, have captured a share of philanthropic funding, usually because of personal experience or passion for the topic. In this post, originally posted on Croakey, Professor Colin Butler turns attention to how the money for these philanthropic missions is generated - and whether that is in fact good for our planet.

Colin Butler writes:

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Source: Flickr/szuchichen

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Source: Flickr/szuchichen

In March 2019 the journal Challenges published my paper “Philanthrocapitalism: Promoting Global Health but Failing Planetary Health”.

Focused on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the world’s most influential and generous health charity, it explored the relationship between philanthrocapitalism, economic history, and global and planetary health, which I defined in my paper as the interaction between global human health, social systems and adverse global environmental change, including to the climate and other elements of the Earth System. For some years I have also argued that conflict must be recognized as an important element of global and planetary health.

I have also repeatedly argued, since 2000, that adverse global environmental change has the capacity to undermine civilization. I am now even more firmly persuaded that all the progress that has been made towards improving global health is vulnerable to failing planetary health.

For example, the Global Report on Food Crises 2019 reports rising reliance on food aid, driven by conflict and adverse climate events, in an alarming range of countries in several continents.

This rising reliance on humanitarian assistance also reflects and reveals other profound deficiencies in the dominant approach to global health, including the Gates Foundation-promoted reliance on technology and vertical (single disease-focused strategies), rather than at least equal attention to health systems and the strengthening of “soft” social and cultural determinants of health.

My paper also discusses the Wellcome Trust, chiefly in the context of planetary health and its investment strategy.

It argues that in the last 40 years (roughly since the election of Margaret Thatcher) there has been an increased preference for market-based approaches, often called neoliberalism, particularly in the US and its allies (including Australia). This has generated greater inequality in high-income settings, and weakened the norm of taxation and public goods, including Health for All and comprehensive primary health care.

In turn, this shift towards self-interest has provided a milieu in which philanthrocapitalism has flourished, including the BMGF.

The latter has in turn become an important actor for global health, partially (along with other charities) balancing the adverse consequences of neoliberalism.

The philanthrocapitalist paradox

There are now many critics of philanthrocapitalism, including Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.

But there are far fewer critics of the relationship between philanthrocapitalism and health, perhaps in part due the fear (justified or otherwise) of being blacklisted in the highly competitive struggle for health research funding.

Here, I focus on two paradoxes.

Although the Wellcome Trust has recently made funds available for ecological health research, it continues to invest in fossil fuels.

The Wellcome Trust director, Jeremy Farrar, defends this, arguing:

It is more constructive and effective to take a case-by-case approach to investments in the energy sector.

We consider individual companies on their merits, including the extent to which they meet their environmental responsibilities, when we decide whether or not to invest or stay invested.

All companies engaged in fossil-fuel extraction are not equal.”

In support of this nuanced strategy, the Wellcome Trust was reported in 2015 as selling a £94m stake in ExxonMobil, a company revealed as systematically misleading the public over the risk of climate change for over 40 years.  And, the Wellcome Trust’s 2018 report shows, that of its top ten investments, only one (Royal Dutch Shell) is primarily a fossil fuel company.

But Shell has been accused of long obstructing climate change action. Another of the Wellcome Trust’s top ten investments is JP Morgan Chase, which was called by Oil Change International, in 2019, as “the world’s top funder of fossil fuels by a wide margin”.

Yet, Farrar also argues that the Wellcome Trust “uses our access to boards to encourage them to adopt more transparent and sustainable policies that support transition towards a low-carbon economy”.

At least in the above cases, this strategy appears to be failing.

The Mother Teresa defence

All philanthrocapitalists, by their nature, have accumulated and maintain their wealth by their involvement in the tangled, impenetrable world of global business, sometimes veering towards legal but morally dubious tax evasion.

They all use variants of the “Mother Teresa defence”, that it is legitimate to use funds obtained by dark (or at least grey) means to promote the light. But where are the limits?

Leading universities including Cambridge once accepted research funds from tobacco industries. The social licence for this has vanished, at least in the UK and Australia.

Fossil fuel companies and avaricious bankers do not (as far as I know) directly fund health research, and so the analogy with tobacco does not fully hold.

However, as climate change worsens, the tenuous social license to which the Wellcome Trust clings, seeking to justify its most egregiously unethical investments, is likely to weaken, and may not long survive.

My chief argument is that if the Wellcome Trust genuinely understood the risk to health from failing planetary health — not just harder-to-control infections and worsened nutrition but the possibility of global catastrophe — then it would surely reduce its tacit support for fossil fuel investments.

This would send a powerful moral signal, and they might even do better financially.

The Gates Foundation now surpasses the Wellcome Trust as the leading source of funds for global health research.

Unlike Wellcome, the BMGF is reported to have fully divested from fossil fuels, but its reasons, unlike those of the Rockefeller Foundation, are unclear. (In fact, Bill Gates has been reported as calling fossil fuel divestment a “false solution”).

Also unlike the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation provides no (or minimal) funds for ecological or planetary health. This is the second paradox.

Both of these major philanthrocapitalist organizations claim to genuinely understand the leading threats to global health. But do not actions speak larger than words?

Their generosity and skill partially compensate for the decline in attention to global health driven by market-preferring solutions, but each remains insufficiently proactive in the face of the immense dangers associated with declining planetary health.

Colin Butler is an Honorary Professor at the ANU National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra’s Health Research Institute, and Principal Research Fellow at the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, Flinders University

Colin is also a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia’Scientific Advisory Committee


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