i

Group Photo with SDG Logos at a conference in Vienna

Credit: Dean Calma / IAEA - Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Global progress on implementing the SDGs: How does the UK stack up?

22 February 2022
Author: Alice Whitehead

As the world grapples with the devastating effects of Covid-19, it’s more urgent than ever for countries to increase action to deliver the transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the end of the decade.

The sixth edition of Progressing National SDG Implementation has a range of useful insights and recommendations on how governments, civil society organisations and other stakeholders can improve efforts to implement and report on the 2030 Agenda.

The report also highlights global trends as well as examples of how countries are making progress on the SDGs from around the world. The UK played an important role on the global stage in developing the SDGs and claims that it “will be at the forefront of delivering them”, but does this rhetoric match with reality?

Trends on leadership and governance

Good governance and institutional mechanisms are the basic building blocks for any country trying to implement the SDGs in an inclusive and effective way. The report highlights that, seven years on from 2015, governments should be able to demonstrate that basic structures are in place to ensure there is a coherent cross-government approach to SDG implementation.  

From the report we can see that where governments assign leadership for implementing the SDGs indicates the level of political commitment as well as lines of accountability. Leadership on the SDGs around the world usually resides with Heads of States, however this is not the case here in the UK. As a result, progress on SDG implementation is stalling and there is a lack of policy coherence across government departments. 

As the report makes clear, consulting and engaging with non-state actors, such as civil society organisations, ensures a whole-of-society approach when it comes to implementing the SDGs. For the past five years, most countries are making use of formal (81%) and informal (67%) mechanisms for engagement. Again, the UK falls woefully behind. Despite committing to establishing a stakeholder engagement mechanism in 2019, we are yet to see any action being taken to fulfil this commitment and establish this critical implementation tool. 

The importance of civil society space for the SDGs

Countries recognise the critical role civil society plays in achieving the transformative goals of Agenda 2030. However, at the same time, countries remain silent on shrinking civic space and its consequences, including barriers to free speech and democratic participation, particularly to women and girls. Conversely, several civil society shadow reports in 2021highlighted the urgency of this issue, whilst providing evidence of government actions that hinder freedom of expression, assembly, association, and access to information. 

This gulf between VNR reports and civil society shadow reports is particularly worrying. Governments, including the UK, need to reverse these concerning trends and promote positive public narratives around civil society and its valuable role in the policy-making processes.

Trends on Leave No One Behind

It is welcome to see countries pay attention to the leave no one behind (LNOB) principle, as well as well as increased attention towards human rights, inter-generational responsibility and planetary boundaries

Reporting on LNOB increased in the 2021 VNRs, particularly in the identification of left-behind groups, incorporating the LNOB principle in national policies and plans, and the recording the impacts of Covid-19 on the marginalised communities. Challenges still remain when it comes to the availability of data, and the quality of information provided on LNOB. 

This is true for the UK too. While the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published its Action Plan to implement the Inclusive Data Charter, the UK government, as one of the Charter’s earliest champions, is yet to publish a whole-of-government action plan with clear guidelines of how it will monitor progress on the Charter. 

Trends on policy coherence for sustainable development  

Fewer countries in 2021 focused on policy coherence for sustainable development as a guiding framework for SDG implementation. This critical to ensure that action in one area does not undermine progress in another.

The UK government missed a trick last year when it published its Outcome Delivery Plans (ODPs) for 2021-22 because they lacked any critical analysis about how each government department’s plans impact on the other, or how domestic policies impact on the UK’s work internationally. All government departments should take ownership of their role in working towards sustainable development in the UK and internationally, and this should be rectified in the 2022-23 ODPs, which are due to be published later this spring. 

Time for the UK to step up

The UK played an important role in developing the 2030 Agenda, but in recent years progress towards implementing the ambitious and transformative goals has been disappointing. It has been more than two years since the UK presented its VNR to the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), yet there is still no multi-stakeholder engagement mechanism or clarity on where responsibility lies for implementing the SDGs.

We are almost halfway to 2030 and, although the pandemic has set back progress on the SDGs, it has also shown us just how interconnected the Goals are. They are the World’s To-Do List which we must get done. World leaders need to be bold, and many are now asking how to deliver transformative change as we begin to rebuild from the pandemic. Now is the time for the UK to step up and start delivering.

About the author

Alice Whitehead
Bond

Alice is a policy and public affairs adviser at Bond.