Three ways to shape the future

| December 15, 2023

Pessimism about our ability to address the issues that face humanity is understandable, but there are many signs we’re making progress across multiple pathways.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, for example, had a very tough year in 2023.

The wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the climate crisis, the pressures on democracy and stalled development in low-income countries after the COVID-19 pandemic. These starkly highlight the shortcomings in our local, national and international institutions aimed at global cooperation.

There are serious questions about whether we are failing to reach these goals, and what should be done differently.

Adopted in 2015, the 17 SDGs seek to provide a globally endorsed and unified framework to pursue a sustainable and inclusive future for all countries, regardless of income or geography. It was a moment driven by necessity but underpinned by the potential of a shared vision for a different pathway.

Since then, however, the world has continued to see cycles of violent wars, accelerating rates of natural disasters driven by changing climate, limited commitments for development financing, global pandemic and reversing trends with rising levels of global poverty.

At this halfway point, evidence suggests too much of the agenda will miss its 2030 target.

The challenges are considerable.

Achieving these goals requires aligning decisions and investments at global, regional, national and community levels and across multiple interconnected, but often separate, policy areas.  That’s a not a trivial undertaking, so we shouldn’t be surprised it’s hard and is taking longer than anticipated. But that doesn’t mean it is not happening.

The second challenge is tougher in many ways. It speaks to a growing anxiety about whether our current institutions are designed appropriately to lead us to the inclusive, equitable and sustainable future we imagine.

In a recent roundtable between Australian academics and the Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, participants identified a few reasons for optimism.

In 2024, at the Summit of the Future in New York, the UN will call on world leaders to reaffirm and advance an international consensus to deliver on ambitious shared goals including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the SDGs, and the Paris Climate Agreement.

This gives Australia a major opportunity to consider ways for more effective global cooperation and demonstrating national leadership.

Rather than give up now and declare the SDG mission a failure, we should not only keep going, but hold faith in the progress we have achieved, even if it’s slow.

Progress towards the global goals, in the context of multiple complex crises, is more necessary — and more urgent — now than in 2015.

This is a critical moment and an opportunity for Australia to recommit to an action-oriented leadership in the Pact for the Future.

There are three areas where roundtable participants thought things might be done differently.

A wellbeing budget

It took at least five years for many countries to interpret and integrate the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals into national policy frameworks and national development agendas.

There is now an opportunity to recommit to integrated frameworks beyond 2030, addressing the goals themselves and how they connect and impact each other, trade-offs and spill over effects.

Australia could lead global innovation by implementing wellbeing budgets to help integrate complex social, economic and environmental goals and align with regional and global agendas. This includes using planning tools and better data to manage trade-offs within national development agendas.

It could also measure what matters by expanding the value of subjective measures of wellbeing as part of wider development goals. Specifically concepts of happiness, belonging, social connection and resilient democracy, and recognising that ending poverty in all its forms (SDG1) is the essential scaffolding for wellbeing.

Strengthen regional alliances

Reconsidering regional alliances to build regional trade and collaboration, recognising the nation-state model continues to fail to solve complex problems. A strong system of connected community, national, regional and global institutions is required.

Australia could strengthen regional collaboration and contribute to regional dynamics through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, whose member countries represent 30 percent of the world’s population and GDP constituting the largest trading bloc in history.

There is an opportunity to recognise explicitly that increased trade and economic engagement are not ends in themselves, but — considered innovatively — vehicles for enhancing human wellbeing and planetary health across the region.

Humanise government

A possible addition to Professor Sachs’ six transitions is a big shift in thinking about governing, policy and public work. That’s often characterised as a search for a new paradigm for government to replace the ‘new public management’ framework, whose values and motivations seem increasingly out of step with contemporary and emerging conditions.

The nature of the problems we’re trying to solve, and the opportunities we’re trying to realise as we confront digital capitalism’s tectonic shifts are crying out for a new set of assumptions and expectations for the work of government and approaches to public policy.

In many ways, we are seeking more human and relational forms of government.  While we want to leverage technology and expertise, human wellbeing must centre our policy frameworks and collective decisions. This paradigm shift might be considered as a “seventh transformation”, whose impact includes the ability to dramatically improve the chances of achieving the other six.

Australia has much to contribute to the 2024 UN Summit of the Future in both content and commitment.

While the Sustainable Development Goal targets provide a critical accountability measure for countries, they do not recognise the unfinished and often tortuous path that many countries have taken to embed the integrated agenda into their national institutions and policy frameworks.

There has been major progress setting the pathway for enduring change in the rhythms of communities’ planning, corporate accountability, and government policy frameworks. There is significant evidence that we’re making progress.

As Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reminded us in his speech following the Voice referendum, courtesy of Winston Churchill, success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.

In its own way, it’s an inspiring rallying call for our shared goals.

This article was written by Alex Fischer, an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute; Sharon Bessell, a Professor of Public Policy at the Crawford School of Public Policy; Janine O’Flynn, Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University; John Thwaites, who Chairs the Monash Sustainable Development Institute; and Martin Stewart-Weeks, Principal and Founder of Public Purpose.  It was originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.