At the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the world is at a crossroads.
A set of interconnected shocks and setbacks have slowed, and in some cases reversed, progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For the first time in more than 30 years, we are seeing a reversal in human development. In the face of these reversals, the UN SDG Summit this September is a critical opportunity to get the SDGs back on track.
The UN Secretary General issued guidance this year on areas where the world needs to see new commitments from governments around action on the SDGs, both at home and internationally. The UN has called on countries to provide commitments in three main areas:
- Commitments to actions that can accelerate the SDGs globally.
- Commitments to national benchmarks for poverty reduction.
- Commitments to better domestic governance for the SDGs.
While we still don’t know what the UK government will commit to at this year’s Summit, academics and civil society have stepped in to analyse how the UK is placed to respond. Across three papers, addressing each of the UN’s three areas in turn, our analysis is a story of missed opportunities for the UK – though we still believe the UK should use the Summit as an opportunity to show its leadership on the SDGs.
Actions that can accelerate the SDGs globally
In the first area, we welcome the UK government saying that action in certain areas can accelerate progress across the SDGs, but making practical progress on this requires the UK to conduct a detailed analysis of how these multiplier effects occur and what is needed for this acceleration to happen. We don’t find much evidence of this kind of analysis of the UK’s global SDG impacts, for example in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)’s recent reporting.
Accelerating the SDGs in context also means being more responsive to the plans and priorities of recipient countries than the UK has been in recent years. The UK’s commitment to a “better and fairer global financial system” is welcome and vital. But the details of this commitment seem to show only piecemeal, market-led reforms, missing the transformation around debt and structural inequality that the SDGs demand, and which are so central to perspectives from the Global South.
National benchmarks for poverty reduction
On the second area of poverty in the UK, our analysis chimes with recent reports from parliament and civil society on the value of targets and benchmarks and measuring UK poverty in a more multi-dimensional and granular way. But the specific missed opportunity here lies in the Levelling Up strategy and its timebound 2030 “missions” which, if mapped to the SDGs and joined up by a greater focus on multidimensional poverty, could be a powerful UK commitment.
Research on the UK’s response to the SDGs in 2023
This research provides an analysis of how the UK is placed to respond to the national and global commitments needed from states to support the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.Read the report
Better domestic governance for the SDGs
On the third area, institutions for the SDGs, our analysis examines the UN’s new methodology for evaluating SDG governance, finding that the UK falls short. The UK’s only Voluntary National Review (VNR) in 2019 committed to a stakeholder engagement mechanism process and to strengthened SDG governance more generally but neither has materialised (in part, no doubt because of Covid-19). The lack of progress here is more striking because so many other countries, including important peers and partners of the UK, have done significantly more in the same time frame. Achieving the SDGs requires coherent policymaking that tackles social, environmental, and economic issues, both domestic and global, together. The SDGs rely on ‘national ownership’ and other countries have started to grapple with this agenda and its implications for governance to a far greater extent than the UK (though we note that the situation is more positive in Scotland and Wales).
Our third paper ends on a worried note, asking whether these missed opportunities to take the SDGs seriously undercut the UK’s insistence that it is a “leading advocate” for the SDGs and whether they might hold back the UK’s multilateral cooperation. What is also at stake is the UK’s chance to influence the future development agenda. If the UK is not viewed internationally as embracing the very agenda that it helped bring into being, why should it have the chance to guide the creation of the next?
Our research has very clear policy implications. The UK has the choice to redefine itself as a leader on the SDGs – to improve institutional governance at home, to commit to regular and transparent reporting on progress and gaps through the VNR process, to invest in and advocate for policies and programmes that leave no one behind, and to commit to the fundamental reforms of the global financial system that are needed to achieve the SDGs.
The first responsibility in politics is to listen. We hope that these papers provide such a basis for policy discourse and action to drive SDG delivery both domestically and abroad for the next half of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.
With thanks to the project team at Newcastle University – Cemal Burak Tansel, Kipp Mann Benn, John Davies, Neil Gumbs, Gabrielle Joyce, and Ayush Poolovadoo.