Has the UK missed an opportunity for global leadership?

28 June 2019

In 2015, countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to help transform the lives of people and protect the planet by 2030. The UK was pivotal to securing these goals.

Governments are accountable for the delivery of the 17 interlinked goals and take turns to report against their progress. This July, it is the UK’s turn at the High-level Political Forum.

The UK government has now published its voluntary national review (VNR), mapping out progress. So, what do we think?

The government covers every goal, including activity in the UK and internationally, committing to deliver sustainable development at home and abroad. However, the report lacks analysis, ambition and the perspectives of the most vulnerable.

The government is yet to set out a vision and plan for how they will meaningfully contribute to the success of the SDGs by 2030.

What we liked

  • The balance of domestic and international activity is about right. The devolved experience of SDG delivery in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland is included in each chapter.
  • We welcome commitment to a mechanism “to enhance stakeholder engagement and cooperation with government”. There should be assurances that this will include domestic and international stakeholders.
  • The report highlights the interlinked nature of the goals by signposting between them.
  • Data and evidence were used throughout the report and complemented by statistical annexes.
  • The inspiring front cover, which was designed by the 14-year old winner of a UK-wide art competition, adds a nice touch.

Our concerns

  • Still no SDG Action Plan: There is no commitment to develop a national plan for implementing the goals at home and abroad.
  • Is the report a progress review or a synthesis? The report is largely a mapping exercise, outlining existing activity, but it doesn’t offer an ambitious agenda for achieving the SDGs.
  • Policy coherence and interlinkages: Despite signposting between different goals, the chapters don’t explore how to improve integrated working across government departments. We expected an understanding of synergies, tensions and commitments for better policy coherence. For example, Goal 12 references that the UK doesn't have any fossil fuel subsidies, but this seems at odds with the recent Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry.
  • UK’s footprint missing: The VNR doesn’t look at how UK domestic policy, trade and consumption impacts on the delivery of the goals around the world.
  • Business as usual: despite some positive hooks in the foreword by the secretary of state, Rory Stewart, there is no indication that the UK government is thinking beyond “business as usual” to deliver the SDGs.
  • Selective rather than comprehensive: the data used offers a selective picture. Claims around inequality and poverty in the UK could be contested by presenting conflicting or alternate data, for example from UN rapporteur, Philip Alston’s recent report highlighting wide-scale poverty in the UK.
  • “Leave No-One Behind” has its own section and is covered in each chapter, but often doesn’t go beyond a token gesture. There is little understanding of the intersecting and multiple factors that lead to discrimination and marginalisation. This is disappointing, given that the UK led the way on championing this principle when the goals were agreed.

What’s next?

The SDGs promised to set the world on a fairer and sustainable path, partly owing to the leadership and collaborative role of the UK.

While we welcome this report, it doesn’t inspire confidence in the UK government having a clear and focused plan for delivering on that ambition, or that the SDGs are setting the tone and ambition for policy across government. High-level commitment to the goals, including from the top, still seems to be missing.

The UK is presenting this report at the UN next month, but the process doesn’t end there. We will continue to review and digest the VNR in full and will be sharing more reflections after the HLPF. Read our recent report on the UK’s global contribution to the SDGs for more recommendations on how the UK should develop its international commitments to the Goals.

Lots of gaps and questions remain. And at the UN and beyond, we will be pushing the UK government for answers.

The next episode of the Bond podcast will explore the SDGs potential for real change with specialists from the UNFPA, Frontline Aids and Accountability Advocates. Subscribe to the Bondcast to hear the episode when it comes out.

About the author

Bethan Twigg

Bethan is the advocacy coordinator (UK government lead) at WaterAid and co-chair of the Bond UK WASH Network.

Ruth Fuller
WWF-UK

Ruth is international development policy adviser at WWF-UK where she focuses on the links between poverty, natural resources and climate change. Ruth is also co-chair of the Bond SDGs group.