‘Time to step up’ on Sustainable Development Goals, says expert


Cifal Flanders is tasked with helping to implement Belgium’s SDGs and, while proud of the progress made so far, is concerned that efforts have stalled

11th place globally

While 24 October marks the 75th birthday of the United Nations, last month was the fifth anniversary of its Sustainable Development Goals. In 2015, the UN set the Agenda 2030, concrete goals to create a better and more sustainable society.

Agenda 2030 comprises 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, and 169 specific targets. Together, they address the global challenges facing society, including poverty, the climate crisis and working towards peace and justice.

To ensure that these goals influenced local policies, the UN established a network of training centres all over the world. Cifal Flanders is one of them.

“The SDGs will be take hold locally, or they will not take hold at all,” declares Peter Wollaert, managing director of Cifal Flanders. “We mainly reach out to prominent local actors from all kinds of sectors in society, such as umbrella organisations and local governments, which then spread the word. This way, we create a domino effect.”

We are not on track to reach any of the SDGs by 2030

- Peter Wollaert of Cifal

A good example of this method is the city of Ghent’s first SDG Voluntary Local Review, a benchmark report that provides a state of affairs for its realisations of SDGs.

Cifal Flanders is leading training sessions to help organisations and enterprises become “SDG-proof”. These sessions last about six years, split into three phases. About 100 groups in Flanders have completed the first phase, obtaining the title of SDG Pioneer.

As a pioneer, they have thoroughly analysed the SDGs and developed a strategy and action plan to integrate them in their day-to-day working practices.

Recently, Cifal also awarded a certificate to the first Flemish SDG Champion, an organisation that has finished the second phase – transition – by putting the theory into practice through circular economy projects. The honour went to the Flemish government’s Agency for Facility Operations.

Flemish government buildings are being equipped with coffee corners that are fully sustainable

The agency opened coffee bars in government buildings that are working entirely according to the circular philosophy. The whole infrastructure, down to the staff uniforms, was selected with regard to crucial principles, such re-usability, recyclable and no waste.

“In the third phase, we emphasise the link with human rights,” explains Wollaert. “Organisations that complete the entire trajectory become SDG Ambassadors, which are ready to lead by example.”

While such initiatives show the progress being made in the region, the UN’s Sustainable Development Report, published this summer, pinpointed areas that need improvement. Belgium is working on the goals at the regional as well as the federal level and is ranked as a country.

Belgium ranked 11th on a list of 193 countries working towards the SDGs. The country is just shy of 80 points in a 100-point rating system.

Water quality problems are the result of having many sea ports in a small region, but there are initiatives underway to battle the pollution

While high on the list, Wollaert isn’t satisfied. “We are not on track to reach any of the SDGs by 2030.”

Belgium’s climate policy was judged particularly harshly. The UN also pointed to a lack of momentum on SDG number 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, and number 14, Life Below Water, which refers to sustainable use of marine resources.

In terms of Responsible Consumption, Wollaert points to work within the government of Flanders on developing and promoting circular models. A low score on Life Below Water, meanwhile, “is the result of having many sea ports in our small region,” he explains. “But there are important initiatives underway to battle pollution in our ports.”

The port of Antwerp, for example, has launched the Amoras project, in collaboration with the government, to improve water quality in its docks.

“International reports also point out that the gap between rich and poor is widening here,” says Wollaert (pictured above). “Of course, our country also has clear strengths, our health care and education systems, for example, are among the best in the world.”

Wollaert is also hopeful about the plans of the recently appointed federal government. “The new accord explicitly mentions the SDGs and clearly focuses on crucial challenges such as climate change. The current Flemish government, on the other hand, is still building on the many initiatives taken by the previous one – but needs a new impulse, to step up the action.”

A recent analysis by the Belgian Court of Audit also showed a lack of collaboration between the different Belgian governments to achieve the SDGs. “There is a specific body that has to co-ordinate the policy on a national level, but its members haven’t convened since the end of 2017,” says Wollaert.

If you follow the guidelines of the SDGs, you will also be better equipped as a country to battle the epidemic

This lack of co-ordination, he says, “was exemplified in the climate policy. Hopefully the situation will significantly improve with the new federal government.” Where collaboration is working well, however, can be seen on the country’s website dedicated to the SDGs.

Of course, the pandemic is not making things any easier. “But if you follow the guidelines of the SDGs, you will also be better equipped as a country to battle the epidemic,” says Wollaert. “A healthy social structure is crucial to dealing with this crisis.”

Wollaert also points to opportunities raised by the pandemic, like the trend of teleworking, which has a beneficial impact on mobility and climate. “But it’s high time to scale up our efforts; we have outgrown the start-up phase. We need to raise the bar in the coming years, striving towards big changes and a systemic transition, not just a few percentages of improvement.”

If you are wondering how you can contribute to the SDGs as an individual, check out the Good Life Goals

Photos, from top: Courtesy United Nations; courtesy Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen; courtesy Agency for Facility Operations, Flemish government