Delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals: What Role for the NI Voluntary and Community Sector?

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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted in September 2015 by 193 member states of the UN General Assembly as a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’.

This new Sustainable Development agenda set out a transformational vision to end poverty, protect the planet and to ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity with the overall sentiment of ‘leaving no-one behind’. The cross-cutting ambition of these goals mean that a coordinated approach across government and civil society is required to fulfil the ambitions within the framework. At national level, the UN has called on all member states to develop national strategies on the SDGS. Four years on from their adoption, NI does not currently have a specific SDG strategy or implementation plan.

 The 17 Goals can be seen below:

Why are we looking at the SDGs now?

NICVA represents and supports NI’s voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector, which encompasses over 6000 organisations employing over 44,000 people in fields as diverse as health and social care, emergency services, disability, community development, peace-building, promoting gender equality, environment and sustainability, arts, and sport.  Many of the aims and objectives of these organisations overlap with the SDGs, however it was unclear to what extent these organisations were aware of this, or if the SDGs consciously drive their work.  At a time where the EU’s international goals and commitments are at risk from Brexit, it is particularly timely to consider other wider international goals that may even become more important in time.

A survey of NICVA’s membership was carried out to find out awareness levels of the SDGs amongst the sector and to find out to what extent they were driving the work of the sector.  Meetings were held with various organisations who had been actively aligning with or promoting the SDGs in their work such as Habitat for Humanity, Sustainable NI, Business in the Community, Concern NI and others. Survey results are detailed in the next section.

The UK government is currently undertaking a review  into how it is progressing the 17 SDGs and will be engaging in the Voluntary National Review ahead of the High-Level Political Forum in July 2019. The UK government have been heavily criticised by the UK Environment Audit Committee who have stated that the Government has shown little interest or enthusiasm for implementing the goals. The Voluntary National Review is a good opportunity for NI to take stock and review the work that has been undertaken here to contribute to the SDGs. Within the NI civil service, a mapping exercise has been undertaken to highlight how the Outcomes Delivery Plan 2018-19 aligns with the SDGs. It has been stated that the monitoring arrangements for the Programme for Government will show how NI is progressing towards the SDGs, however, given the absence of political leadership or a functioning Assembly at this time, it is unclear how effective this mechanism will be. There is clearly a role for civil society organisations to work together to hold government to account in their commitments to the SDGs.

NICVA is exploring how the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector can play a leading role in promoting the delivery of the SDGs here in NI. We are now four years into the SDGs framework and there has been little meaningful action taken by our local government or civil service to work towards the commitments it made in 2015 to the SDGs. There is an important role for the sector here to ensure that NI takes seriously its responsibility to the SDGs and the voluntary and commuity sector must begin to facilitate this delivery and hold the government to account.

Results of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Awareness Survey

A survey of NICVA’s membership was undertaken to find out how aware the sector is of the SDGs and to what extent the SDGs were driving the work that they are delivering. The results from the survey are below:

  • 51.9% of respondents were aware of the UN SDGs
  • Good Health and wellbeing, reduced inequalities and gender equality were identified as the Goals which were of most relevance to member organisations
  • 14.3% of respondents intentionally set out to undertake work to become aligned to the SDGs
  • 70.2% of respondents unintentionally set out to undertake work to become aligned to the SDGs
  • 20.5% of respondents believed that the SDGs were very important to their organisation
  • The main SDGs that organisations felt should be adopted were Good Health and Wellbeing, Reduced Inequalities and Gender Equality
  • 40.1% of respondents said that they would consider undertaking more work to align with SDGs, however 51.2% said they didn’t know.

Source: NICVA, UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Awareness Survey 2019 


The survey results reveal that there is still a significant amount of work to be undertaken to increase awareness levels of the SDGs in the voluntary and community sector in NI, however it is interesting that 70% of organisations here are unintentionally aligning with the goals.  This suggests that the SDGS at their essence are closely aligned with the values and aims of many organisations within the voluntary and community sector in NI. This could indicate that there is scope for more pro-active engagement with the goals by the voluntary and community sector. This is compounded by the acknowledgement of one fifth of respondents that the SDGs are important to their work and a significant number stating that they would explore further work.

On 18 April, a round table discussion on the SDGs and the role of the voluntary and community sector was held at NICVA which included presentations from the NI Environment Link, Irish Environment Pillar and the NI Women’s European Platform discussing the approaches these organisations and networks have taken in incorporating and promoting the SDGs in their work. All three presentations are attached.


  1. Can the sustainable development goals framework make a difference to the work in the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland?
  • There is still fairly limited understanding and discussion of the SDGs amongst the voluntary and community sector in NI. There is a need for greater education and awareness raising around the SDGs amongst the sector and among wider society.
  • The voluntary and community sector in NI is already delivering elements of the SDGs, in some cases on an unconscious basis, but questions asked about whether the SDG framework adds to/drives this delivery.
  • The SDG framework may play a role in acting as a driver to focus efforts and draw down support (i.e. funding). It can help to provide direction and to guide the work and priorities of the sector, but it is essential that there is a structure or process for organisations to feed into.
  • Looking at specific policy areas, it was highlighted that the framework could be used to overcome the perception of urban centred policy making and in general, the SDGs could provide a basis for all policy development.
  • The SDGs framework encourages connections between organisations in the voluntary and community sector as well as connections across different sectors. The framework can also act as a mechanism for organisations to be better connected globally as they are working towards common goals.
  • Voluntary and community organisations can embed the SDG framework into everything they do including the activities of their staff, volunteers, members and wider society. It could also be incorporated into the operational work of organisations to promote best practice in everything an organisation does. This can help to create a behavioural shift and better education of the SDG framework.
  • It is important that the framework does not legitimise a passive approach to sustainable development within the sector by aligning SDGs to work of organisations, rather than vice versa.


  1. What mechanisms could enable those within the voluntary and community sector in NI who are working on the SDGs to link up and collaborate on joint actions and advocacy?
  • It was highlighted that there is a real danger of groups, networks and individuals within the sector working in isolation from each other to contribute to the delivery of the SDGs.
  • There is an important role for the voluntary and community sector to ensure that we are promoting the SDGs and embedding them into the public mindset, so as the public can be advocates for the SDGs also.
  • Questions around whether the SDGs framework is a mechanism for pulling together grass roots activists to develop a groundswell campaign and soft advocacy
  • Suggestion of a coordinated forum or working group to facilitate collaboration on joint actions and advocacy within the sector. It was proposed that perhaps NICVA or NI Environment Link could coordinate this, however, it may require a funded post to provide any sort of dedicated support for this type of work.
  • The role of having good data and evidence is essential for joint action and advocacy in terms of challenging decisions or assumptions.
  • Need to explore what types of frameworks that voluntary and community organisations work to- i.e. OBA framework and looking at how this can align with the SDG framework
  • There could be value in having an independent forum to drive collaboration across different sectors and incorporates and ‘Champions’ initiative for organisations that are leaders in delivery of specific goals. Look at what is happening in other countries i.e. Denmark. Also looking at what is happening in GB- UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), could organisations here in NI sign up to this?
  • Would it be useful to prioritise a few of the SDGs per year for delivery?


  1. What can we do to hold the government to account on their commitments to deliver the sustainable development goals?
  • It would be useful to have a full picture of SDG progress/delivery in NI to go to the government with. This requires good data and statistics to gauge where we are at and comparing it with other regions.
  • It is important that the voluntary and community sector work together collaboratively through joint actions and advocacy to give them leverage to hold government to account. (As highlighted in the above section).
  • Useful to highlight and share examples of good practice in other countries in terms of approaches taken in the delivery of their commitments to deliver the SDGs.
  • Using the SDG mapping exercise carried out by DAERA to highlight inadequacies in NI progress.
  • Identification of pressure points within government- can the voluntary and community sector act as a critical friend to the civil service? Find out which departments have responsibility for which goal areas? Use of FOIs?
  • Is there scope for councils to incorporate the SDGs framework into their community plans?
  • Explore the scrutiny role that elected representatives can still play in terms of influence on departments or on civil servants. Is there potential to establish an all-party working group on sustainable development as a mechanism to hold government to account and provide a basis for better collaborative work and information sharing?
  • A shadow report on the implementation of the SDGs in NI could be undertaken to coincide with the report from the UK government to the High-Level Political Forum.
  • It is important to continue to education and raise awareness about the SDGs across all sectors of society so as pressure can come from different areas and from the general public.
  • There is scope to undertake more campaigning and advocacy around the SDGs with government and political parties for example promoting the inclusion of the SDGs in policy manifestos, writing letters and lobbying political parties ahead of the NI Assembly being re-established.
  • There also may be scope to incorporate the SDGs into government strategies and plans, for example the NI Environment strategy could be framed around the SDGs
  • Exploration of the use of an online dashboard or progress board for inputting date and tracking work around the SDGs.


What next?

There is still significant work to be undertaken by both the voluntary and community sector and the NI government in terms of raising awareness of the SDGs and putting in place an implementation plan. The voluntary and community sector has an important role in holding the government account in the implementation of the SDGs framework and ensuring that more is done to promote the SDGs. It was highlighted by Coalition 2030 that ‘civil society must succeed in promoting broad ownership of the SDGs both with our own organisations and among the media, private sector and the general public’.  Successful delivery of the SDGs will rely on civil society organisations working together effectively and working with government and wider sectors to ensure commitments are met. There is now an opportunity for civil society to come together and take a proactive and leadership position in the delivery of the SDGs. NICVA is actively seeking further ideas on how the voluntary and community sector could develop its role in promoting the delivery of the SDGs- we want to hear from the sector about how we can take this forward. Please do get in touch if you have any thoughts or ideas.

Get in touch with [email protected] 

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