News / 15 March 2021

How well is the Netherlands progressing in achieving the SDGs?

In 2015, the United Nations instigated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These seventeen interrelated goals are intended to result, by 2030, in a better, fairer and more sustainable world in which no one is left behind. As a member of the UN, the Netherlands is committed to promote the SDGs and every year Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and the central government publish reports on the progress made. The initiators of 'SDG Spotlight Nederland' however believe that there is a need for an annual report on the Netherlands' performance on specific SDGs from a different perspective. Fiona Dragstra and Stefan Schuller of Both ENDS contributed to the report on 2020 and tell us here why they think it is so important.

What is the report about?

Fiona: "This report is mainly about SDGs 10 (Reducing inequality) and 15 (Life on land) and how they are related. It looks at the part the Netherlands plays in achieving – or not achieving – these goals at international level. These two goals were not chosen at random, because you can use them to measure whether the Netherlands is helping to maintain the balance between the three Ps – people, planet, prosperity."

Stefan: "And that proves to be disappointing: the Netherlands' efforts on both SDGs are below par: we are obstructing sustainable development elsewhere, not only through the large-scale import of products like soya and palm oil, but also through our continued support for the fossil industry."

Fiona: "And of course that has not been helped in the past year by the Covid-19 crisis. On the contrary: it has not only made painfully clear how vulnerable millions of people are and how unequally prosperity is distributed, but has made the problems even worse. And in the meantime, the Netherlands is failing miserably to take on its responsibilities: the government and the business community do not seem to consider achieving the SDGs a priority, while they are crucial for the transition to a sustainable society."

What is main conclusion from the report?

Fiona: "The conclusion from the report is that, with the policy it is currently pursuing, the Netherlands is not making sufficient progress on achieving SDGs 10 and 15. Ultimately, that can be traced back to the same fault in the system: almost unlimited freedom for multinationals and other companies to earn money on the basis of low wages and the use of natural resources. Our trade system is fully focused on achieving that and our (outgoing) government continues to lend a willing ear to the lobby of companies wishing to strengthen their position at the expense of people and the natural environment."

Stefan: "And the profits made from harmful business activities and in the financial sector are invested in even more similar activities worldwide. In economic terms that may be considered favourable in the short term, but in social and ecological terms it is of course disastrous."

Fiona: "It is a worldwide trend that highly educated people benefit from globalisation and the technological revolution, while people with practical, lower-skilled occupations fall further and further behind. Inequality is thus increasing rather than decreasing, and the Netherlands has no qualms about playing its part in that development."

What needs to happen?

Stefan: "It is crucial that we, the whole world together, work to create a model of economic prosperity that does not operate at the expense of people and the natural environment, but contributes to them, both now and in the future. The idea behind the SDGs is therefore very good and useful, but in practice what is required to bring about real social and economic change is not happening quickly enough."

Fiona: "You can clearly see what is happening in many parts of the world: farming and fishing communities, indigenous peoples and other groups rely for their livelihoods directly on what nature provides, such as forest products, food crops and food from the sea. They have been using these natural resources and products for hundreds of years in a way that ensures they remain available for themselves and for many future generations. And yet they are the first to suffer from deforestation, pollution, soil depletion and acidification of the oceans. All over the world, these carefully preserved natural resources are being exploited by rich elites and multinational corporations. And, unfortunately, the Netherlands is playing a prominent role in this exploitation."

Stefan: "Western countries can play a central role in achieving SDGs 10 and 15, for example by adopting more sustainable eating habits with more vegetable rather than meat protein and many more local products. That transition is one of the main keys to restoring biodiversity and reducing global warming. But to achieve that, the global trade system – which continues to give priority to and promote large-scale production – needs to be radically reformed. Then small, sustainable farmers around the world, including those in the Netherlands, would be better protected. Poorer countries can then rebuild their own food markets and farmers in the EU can once again be paid fixed prices for their products."

So that will call for difficult choices to be made?

Stefan: "The ambition to achieve greater sustainability already exists and cautious steps have been taken in the right direction, but we now need to make serious progress. And that does indeed mean making difficult choices and drawing up enforceable rules to, for example, restrict the activities of the fossil industry. In fields like agriculture, energy and the circular economy, our government is focusing mainly on technological innovation rather than changing behaviour – as in the food transition I just mentioned."

Fiona: "What is comes down to is that we want to keep on living in the same old way. We want to preserve the old, non-sustainable system or maybe push a few buttons to make it a little more sustainable. But if we really want to move towards a fair, sustainable and future-proof world, the whole system needs to change. The Netherlands cannot do that alone but has sufficient influence internationally to play a leading role!"

Where do the opportunities lie for the next government?

Stefan: "There needs to be a national strategy and robust national goals, in line with what has been agreed internationally. And the policies of all ministries must of course contribute to achieving the goals in the Netherlands and worldwide. One ministry must not undermine what another is promoting. At the moment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, for example, may be supporting international cooperation on sustainable agricultural methods while, at the same time, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy is organising trade missions with agrarian entrepreneurs wishing to set up intensive farming and livestock companies abroad. That is incoherent policy and we have to stop that."

Fiona: "The new coalition will now really have to impose stricter rules on international trade for multinationals, that at least ensure that human rights, nature and the environment are given as much weight as the economic agenda. And there is also much room for improvement in development cooperation: local organisations, interest groups and scientists must be involved, much more than they are now, in achieving agro-ecological agriculture and sustainable energy, forestry and nature conservation, so that they fit the local context and genuinely benefit local people."

Stefan: "The Netherlands should invest much more in sustainable and inclusive, bottom-up agro-ecological methods like Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, which has been successful in the Sahel, and Analog Forestry for food forests. We are certain that focusing on these methods will make an enormous contribution to reducing inequality and achieving a sustainable and fair world in which no one is left behind."

For more information:

The report 'De vrijblijvendheid voorbij' (in Dutch)

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