2023 marks the half-way point to the deadline of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

As stated in the UN resolution marking their launch in 2015, the SDGs seek to galvanise a global effort to promote human development (PDF) and enable those “left behind” to “achieve their full human potential”.

The UN has warned progress on the goals has stalled, and, in some cases, went into reverse during the Covid-19 pandemic. The UN intends to re-invigorate international efforts with a SDG summit from 18 to 19 September 2023.

This Insight sets out progress since 2015 and the UK’s current and future plans for international development.

What are the SDGs?

The SDGs were launched in 2015 and apply to all UN members, including the United Kingdom.

The central aim is to “leave no one behind” and “reach the furthest behind first” (PDF). Someone might be “left behind” on the grounds of income, gender, disability, age, ethnicity, or where they live.

There are 17 SDGs (see below image), with 169 targets for meeting them. Goals to achieve by 2030 include:

  • Ending poverty in all its forms everywhere.
  • Ending hunger, achieving food security, and improving nutrition and sustainable agriculture.
  • Achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030

There are 17 SDGs, including no poverty, gender equality and climate action.
Source: UK Government, SDG data. Open Government licence v3.0

What progress has been made on the SDGs?

In July 2023, the UN published a progress report on the SDGs. It found that, of the 140 targets that had sufficient data to be evaluated, half had had “moderate or severe deviations” from the intended trajectory since 2015 and 30% had had no progress or had regressed. These included:

  • A 100% increase in the number of refugees from 2015 to 2022, reaching 35 million people (see chart below).
  • A “resurgence” in fossil-fuel subsidies in 2021, returning to 2014 levels (around US$732 billion).
  • A decline in international finance to developing countries to support clean energy research and production, from a post-2000 peak of US$26.4 billion in 2017 to US$10.8 billion in 2021.
  • 32% of young women (ages 15 to 24) not being in education, employment, or training in 2022, compared with 31% in 2015.
Several world regions have seen increases in the numbers of refugees since 2015, including North Africa and Western Asia
Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, SDG Indicators Database, retrieved 5 September 2023

In 2022, global regions with particular challenges in meeting the SDGs (PDF) were Sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand) and parts of Asia:

  • The proportion of the employed population below the poverty line of US$1.90 per day was 6% globally, but 36% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 19% in Oceania (shown in the chart below).
  • The proportion of the world population undernourished was 10%, but 23% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 17% in southern Asia.
  • The under-five mortality rate was 38 per 1,000 live births globally in 2020, but 74 in Sub-Saharan Africa and 39 in Oceania.
In Sub-Saharan Africa a higher proportion of the employed population live below the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day. The proportion of the population undernourished is higher than the world average in Sub-Saharan Africa and central and southern Asia
Note: Grey lines indicate other regions of the world.
Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, SDG Indicators Database, retrieved 5 September 2023

UN calls for an “SDG stimulus”

The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, warns the SDGs will be missed. He argues there must be a “fundamental shift” in efforts at the September summit.

A successful summit, he states, rests on agreeing an “SDG stimulus” of US$500 billion a year (PDF), supported by the G20 group of countries.

First proposed by the Secretary General in October 2022, the stimulus would increase lending at low interest rates for countries with lower incomes, arrange debt relief, and reform the global financial architecture to increase the ability of these countries to access development finance.

At the G20 summit hosted by India in September, the group committed to “accelerate” implementation (PDF) of the SDGs.

UK aid and the SDGs

The UK is seen as one of the leaders in securing the commitment to “leave no-one behind” in 2015, with then Prime Minister David Cameron holding a high-level panel at the UN. The current lead for UK global efforts on the SDGs is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

The UK Government acknowledges that globally the SDGs are “drastically off track”, with African states and least-developed countries the most affected.

In October 2023, the former Minister for International Development, Vicky Ford MP, is expected to lead a debate in Westminster Hall on the SDGs.

2022 international development strategy

The UK’s international development strategy was launched in 2022 with four priorities, including empowering women and girls and supporting countries to grow sustainably.

Following publication, the strategy was criticised by Bond, the umbrella group for UK non-governmental organisations, for a “lack of clarity” on how UK aid would “leave no one behind” and advance the SDGs.

In July 2022, these comments were echoed by the Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion, who argued that “helping the poor increasingly seems to be seen as a by-product” of UK foreign policy.

By law, all UK aid is also required to reduce poverty and gender inequality.

The Government argues the strategy’s focus on economic growth, humanitarian aid and addressing the root causes of crises such as conflict and climate change means it is “closely aligned with the SDGs”.

Proposed international development white paper

Since taking office in October 2022, the new International Development Minister, Andrew Mitchell, has announced plans for a new international development white paper. This will set out the UK’s plans on international development to 2030, including how to get the SDGs “on track”, and explore “new solutions” to scale-up finance for development.

The Government plans to publish the paper at the UK’s global hunger summit in November 2023.

Change to aid spending

Having a smaller aid budget since 2020 has presented challenges for the UK’s work on the SDGs. Aid spending has fallen from a peak of £15.1 billion in 2019 to £12.8 billion in 2022 (of which a third in 2022 was spent in the UK on hosting refugees).

In its equalities assessments on the effects of the spending reductions, the FCDO found:

From 2024/25, FCDO aid spending is expected to rise but UK aid will not be restored to 0.7% of gross national income, as it was from 2013 to 2020.

Further reading

About the author: Philip Loft and Philip Brien are researchers in the House of Commons Library, specialising in international development.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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