One year on from the UK’s Voluntary National Review: what next for the SDGs?

This week, UN member states and civil society are meeting virtually at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) to discuss progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The event also marks one year since the UK presented its first SDG progress report (called the “Voluntary National Review” or VNR), after a series of “engagement sessions” in early 2019. We were closely involved in the review, supporting the consultation process and producing our own member-led alternative report, tracking the UK’s international contribution to the SDGs. We also attended the 2019 UN HLPF, where we heard the DFID secretary of state’s VNR presentation, shared our network’s perspective and learned from international partners.

Bond and other UK networks had their criticisms of the VNR report. For example: the rushed consultation process, a lack of transparency in how stakeholder input was used and, despite the efforts of many officials, insufficient buy-in across government.

We also noted the poor communication of the goals – not only a responsibility of government – which resulted in the UK having one of the lowest rates of awareness in the world. A 2019 global poll by Ipsos MORI held in 28 countries found that only 13% of adults in the UK were “familiar” with the SDGs, compared to an international average of 26% and a high of 55% in India.

On the other hand, we were pleased to see some of our recommendations picked up, especially a commitment to “establish an effective mechanism to enhance stakeholder engagement”, a formal space for meaningful and inclusive consultation with UK society.

We believed that meeting this commitment would be an excellent starting point for open collaboration between government, civil society and other stakeholders on making the 2030 Agenda a reality, as has been achieved with positive results in other countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Kenya.

VNR, one year on

Unfortunately, the UK has made little progress on these commitments a year on.

Some delays are understandable, as we have since seen an unexpected general election, a change of government, the UK’s exit from the EU and the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic. These events have undoubtedly soaked up attention that might otherwise have been directed towards meeting the VNR and other commitments.

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But even before these events, we saw evidence of the SDGs being deprioritised. Although the goals have sometimes been namechecked in political announcements, the government has not followed up with sufficient concrete action or a plan for delivery.

In line with the UK’s commitment in the VNR, Bond is calling for a diverse, multi-stakeholder group to be established as soon as possible. The group should be engaged in regular and meaningful dialogue and have the mandate to advise and shape the UK’s national and international cross-government response to the SDGs. The group should include international, national and local civil society, especially that representing the most marginalised and excluded in keeping with the UK’s “Leave No One Behind Promise“.

The UK can no longer represent itself as a bastion of participatory and open government as long as it trails behind other governments that have taken this call to action seriously. This is an essential step towards putting people and planet at the centre of policy making, at a time when existing progress is already under the tremendous threat of Covid-19.

Civil society’s role

At the same time, international civil society in the UK also has an important role to play in delivering the SDGs. For a start, it requires raising them wherever possible, not as an add-on or a “nice to have”, but with urgency and across everything we do.

Those working on the SDGs have been guilty of appealing to the goals only in terms of abstract, broad values or international processes that have limited connections to concrete issues. We have also, through our words and actions, bought into the outdated notion that the SDGs are a “developing world” issue, despite the fact that the 2030 Agenda calls into question the very idea that there are countries that have reached “development” and those that have not. Poverty, hunger, inequality and exploitative work are a daily struggle for many in supposed high-income countries, including the UK.

The SDGs also call on the international development sector to do much more to support grassroots movements, local strategies and “visions of progress” (as opposed to donor-led ones). The sector needs to fundamentally change the way it works, including by giving up space to local actors wherever possible.

The SDGs provide an internationally agreed starting point for action and partnership on a wide range of issues. The goals will only have value if used as a tool for framing responses to global, national and local challenges. These responses must meet the demands of the most marginalised, whether that is the campaign for a Green New Deal, urgent questions of policing and access to justice raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement, or the needs of a resilient, inclusive and sustainable post-Covid recovery.

Whatever the outcome of the DFID-FCO merger in the coming months, the Bond SDG Group will continue its efforts to engage with government and other partners, to advocate for the UK to go beyond rhetoric and put the goals into action, domestically and internationally. As a starting point, we would like to see UK government implement its existing promises and commit to undertake another VNR by 2022 at the latest.

If you would like to be involved in Bond’s work on the SDGs, please join our SDG working group for more information.


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