Making poverty and inequality history?

World leaders gather next week to set sustainable development goals to raise health, education and living standards. Ireland has a long way to go to meet its obligations

World vision: the United Nations’ sustainable development goals

World vision: the United Nations’ sustainable development goals


The students at Corpus Christi primary school in Moyross, on the edge of Limerick, didn’t choose to grow up in a marginalised part of Ireland. They never witnessed the Celtic Tiger; their parents were in financial difficulty long before the economic bubble burst. Access to education is their only chance to progress beyond the decades of disadvantage their families have lived through.

Tiernan O’Neill, principal of Corpus Christi, has spent five years building a school ethos that embraces not only the students’ academic intelligence but also their social and emotional intelligence.

“It’s about ensuring the children’s education leads to opportunities later in life,” he says. “The bleak socioeconomic context that we see here is a driving force for the staff in our school. You want to see them break free from the shackles of underachievement.”

Next week, as students at Corpus Christi and many other schools like it settle into another year of classes, the world’s leaders will gather in New York to agree on a set of goals that will affect not only the children in Moyross but also children, adolescents and adults around the globe.

On Friday, 193 world leaders will commit to 17 Sustainable Development Goals designed by 2030 to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and combat climate change. The global goals, which replace the millennium development goals, aim to be an impetus to create a safer, more sustainable world for future generations.

Sustainability is about improving the health, education and living standards of all 7.5 billion people on the planet while protecting the environment that surrounds us, according to David Donoghue, Ireland’s permanent representative to the UN.

“We want to get away from the sense that some parts of the world are superior to others,” says Donoghue, who chaired the negotiations for the global goals with Macharia Kamau, Kenya’s representative to the UN. “We’re trying to remove the idea that certain countries are fully developed and others are totally underdeveloped. Education, health, looking after the environment, creating food security: all these things are interlinked. In the simplest word, sustainability means creating something lasting.”


The first sustainable development goal is “to end poverty in all its forms everywhere”. Lifting people out of poverty does not apply only to countries in the southern hemisphere, says Audrey Dean of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP). “This is not about those poor countries over there,” she says. “It’s also about how we arrange our own public services and the values we underpin in a way that promotes fairness.

“Every day of the week families are visited by SVP members because they’re not able to access proper housing, healthcare or educational opportunities. Let’s keep it simple. These goals are going to apply to us, and we need to engage.

“This needs to be taken on board by whatever government comes into power. We want to send a clear message to Enda Kenny: these goals are relevant to how you and your successor do the business.”

Nikita White of Unicef says that lifting children out of poverty is key to implementing all 17 goals and their targets over the next 15 years. “All our arguments start with safe, healthy and well-educated children. They’re the group most affected by this agenda and for the longest amount of time. It’s about thinking about the kind of world we want to have for our grandchildren.”

But with one in eight children in Ireland living in consistent poverty, and nearly two in five experiencing deprivation, it’s vital for the Government to commit to the global goal of ending poverty for all its citizens.

June Tinsley of Barnardos says that the growing poverty among some of Ireland’s youngest citizens is a scandal that shows we don’t cherish children equally.

“Supporting the first year of a child’s life is the foundation stone on which a child develops and dictates the kind of child and adult they become,” she says. “Children can’t choose what type of childhood they have; you can’t choose the income you’re born into. It’s political choices and decisions that impact what path and what childhood you will have. A lot is down to political choices, which can exacerbate equality for children or amend and improve it. If action was taken it would start breaking this cycle of deprivation and inequality.”


High on the list of sustainable development goals in breaking this cycle is that of gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls. Although the millennium development goals halved the number of people living in extreme poverty, the world failed to halt the discrimination and violence that women experience everywhere.

Alice-Mary Higgins of the National Women’s Council of Ireland says the Government must ensure that the sustainable development goals are reflected in the country’s spring statements, national economic dialogue and budgetary decisions.

A report last week on whether the world’s richer nations are ready to implement the goals found that Ireland had appallingly low female representation in parliament; the Women for Election group says that, at current rates, gender parity in Irish politics is 250 years away.

Higgins also notes that the pay gap between men and women in Ireland has widened in recent years; women now earn 14.4 per cent less than men. “Gender is intertwined into every goal,” she says. “Ireland must show leadership by setting national targets for each of these areas clearly and early on and demand that other countries set national targets.”

Maeve Taylor of the Irish Family Planning Association says the UN development agenda is “a win for women and girls” in its commitment to ensure that women can live free from discrimination, with access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, within a generation.

But she warns that the goals fail to provide citizens with the tools to hold their governments to account, adding that if the goals are really to change and save lives they must become realities on the ground.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation’s 2015 report into women’s access to contraception found that many young Irish people were not told enough about contraceptives or about sexually transmitted diseases. It also found that the cost of birth control in Ireland had created a barrier to women’s access to contraceptives.

“Comprehensive sexuality education is one of the key issues for women in Ireland,” Taylor says. “In order to stay in education, to have full lives and make choices about their futures, women need to be able to negotiate sexual relationships on a basis of equality. The sustainable development goals must provide an impetus on the Government for an extra push for comprehensive sex education.”


Halfway down the list of goals sits one that binds us all together: the urgent need to combat climate change. Along with sustainable consumption and production, and ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy, combating climate change is fundamental in averting a crisis that could threaten the survival of the human race.

Neil McCabe, a firefighter from the Kilbarrack station, in north Dublin, is one of the thousands of people making local changes to ensure access to cleaner, more sustainable energy. In 2008, by convincing his colleagues to collect old batteries as a tool to build staff morale, he set his local service on a path towards becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral fire station.

Today his green plan has generated €7.5 million in public-sector savings by being applied at every fire station in Dublin. By October 2014 Dublin Fire Brigade had cut its energy consumption by 44 per cent.

Creating a carbon-neutral workplace means using renewable technologies to ensure that any organisation operates without burning fossil fuels or otherwise producing carbon, he explains. “Only in the last few years carbon has gone from being a misunderstood and misrepresented buzzword to being actually understood as something that’s wrong with society.”

McCabe says his green plan, which encourages communities to engage with their environments, is about changing behaviour both to save money and to change lives. “What we can do now is turn this crisis into an opportunity. We can still have great lives and high growth rates but plan for less emissions.”

In December world leaders will meet in Paris to agree on a new international treaty on climate change, in the hopes of preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees and focusing on cleaner, more sustainable energy programmes.

Dr Jonathan Derham of the Environmental Protection Agency says that creating energy-efficient transport systems, homes and workplaces is key to building a more sustainable environment.

He warns that Ireland is “hugely energy inefficient” in the way it produces goods and services. “We’re going to have to become a much smarter economy in relation to the resources we consume, like water and energy. Climate change is a global dilemma. We have a growing population that is going to be up to nine billion people by 2050. We’ve got to feed them. We haven’t an infinite supply of everything. It’s about living well within the limits of our planet. That’s what sustainable development really is.”

Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland, says that if Ireland doesn’t combat climate change it could undo decades of overseas aid in developing nations.

In 2012 Ireland was rated the eighth most generous aid donor per person among the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – but also the eighth most climate-polluting nation per person.

“We’re already seeing, as we come out of recession and into recovery, that we haven’t decoupled economic activity from our emissions. When it comes to transport and other parts of our economy, those emissions are going to shoot back up again,” he says. “We can’t hope to be a strong donor and voice for global development on the one hand while not tackling our emissions on the other.”

Next Friday Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President Michael D Higgins are expected to be among the global leaders meeting in New York to decide what trajectory our planet should take for the next 15 years.

Echoing the words earlier this year of Mary Robinson, the UN special envoy for climate change, Higgins compared 2015 to 1945, “a year of reconstruction and hope, when new institutions were designed, new texts drafted and new declarations adopted for humanity’s shared future”.

Back in Limerick, the teachers at Corpus Christi primary school are already working to make the goal of inclusive and quality education a reality for their young students.

“For us it’s about teaching the children how to respond rather than react,” says Tiernan O’Neill. “We’re creating a learning environment that encourages children to explore, the idea being that in the long term these children can make a positive contribution to society.”

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