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Student Reporters reflect on Rio Group event

Our student reporters, Chloe Neal and Rebecka Sondell, attended the Rio Group’s half-day event: ‘Sustainable Development Goals in Scotland: Reframing Sustainable Development’. Read their thoughts on the path of Scotland’s sustainable development and what actions we need to take for a brighter future.

On 30 September 2014, the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation held the ‘SDGs in Scotland: Reframing Sustainable Development’ event. Scottish stakeholders and organisations participated, with a total of sixty individuals in attendance.

The half-day event was conducted by The Rio Group with input from the UN, NIDOS, the Scottish Government and the Department for International Development. Its aim was to explore the ways in which Scotland can contribute toward the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The seventeen goals are due to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the deadline for the latter being 2015. They also strive to achieve new aims, including the establishment of affordable energy for all. The SDGs stand alongside 169 targets and are pledged to be fulfilled by 2030.

Scotland’s official stance on sustainable development and moving forward beyond the MDGs was expressed by key speakers over the course of the event. They included Deputy Head of International Development for the Scottish Government, Rosemary Lindsay.

Lindsay discussed the creation of the Post-2015 Working Group. Its purpose is to provide a forum for the Scottish voice on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Vital to the group is combining different sectors, influencing the agenda, as well as implementing the agenda.

Scotland has a strong record in aiding sustainable development, having established a £9 million International Development Fund and a £6 million Climate Justice Fund. Lindsay stated: “Scotland remains on a journey both domestically and internationally.”

Reaching a global consensus on the SDGs was no easy feat. The event worked to highlight the difficulties in prioritising and negotiating goals – albeit on a much smaller scale – in the form of a practical exercise.

Table groups were asked to rank the goals according to different criteria. For instance, each table was required to vote on the top five goals most relevant to implementing the SDGs within Scotland. “Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries” won the vote. This, however, followed plenty of debate.

The exercise also paved the way for critical evaluation of the goals. One criticism concerned problems in defining specific phrases used. For example, Goal 16 pledges the promotion of “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development” which is ultimately vague and potentially ambiguous in its wording.

There is evidently still work to be done with the SDGs. As a result, it is also important to look beyond the official stances of countries and organisations on sustainable development toward the role of the individual.

Attendee Julian Holbrook of Keep Scotland Beautiful stressed the importance of relating international issues of sustainability to our everyday lives. He added that a drive for global change and improvement is always welcome, “no matter how small the contribution.”

Overall, the event proved popular with those present, providing a useful platform for various queries and considerations. The combination of presentations, opportunities for questions and answers, as well as the inclusion of the practical exercise provided a well-rounded and informative experience.

Attendee Patrick Grady said: “The event has been helpful and it has been interesting to see a consensus on thoughts. Hopefully we will continue to work together in achieving sustainable development.”


Chloe Neal

It is a Tuesday and I enter the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) with its ancient, but apparently energy efficient, school building for the first time, welcomed by the smartly dressed staffs who are busy ticking off participants on the guest lists. The occasion is an event on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, organized by the Rio Group, a newly created network of individuals and organizations who aspire to shape the political agenda for sustainable development in Scotland. Or as Johnny Hughes, CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and one of the members, points out in his introductory talk; they want to bring focus back to the social and environmental aspects of sustainable development, so often neglected in the favour of economic policy matters.

We are about fifty attendees, most of them professional, scattered out in small groups around tables, which makes it look slightly like a primary school classroom. After chatting a bit with the people at our table I conclude that they all seem to be working in the field of sustainable development in one way or another, although the topic has soon changed to a posterior analysis of the Scottish referendum, which appears to be another interest they all share. The small talk fades shortly as Hughes introduces us to the main questions of the following hours: How to engage and mobilize society to influence the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and what role can Scotland play in this process? Being rather new to the SDGs (I can admit that I had to google it before attending the event) I am very thankful for the second talk by May East, CEO for CIFAL Scotland, who gives us a comprehensive background to the SDG framework and the differences from its policy ancestor the Millennium Development Goals, whose work the SDGs are intended to continue.

Maybe slightly unexpected, considering the failures of multilateral negotiation in recent years when it comes to climate change, the tone at this event is a rather optimistic one. East is enthusiastically quoting some of the plenary talks from last week’s Climate meeting in New York, and yes, if Costa Rica is indeed carbon free by 2021, as proposed, that would definitely be an achievement. An achievement which Hughes claims can be facilitated by the institutionalization of the new SDGs, which will help articulate a positive vision of the future. “They will give billions of people hope and make us think that we can turn these things around”, he says as he sets the optimistic tone for the rest of the talks. However, the man queuing for tea next to me in the break seems more sceptical to the prospects of the SDGs for bringing about the change needed to ensure sustainability, pointing to the inability to reach consensus on an international level as well as the fact that most initiatives are still implemented locally rather than on a national scale.

The role of local level governance for the implementation of the SDGs is cherished in the two talks that follow, by representatives from the Scottish respectively UK government, who underline the importance of civil society when it comes to spreading the knowledge of the SDGs and specifically the advantage of Scotland being a small country which facilitates cooperation and the sharing of expertise. This importance of inclusiveness also becomes evident in their presentation of the Scottish Post-2015 Working Group, which engages a variety of actors from both private and public sectors in the agenda-setting and implementation process of the future SDGs. When speaking to Ruth Wolstenholme, one of the Rio Group members, she also mentions the vast mix of member organizations as one of the network’s main strengths. But despite all the talk of engagement of the civil society, the group of participants at the event itself seems to be a rather homogenous one with many of the people having already well-established contacts with one another, so the potential for networking might not be as high as could have been expected. Wolstenholme, however, says that she is happy to see plenty new faces and is overall very pleased with the turn out and the general sense of optimism among the audience.

Credit should also be given to the format of the event, which invited to interaction and active involvement in both question sessions and the workshops in the second part of the seminar, when the table groups were asked to discuss and prioritize the top issues from the seventeen goals presented in the SDGs. When gender equality finally tops the list and the convener asks for feedback on the activity, someone raises the issue of defining “sustainability” and another one complains about the time limit, but one of the wittier participants concludes that “this process was at least quicker than in the UN”.

Whereas the mix between plenaries and workshops, listening and active participation was well balanced and the involvement in discussions was high, the fact still remains that the overarching aim of this entire event is just as unclear by the time we all leave the ECCI. A woman I speak to in the lounge says it simply wasn’t worth the five hours train ride since it is just like all the other similar events treating the same theme – nothing new comes out of it. And she has a point; this event is a perfect introduction to the SDGs for newbies like me, but considering the lack of depth and clear direction it might not be a worthwhile time investment for the very specific audience that had gathered. Furthermore, if the aim really is to increase the involvement of civil society in the agenda-setting process, an effort should be made to reach out to a broader audience in order to become something more than just another opportunity to chat with the people already working in the field. And the potential is definitely there, it is simply the variety of audience that is missing.


Rebecka Sondell

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