On 26 June, the UK government published its Voluntary National Review (VNR) of the UK’s progress against the Global Goals. The review was led by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), and the UK’s International Development Committee (IDC) has responded with heavy criticism in a report published this week. The IDC has accused the government of ‘casting doubt’ on its commitment to the SDGs due to ‘serious failings’ in its first VNR. Brexit and uncertainty about the Conservative Party leadership have created an uncertain and unstable backdrop that no doubt will have had an impact on how well the process of developing the VNR was executed. Nonetheless, the Committee’s report raises some valid concerns.
First is that the process was rushed, despite the fact that this is the UK’s only review since the Global Goals were ratified in 2015. As a result, consultation and discussions with a range of stakeholders – a vital part of measuring progress towards the SDGs – were performed at the last minute, and often had unclear outcomes. The concern in the Committee’s report that data and ‘vignettes’ were ‘cherry picked’ places into question whether the VNR paints a true picture of the UK’s progress on the Global Goals. If the VNR does not accurately portray progress, how can we know whether the UK equipped with the right evidence to deliver a transformative agenda for the ‘decade of action’ – the ten years remaining to hit the high ambitions set out for 2030? It seems the UK VNR has fallen short of expectations, and these criticisms should serve as a warning that something needs to be done.
At home, progress on the goals has been slow to mobilise and patchy, with the full integration of this transformative agenda across government still not realised. Unfortunately for the UK, DFID’s leadership on the VNR demonstrates that the goals remain within the purview of DFID, and siloed within the international development agenda.
Abroad, we know we are off track to meet the SDGs globally – particularly for those people furthest behind – and our evidence to the International Development Committee shows where there is room for improvement in the targeting of UK aid to the poorest. This is an area in need of attention, with a substantial and often growing gap between the poorest people and everyone else. Income inequality has grown in the last 15 years, with the very poorest making no progress at all. Secondary education completion rates also show a growing gap between the poorest 20% and the rest, and this is particularly acute for women. The poorest people are often not even counted – with the poorest 20% of children much less likely to be registered at birth.
However, there are reasons to be hopeful that the UK can rise to these challenges. Despite the VNR leaving room for improvement, the UK’s commitment to the SDGs through its international development agenda led by DFID is clear. It remains one of the largest aid donors in the world, and one of very few who are committing to and delivering 0.7% of GNI. When we look at key policy priorities such as nutrition, the UK is a leading global force and according to the latest data is exceeding ambitious spending targets in this area. Further, the UK has reported on 74% of the 244 SDG indicators – a higher number than most other countries’ VNRs cover.
As the UN High Level Political Forum comes to a close this week, member states should be coming away energised. With a decade to go, the Global Goals should be well embedded in the fabric of all countries, their domestic agendas and, where relevant, in their international development priorities. We are now turning our attention to the decade of action to ensure the world is on track to achieve the Global Goals at home and abroad.
So where should the UK be focusing its efforts as we move to the decade of action?
- The Cabinet Office should have fundamental responsibility for the UK’s Voluntary National Review to promote a whole of government approach – coordinating efforts across government to meet the SDGs, whilst allowing DFID to continue its vital role. This will also build greater transparency and accountability for work on the SDGs in departments beyond DFID.
- The UK should continue to support efforts to improve data, evidence and understanding about the people most at risk of being left behind at home and abroad. This includes investing in efforts to increase and improve the currently (very lacking) granularity, timeliness and accuracy of data.
- Increase funding to the countries and people who need it the most and are at risk of being left behind. This includes investing in core human capital priorities, and reversing the trend of declining official development assistance to sectors such as social protection, health and education.
- UK aid must focus on supporting countries to increase their statistical capacity. This should be done in a way that ensures people are being counted, and should include creating more complex measures of poverty to extend beyond income.
- Continue to champion 0.7% as a vital and internationally agreed target. If all OECD Development Assistance Committee donors had delivered on this target, there would be an additional US$1.5 trillion in development resources by 2030, which would go a long way towards addressing the financing gap.