Three essential lessons for driving action on the Sustainable Development Goals

Three-years ago global leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York and committed to the Sustainable Development Goals. As Farooq Ullah steps down as Co-chair of UKSSD, he looks back at our last three years to celebrate what he sees as our greatest successes. 

When we set up UKSSD we weren’t sure if our idea would work. Those of us that had been involved in the international process around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were trying to make this universal agenda matter in the UK and get others to support it. We felt intuitively that there was a need and demand for such an initiative, and the response has exceeded my expectations.

Three years on and I’m proud to see our network has grown to over 95 Partner organisations with a wider circle of Friends in the hundreds.

Looking back, the three moments that stand out for me are also the moments which demonstrated what multi-stakeholder partnerships can achieve. These three successes are proof positive of UKSSD’s mission and purpose.

From humble beginnings

We launched UKSSD officially in April 2016 at a conference of 100 people. At the time, we were just five partner organisations and with a tiny team we trawled the depths of our network to make it an appealing event. 

Despite the newness of the agenda and our lack of reputation we managed to secure Professor Sir David King and Jeffery Sachs as keynote speakers. We also had notable speakers from the Office of National Statistics, Welsh Government, BT, Good Energy and Kate Raworth before she’d finished writing, the brilliant, Doughnut Economics.

It was an amazing event, which finished with a drinks reception hosted on the terrace at Pearson’s office with views over the Thames and a palpable buzz in the room. Organisations wanted to have an impact on this agenda in the UK and were excited to do that in partnership with others. We were impressed with the energy and enthusiasm for UKSSD and the SDGs.

Almost overnight our partnership grew to 30 organisations.

Getting business to use its voice

One of our best-known endeavours is a letter we published in the Times to Prime Minister Theresa May calling on her to work with business and other stakeholders to deliver the SDGs. The letter, titled ‘sustainable development is good for business’, was supported by more than 80 British businesses.

When we decided to pursue this letter, we were not sure how responsive businesses would be to it. By the end of the process, we’d had to turn some away as we had run out of space on the page or they had missed the deadline. It was overwhelming success and surprised us. We had given business a chance to use its voice and, in the process, defined UKSSD’s role as a facilitator who could put it to good use.

Our partnership grew to over 60 within two months.

Measuring up: how the UK is (or isn’t) performing on the Sustainable Development Goals

In July of this year we published our first report, Measuring up: How the UK is performing on the Sustainable Development Goals. This report captures for the first time what is happening to people, to the economy and to the environment in the UK. It is the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the sustainable development in the UK, ever. While there’s a huge amount to celebrate in the UK, it does not make the happiest read, as the most vulnerable people and places are being left behind.

More than 100 organisations contributed to the research, and coordinating their inputs was a massive undertaking, but the scope and scale of the research was also considerable. The result is something we can all be proud of – not only does the report look great but it’s been downloaded more than 2000 times. Furthermore, it has been acknowledged by both 10 Downing Street and the Environmental Audit Committee of Parliament. Measuring up provides us with a resource we can build on and take forward in a variety of ways.

Our lesson from Measuring up is simple, give stakeholders the space and permission to get stuck-in and if they can, they will.

We’re on track to have reached more than 100 Partners by the end of 2018.

Looking forwards

I’m proud to have been at the start of UKSSD’s journey. As I move forward with a new role at the Centre for Development Results, I’m pleased to still be part of the steering group and to see what we can do to make the next 3 years as successful as the last. With the UK Government’s commitment to undertake a Voluntary National Review of the SDGs to the UN next year, the largest potential policy window for sustainable development in nearly a decade is about to open. Stakeholders must be ready to contribute decisively and collaboratively while also holding the Government to account for its commitment to the SDGs.

I’d encourage anyone who cares about the SDGs and wants to work with others to achieve them to find out about becoming a partner and get in touch with us today.