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How close is the world to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?

This is an exciting and important year for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We are approaching the half-way point of the transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, something the UN 2023 SDG Summit will mark in September. While the international community prepares for a range of national, regional and international events around the summit, this is an important time to take stock of where we are with implementing the SDGs.

Countries are encouraged to produce voluntary national reviews (VNRs) to assess their progress towards the SDGs. Each year, a group of civil society organisations reviews these VNRs. The seventh edition of their findings provides insights on the last round of VNR reports as well as recommendations on how to improve implementation of the SDGs during the second half of the 2030 Agenda. Here’s what these findings reveal.

Trends on civil society

Civil society is crucial for implementing the SDGs, and countries seem to recognise this. There has been an increase in civil society participation with processes to define national SDG priorities and the VNR process itself. This is an encouraging sign, although there is little detail on the quality of such engagement.

It is less encouraging that countries mainly remain silent in their VNR reports on the issue of shrinking civic space, including the ongoing attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and environmentalists in many countries.

Countries need to ensure their engagement with civil society is meaningful and that they report on efforts to protect human rights, which are a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development.

Trends on leaving no one behind

It is positive to see that the principle of leaving no one behind, which is foundational to the 2030 Agenda, remains in nearly all reviews. Many countries identify groups that are at risk of – or are being – left behind, including older people, people with disabilities, women and girls.

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But there has been a significant decrease in countries embedding this principle in their national sustainable development policies. This is a worrying trend, given the importance of the principle to ensuring that people who have been marginalised and excluded are included in development efforts.

Reporting on the leave no one behind principle needs to be strengthened, and policies and programmes need to be informed by and integrate this foundational SDG principle by prioritising those most in need.

Trends on localisation

If the SDGs are to be truly sustainable, they need to be implemented and owned by local actors. The 2030 Agenda will not be achieved unless local communities are involved. Although ambitions for local implementation have been widely discussed, there are fewer examples of localisation than in previous years. Only around one third of reporting countries referred to integrating the 2030 Agenda into local plans and policies.

Where there are ambitions for local delivery of the SDGs, these need to be put into practice. There is also need for greater coordination with, and support of, sub-national and local authorities, especially where efforts towards the SDGs are already being made at local level.

What about the UK?

While the UK played a central role in negotiating the SDGs in 2015, there are clear gaps in its own SDG implementation. The UK has not presented a VNR since 2019. In this, the government committed to establishing a multi-stakeholder mechanism to monitor progress on the SDGs and to improve cross-government SDG delivery. But, as pointed out in the Bond’s UK’s global contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals report, there has been little progress on meeting these commitments, and the UK lacks global leadership on the SDGs.

The UK Government’s Public Order Bill has the potential to shrink civic space. Although measures that would give the police powers to restrict demonstrations and curb protest rights have recently been tempered in the House of Lords, the bill is causing international concern about human rights in the UK. The Index on Censorship, for example, now ranks the UK as only ‘partly open’.

While the UK’s current international development strategy, released in May 2022, acknowledges the importance of the SDGs, there is no clear commitment to the principle of leaving no one behind. Indeed, data shows a trend of moving resources away from low-income countries. However, on inclusion, another important aspect of the leaving no one behind principle, the UK government has taken some positive steps with its Disability Inclusion and Rights Strategy and Girls’ Education Action Plan.

It is encouraging to see that the UK’s international development strategy commits the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to become ‘locally owned’. However, there is little detail on what this will look like in practice.

What next?

Some progress has been made on the SDGs, both in the UK and internationally. However, the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the overlapping socio-economic and climate crises, have had devastating effects on those in the world who are most in need of support, and knocked back hard-earned progress on the SDGs.

As we get closer to the half-way point of the 2030 Agenda, we need to see renewed commitment to achieving these goals at the 2023 SDG Summit. We need to see the UK government, as well as governments around the world, commit to engaging civil society in the implementation of SDGs, delivering the SDGs on a local level and ensuring that no one is being left behind.


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