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Britain’s progress on the SDGs is ‘insufficient’

Written by Elizabeth Stuart

How is the UK doing so far on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals? According to the International Development Committee’s (IDC) select committee, not well enough.

Its report, released today, sets out detailed recommendations on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals – not just abroad via the aid budget, but at home in the UK as well, requiring some tough policy choices in this country.

The verdict is frank, calling the government’s domestic implementation efforts ‘insufficient.’

Despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s championing of the SDGs, the report highlights ‘a worrying lack of engagement in the SDGs across government’.

Implementation should be led by the Cabinet Office, the report says, with each relevant department setting out what it will do to achieve the goals.

To date, there seem to be no plans for this to happen, with responsibility falling solely on the Department for International Development, which the Committee said it ‘remained to be convinced’ was the right approach.

Britain needs a cross-government approach to deliver on the Goals

Despite rising employment in the UK, the proportion of children in poverty living in a working family rose from 54% in 2009–10 to 63% by 2013–14. It would be nonsensical for DFID to be responsible for reducing this figure in line with the SDG commitment to ‘leave no one behind’, as well as Goal 10 on inequality.

Climate targets are another example. The trend on use of renewables is going in the right direction in the UK, in line with Goal 7, one target of which is to ‘increase substantially’ the share of renewable energy in the energy mix. But this is under threat with the government’s recent cuts to subsidies to the solar industry. Progress in this area should be driven by our departments for business, and energy and climate change, if the government is taking the commitment seriously.

Other relevant issues where heavy lifting will be needed are sustainable consumption and production (in which developed countries are supposed to lead the way), gender equality, and nutrition.  Again, dealing with these issues in the UK is not a job for DFID.

As the IDC says:  ‘We are deeply concerned at the lack of a strategic and comprehensive approach to implementation of the Goals. Without this, it is likely that areas of deep incoherence across government policy could develop and progress made by certain departments could be easily undermined by the policies and actions of others.’

UK domestic efforts are critical to the success of the SDGs

So the Goals are important for Britain – but not just because there are genuine domestic policy challenges.

While the MDGs were successful because developed countries offered to finance the goals in the form of aid, this time, the SDGs’ success will depend on soft power dynamics. The Goals have to be seen as universal, and so the UK – like other donor countries – needs to demonstrate that it is prepared to do things differently at home.

The IDC report, which pulled no punches, also recommends the government should:

  • deliver a ‘substantive and fully resourced’ internal communications strategy on the SDGs;
  • identify a formal mechanism for relevant Secretaries of State or responsible Ministers to come together regularly to discuss the implementation of the SDGs at the highest political level.

And it expresses disappointment that while the government has committed to produce a report on the international and domestic approach to SDG implementation by the end of the year, it refuses to call it an implementation plan.

Other countries are already leading the way on ensuring that national level policies are in line with the commitment they have signed up to. The Netherlands, for example, recently appointed a coordinator for domestic SDG implementation.

The UK government should take these IDC recommendations seriously. Britain used to be an SDG leader. It would be a great shame if, right from the outset, it were to become an SDG laggard.