The UK’s report card on the Sustainable Development Goals

Agenda 2030 – a blueprint for a more just, inclusive, peaceful and sustainable planet

Next month, the UK will join 46 other countries in reporting on its progress on meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the High-Level Political Forum at the United Nations in New York.

This takes the form of a Voluntary National Review (VNR) – that’s similar to a school report card, but with one big difference. Instead of the UK’s progress being assessed independently, the UK government gets to write its own report card. So, what grade has the UK given itself?

A VNR is supposed to be a chance for a country to critically reflect on how it’s doing on the SDGs – both domestically and in supporting efforts internationally. Ideally, VNRs are done in consultation with a wide range of implementing bodies and stakeholders, in order to present a balanced and accurate picture.

We’re already seeing positive examples from other countries. For example, in Indonesia, youth advocates recently held a dialogue with policy-makers, where young people presented their views on national development priorities, such as education. Other countries have plans to give children a voice at the High-Level Political Forum by bringing child delegates as part of their delegations. After all, it’s children who will be most affected by the decisions policy-makers make today.

The UK government officially launched its VNR today. For civil society actors such as Save the Children, the VNRs are a key process to hold governments and power-holders to account on the promises they made to achieve Agenda 2030.

Agenda 2030, of which the SDGs are key components, is the world’s ambitious blueprint to end poverty, reduce inequality and fight climate change. Crucially, it is underpinned by the principles to:

  • leave no one behind
  • reach those who are furthest behind first
  • ensure that international development efforts reach those people who are most deprived and marginalised.

This is also a key priority of our work at Save the Children.

Overall the UK’s VNR painted a positive picture of progress across many areas both domestically and internationally, including:

  • decarbonising the economy and making strides in climate finance
  • widening access to inclusive education
  • providing aid for those affected by conflict around the world.

The VNR also attempts to capture some examples of where the UK has integrated the LNOB principle using case studies.

Significant gaps threaten to undermine progress

In response to the UK’s VNR, BOND – the network of organisations based in the UK working on international development and humanitarian action – as part of its effort to hold the UK government to account, released its own report: The UK’s Global Contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals. Integrating analysis of hundreds of development experts across nearly 50 organisations, this report highlights significant gaps and policy recommendations for the UK government, with individual chapters for each of the 17 SDGs.

The report looks at three dimensions of international development:

  • official development assistance
  • the impact of other relevant policies
  • the international footprint of domestic policies.

As highlighted in its VNR, the UK has been an important champion of the leave no one behind principle within Agenda 2030. It has promised to ensure that:

  • every person has a fair opportunity in life no matter who or where they are
  • people who are furthest behind, who have least opportunity and who are the most excluded will be prioritised
  • every person counts and will be counted.

The challenge the UK has faced, as with many other countries, has been turning this commitment into actionable, transformative policies and practice. Much of the focus on progress so far has been on disaggregating data to try to ensure that certain groups, such as people with disabilities, are captured in official statistics.

But as the Bond report states, solely focusing on data neglects, among other things, questions of feasibility, political will and social norms. Our own research – in the report Still Left Behind – highlights that, while disaggregating data can help to identify marginalised groups, much more needs to be done in VNRs and other accountability mechanisms to ensure that we’re tracking not just national averages but the rate at which the gaps between the poorest and most marginalised and the average population groups are closing or widening since 2015.

On present trends, being born into a poor household increases a child’s chances of being malnourished by 60%. Conversely, closing the nutrition gap between the rich and poorest households by 2030 would prevent 40 million cases of stunting.

And while the Department of International Development (DFID) has recently launched several plans to sharpen its approach on inclusion of marginalised groups, there has been little evidence to date of the leave-no-one-behind principle in development programming, budgeting and monitoring.

The report also warns that the UK’s recent trends towards privatisation, delivering aid in the ‘national interest’ and spending aid through other government departments outside of DFID has shifted much needed resources away from the fight against poverty and has negatively impacted the UK’s progress on the SDGs.

If the UK is to deliver on its commitment to leave no one behind, it needs to spend more, not less, on its poverty eradication programmes. More importantly, it needs to ensure that resources are directed towards reaching those who are furthest behind first. A focus on equity would mean, in practice, allocating more resources per capita for those who are the furthest behind from the SDG targets, such as those related to child survival. It also means systematically reducing disparities based on ethnicity, gender, wealth, language and other factors relevant to the local context.

It means taking necessary steps to ensure that children and young people, our beacons of tomorrow, have a say in decisions affecting their lives. It also means learning from other countries, by going beyond consultation to involve marginalised and deprived groups, such as children and young people, in implementing and monitoring progress made on the SDGs in a systematic and coherent way.

The UK’s presentation of its VNR in July is a significant opportunity to renew its commitment to the SDGs and the pledge to leave no one behind. The UK has the potential to be a global leader on sustainable development, and has indeed shown leadership in some areas. But it needs to do much more, much faster as we head into the 2020 decade of delivery of the SDGs. As we look toward the High-Level Political Forum in two weeks’ time, a key question in my mind is, how will the children of the UK, and the millions who are still being left behind around the world, rate the UK’s SDG report card?

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