Why is Austria having such a hard time implementing the Global Sustainable Development Goals SDG?

Mei-Pochtler: I think it's less about whether we are struggling. The question is: are we performing well or are we performing badly? And that shows: we are not top, we are middle class. We can improve that and of course we have to communicate that accordingly. I have a problem with the phrase "hard to do". Because that sounds like we do not want to target that.

Harrer: This is typically Austrian, as in many other areas too: Austria is a big shunting station of responsibility. I remember well how the entire development cooperation was located in the Federal Chancellery: there you had specific contacts. Today, one sometimes has the feeling that there is nobody who is responsible. And no one comes up with a coherent strategy. It would be necessary to create clear structures here. The Austrian contribution to the SDG should also be a top priority, because it is an essential topic that also shapes the image of Austria in the world.

Philippe Narval, Forum Alpbach
Philippe Narval, Forum Alpbach

"I think the SDG is great because it sets global goals for the first time, which also apply to developed nations." 

Narwhal: I think the SDGs are great because they set global goals for the first time, which also apply to industrial nations. So far, there have always been goals for emerging and developing countries. If I look at how much money the government spends on advertising, it must still be possible to transport the SDG and make it known. It will probably also need pressure from the population so that it goes further here. When talking to farmers or tourism experts, you realize: There is growing anger that climate change and its consequences are not a political issue. People expect answers! Because they feel that we simply do not manage sustainability well.

Mei-Pochtler: I agree that there should be clear objectives and a clear responsibility. That's why there is Think Austria. We are not a think tank but a do tank. And we have a cross-cutting task, because we also see that in Austria much is too fragmented and too often every ministry alone works its magic. But we would have to work transversally. That's why we've defined a handful of topics that affect several ministries or the entire federal government and that we consider important for the long term. Especially in the SDG we see a big opportunity for Austria. The question is: Are we a sufficiently intense force of change beyond our borders? Do we put our horsepower on the road in realizing the SDG outside of Austria? And we can and must do much more with entrepreneurial strength.

Harrer: I am skeptical when I "can" and "must" hear - because the Lord does not have to exist. I think there are only two things: doing or not doing. That's it! The Senate of Economics started the Climate Alliance of Entrepreneurs years ago. I have had countless conversations with politics and administration, and what I experienced was too often pure frustration. This was mostly due to insurmountable particular interests, which is the fall of mankind in Austria.

Narwhal: For me, public perception is also crucial here. What do people perceive as opportunities and what problems? And there we are at a dead end right now, because certain topics are given too much room while we leave out the really important challenges. We have to give the population pure wine here, that it needs more complex and even more radical solutions to let Europe survive in the world. In Austria, there is still a picture that environmental or climate protection costs more than it benefits. This discussion is fundamentally changed: namely, that economic sectors can benefit enormously from it. We have great international pioneering companies, but they might need a bit of support to enter the world market. At the same time, if companies do not transform themselves radically, they will not have a business case in 15 years. And those who are starting to transform and optimize resources will be the ones who have been leading the way in 10 to 15 years.

Hans Harrer, Senate of Economics
Hans Harrer, Senate of Economics

"I am skeptical when I" can "and" must "hear - because the Lord does not have to exist."

How do you see the international role of Austria, for example in relation to Africa?

Mei-Pochtler: Africa is a hot topic on the federal government's agenda, and there is certainly something to be done. But before you can go public, you just have to clarify exactly what. It is clear that the state will do a lot. Above all, it's about making it tasty for the company by showing the opportunities. The reality: Our trade balance with Africa is simply irrelevant, and we have to change that massively. Politicians must be enablers here by opening up the opportunities for companies that result from this. Africa is an absolute opportunity continent, not just a source of migration. Unfortunately, the discussion has drifted away in this direction.

Narwhal: For one thing, I believe that one has to change perceptions here as well: Away from focusing purely on development aid. Compared to climate protection, the discussion is already a bit further. After all, we talk about impact investing, for example, as a great opportunity to combine development and profit opportunities. If you ask entrepreneurs today what support they would need for such activities, then these are: tax relief, export assistance and convincing branding that Austria stands for sustainable technology exports. But here, too, a broad public discussion is needed first. And a lever could be that the Federal Government uses its public relations work in the future to communicate the opportunities through the implementation of the SDG.

Mei-Pochtler: The public discourse is certainly important, but in my opinion should be started only when you can show something concrete. Simply discuss l'art pour l'art - that will not really help us. The companies are our great strength and we have to win them. You have to show the existing opportunities and possibly create better opportunities through targeted support. And if we have some showcase projects, we can have meaningful dialogue on that basis. Then you can show the company: You see, it works. And above all, we can approach Africa with a different attitude.

Harrer: With all its resources, Austria has the potential not to be content with mediocrity, but really to become a model European country. But to be honest, we have to admit that in fact we have not done anything about global sustainable development - if we ignore phrases as part of any word-giving. This is an Austrian problem: we simply address the topics more. In connection with the specific Austrian prevention structure, nothing comes out of it.

Are the opportunities you mentioned attractive enough for the Austrian companies today?

Mei-Pochtler: Unfortunately not. This also has to do with the fact that the export-strong Austrian companies are very active in many areas and do not want to get bogged down. And that's why we have to use small incentives to make the opportunities for new topics and regions tasty. So that they can actually address this in the large portfolio of opportunities. Because it is clear that we do not want our companies to be placed in risk positions.

Mei-Pochtler: We should also see the motivating factor here: that Austria's companies are excellently positioned when it comes to developing technology for future markets. We have numerous mid-sized and large companies that are technology leaders in relevant industries.

Antonella Mei-Pochtler, Think Austria
Antonella Mei-Pochtler, Think Austria

"We have to go much more towards enabling the entrepreneurial power to find effective solutions together."

How can we get ahead?

Mei-Pochtler: We agree that we need a reorientation of development cooperation that is no longer the right one in today's form. We have to go much further in the direction of activating entrepreneurial power in order to find effective solutions together. This also includes being able to perceive Africa as an oppor- tunity and partner continent at eye level. And I see here a core competence of the Federal Chancellor to bring the right people to a dialogue at a table. We try to support this with Think Austria.

Harrer: You have to be careful here: If you bring too many votes and interests to one table, there is a risk that in the end only soft-washed results will come out. But here we need edges, decisions have to be made - and that requires leadership.

Narwhal: And a clear awareness of the problem: that sustainability and global development are not driven by moral or altruistic motivation, but that it is a survival strategy for us as well.

Many thanks for the interview!


Philippe Narval, Antonella Mei-Pochtler, Hans Harrer
Philippe Narval, Antonella Mei-Pochtler, Hans Harrer

Philippe Narval is managing director of the European Forum Alpbach.

Antonella Mei-Pochtler is a management consultant and leads "Think Austria" - a new staff department for strategy, analysis and planning in the Federal Chancellery.

Hans Harrer is entrepreneur and chairman of the board Senate of the economy.

Photos: Mihai M. Mitrea