There is much to be welcomed in the government’s first attempt at outlining a UK response to the Sustainable Development Goals at home and abroad. Dr Graham Long explores what’s good, and what’s missing, on behalf of UKSSD.

On 28th March 2017, The Department for International Development’s (DFID) published its much-anticipated report on delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There is plenty to be welcomed in the government’s first attempt at outlining a UK response to the SDGs at home and abroad.

The report is characterised as setting out the UK “approach” to the goals and offers an “overview” of the UK response. However, it is underdeveloped in both these respects. As an overview, it is far from comprehensive – highlighting gaps to be filled by the refreshed departmental plans; as an approach, it raises important questions about priorities and underlying commitments.

There are three key concerns outlined here. The first is about selectivity; the second is about “leaving no one behind”, especially in the UK context. The third is around how far the UK’s global action maps onto the SDGs.

Selectivity: cherry-picking relevance and evidence

Perhaps the most obvious charge is that of cherry-picking, in terms of the areas the report chooses to address, how it uses the SDGs and the evidence it invokes.

The report only explicitly measures performance against SDG targets and indicators in cases where the UK already surpasses them (e.g. page 8). And it only compares performance to other countries where such comparison is relatively favourable. By contrast, where there are demonstrable challenges in the UK context, the presence of a relevant SDG target is not mentioned. As an approach this neither serves to “promote accountability” nor “foster exchanges of best practice and mutual learning” as pledged in the UN SDG text.

The report often uses alternative indicators, rather than those affirmed at the UN. For example, the report rightly mentions new commitments on housebuilding as relevant to achieving the SDG target on housing (11.1). But the quality of housing, which is a direct focus of the SDG target, is not mentioned. In 2015 19% of housing in England did not meet the Decent Homes Standard – a challenge, highlighted by the SDGs, that the report does not address. The report’s assessment of progress on domestic electricity from renewables is another example. The government is indeed on track to meet a target on electricity from renewables (30%) but the relevant SDG indicator is for renewables as a share of total energy consumption, and the progress towards targets on heat (12%) and transport (10%) is not as positive according to a 2016 parliamentary report.

There are plenty of omissions in the detail if this meant to be DFID’s systematic review of progress against the SDGs. Since the report only aims to give examples of UK delivery, not the whole picture, we cannot know the reasons behind any apparent oversights. However, to read this overview you would think there were no challenges in the UK around issues such as food insecurity, undernourishment and social protection (goals 1 and 2); with women’s participation in public life or recognition of unpaid domestic and care work (goal 5); or with freshwater quality and stress on water supplies in the UK (goal 6). You might get the impression that the SDGs yield no agenda of change for environmental sustainability in industry (goal 9) or agriculture (goal 2).

Leaving no one behind and disadvantage in the UK

One of the core principles of the SDGs is that “no one be left behind” – partly as the result of David Cameron’s leadership – but this is addressed only patchily within the UK context.

The SDG agenda should be especially focused on the most vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalised, including in statistical reporting and review. Disabled people are a frequent focus of the report (though continuing controversy around the government’s approach to disability should be recognised); gender and racial discrimination are mentioned. But there is little or no mention of other potentially vulnerable, marginalised or disadvantaged groups - for example, migrants or refugees, the homeless, or those in social care. There is no mention of tackling intersecting disadvantages, filling any cracks in the UK’s social protection floor, or addressing unequal access to basic services. There is also no mention of regional, or rural-urban splits, even though such disparities might be thought to inform UK response to the challenges of the goals at home.

It is hard, on this basis, to see leave no one behind as a systematic commitment of the UK government. But coverage within goal 10 on inequality is perhaps especially telling. This is the context in which ‘leave no one behind’ is explicitly mentioned, but here DFID considers this only an overseas, not a domestic agenda. SDG 10 contains specific targets on economic inequality within countries – for example, on pro-poor growth (10.1) or adopting policies that progressively reduce inequality (10.4). The DFID response is silent on these issues. It is not clear, from the report alone, if these areas are just not selected as examples, or whether the government has opted not to prioritise making the UK less unequal in terms of wealth (or indeed, if it wholly rejects these targets).

The UK’s contribution to SDGs globally

With regard to the UK’s commitment to sustainable development overseas, the report highlights a range of exemplar UK projects, and rightly trumpets the achievement of the UK’s 0.7% ODA target. It is also welcome to see the UK’s role in delivering the goals in the Overseas Territories acknowledged, albeit only in the context of fisheries and marine protection. Wider issues of biodiversity, social protection or illicit flows in these contexts are not addressed. Even in the overseas development dimension, though, there are gaps. The SDGs contain an extensive agenda of technology transfer and cooperation on research and development, that isn’t drawn out here. Beyond the aid commitment, judgments of whether the UK is doing its full share in reform of global trade, finance and governance – as invited by some of the SDG indicators - are not offered.

Conclusion

These issues of selectivity in approaching the goals and limited engagement with the commitment to leave no one behind are not unique to the UK. Similar gaps can be found in the reports of some developed countries widely cited as SDG “front-runners” e.g. Finland, Germany, and Switzerland. But it is still worth stressing that this UK report does not give the full picture. Nor does it map UK policies comprehensively or clearly onto the SDGs and their indicators in a way that would allow readers to see the challenges or opportunities more systematically. Looking forwards, the government’s commitment in the conclusion (p44) to “partnership with all” is valuable, but the details of what this will look like – how, concretely, the government plans to engage comprehensively with stakeholders (including business or NGOs) in SDG delivery at home and abroad, is absent.

Under goal 16, the report rightly highlights the importance of transparency and accountability in the UK. These are not automatic outcomes of the report, when read either as an overview or an approach. Instead the government’s report underscores the role of the Office of National Statistics, who have the responsibility for robust, independent, public reporting on the UK picture across all applicable SDG targets and indicators. Only such information facilitates transparency, allowing citizens and stakeholders abroad and at home to judge the adequacy of the government response. And this debate and discussion, in turn, is where accountability will be found.  

You can find out more about Graham's work on indicators for the SDGs here.