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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The Sustainable Development Goals were launched in 2015 and apply to all UN member states, including the UK. There are 17 goals intended to be met by 2030, including ending poverty in all its forms everywhere and achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

In July 2023, the UN issued a progress report on the SDGs. It warned that progress on most goals has stalled, and, in some cases, gone into reverse.

For more on the background to the SDGs, a summary of the July 2023 UN report and commentary on UK aid efforts to date, see the Commons Library Insight, Halfway to 2030: The SDGs, 14 September 2023.

Outcomes of September 2023 UN summit

On 18 to 19 September 2023 the UN hosted a high-level political forum on the SDGs. This was followed by an SDG financing summit on 20 September.

UN Secretary General calls for increase in aid spending

Addressing the summit, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, urged countries to mobilise US$500 billion annually by the end of 2024 and increase their aid spending to 0.7% of their Gross National Income (GNI) to help the world achieve the SDGs by 2030.

The Secretary General also called for debt relief for developing countries. In 2022, the UN Development Programme estimated 50% of the world’s population living in extreme poverty reside in 54 developing countries with “severe debt problems” (defined as being in debt distress, having poor credit ratings or with substantial sovereign bond costs).

Meeting the costs of debt interest can reduce the ability of governments to invest in SDG goals such as improving education and healthcare.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that the total global cost of achieving the SDGs is between US$5.4 and US$6.4 trillion per year from 2023 to 2030. For 48 developing economies (as defined by the UN), the shortfall in their budgets is estimated to be US$337 billion annually.

In the UK, aid spending currently stands at 0.5% of GNI, and will not be restored to 0.7% by the Government until two tests are met:

  • The Office for Budget Responsibility shows that “on a sustainable basis” the country is not borrowing for day-to-day spending, and
  • The ratio of underlying debt to gross domestic product is falling.

Based on the Autumn statement of November 2022, these tests will not be met until after 2027/28 at the earliest.

The Commons Library research briefing on Debt relief for low income countries provides more on the debts owed by low income countries and UK and global debt relief initiatives.

SDG political declaration and UN General Assembly resolution

The UN General Assembly adopted the summit declaration to accelerate global progress on the SDGs in September 2023.

The declaration (PDF) reaffirmed the commitment of governments to meet the goals and acknowledged that “the achievement of the SDGs are in peril” and that the Covid-19 pandemic had created “persistent disproportionate and multidimensional impacts.”

The declaration does not make any specific funding commitments, other than to state governments:

Commit to fully support the UN development system, including the RC [resident coordinator, encompassing all UN operational activities relating to the development] system and the Joint SDG Fund, to deliver better in support of programme countries and their efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs.

UK commitments at the summit

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly led the UK delegation to the UN General Assembly.

At the SDG summit, the UK Government pledged to support “a bigger, better and fairer international financial system” to unlock investment for the SDGs.

This follows the commitment in the forthcoming white paper on international development, expected for publication in November, for the UK to explore:

new solutions – that can drive more resources – whether sweating the assets of the International Financial Institutions further, as the Bridgetown Initiative has called on us to do, or drawing in more private finance. The White Paper will consider how to use all the levers at our disposal – in government but also outside it.

The Bridgetown Initiative, ­launched by the Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley argues debt distress, climate change and the impact of the war in Ukraine on global prices must be dealt with together. 

For more on the Bridgetown initiative, see section 3.7 of the Commons Library research briefing on Debt relief in low income countries, August 2023.

UK announcements at the UN included:

Education and the SDGs

In her submission to the Backbench Business Committee, Vicky Ford MP raised the particular importance of education in achieving the SDGs.

SDG 4 is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” The July 2023 progress report (PDF) by the UN found that:

  • In 2021 87% of children globally completed primary education. This was 88% in the case of girls and 86% for boys. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa completion rates were only 64% overall and 67% for girls and 61% for boys.
  • In 2021, 59% of girls and 57% of boys completed upper secondary education. This included 26% of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa and 29% of boys and 51% of girls and 54% of boys in Southern Asia.
  • In 2020, 49% of primary schools had access to the internet. In central and southern Asia, this was 18%.
  • The value of education scholarships funded by international aid globally had risen from US$477 million in 2006 to US$1,355 in 2021.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to July 2022, schools were closed for an average of 20 weeks and partially closed for an additional 22 weeks globally. Research by Unicef suggests this led to 370 million children not receiving a school meal in 150 countries in 2020, affecting their nutrition, while many missed out on education due to the challenges in accessing remote learning.

The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates 129 million girls are out of school globally, and only 49% of countries have achieved gender-equity in primary education.

Globally, issues of child marriage, poverty, conflict, and gender bias have created barriers for girls to access education.

UK aid and education

UK aid spending

In 2022, the UK provided £344 million in bilateral aid targeted at education. This, along with equivalent figures for the previous few years, breaks down into sub-sectors as follows:

UK bilateral aid spending on education, by sub-sector

Source: FCDO, Statistics on International Development: final UK aid spend 2022, 14 September 2023, and earlier editions

The bilateral aid total has varied over the years. There was no obvious trend in spending until 2019, but since then it has fallen every year, and in 2022 it was less than half the 2015-19 average.

This includes only bilateral aid – that is, aid provided for a specific programme or purpose. The UK also provides contributions to the core budgets of multilateral institutions such as UN agencies or the World Bank, and some of these may also have provided aid for education – for example, the UK provided £7.6 million in multilateral aid to UNESCO in 2022.

In 2021, the UK Government also announced £430 million for the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) for 2021 to 2025. The GPE works in 90 countries and territories, which have 80% of the world’s out of school children. The Chair of the APPG on Global Education, Harriet Baldwin MP, had called for £600 million to ensure the GPE met its US$5 billion funding target (around US$4 billion has been raised).

The UK’s levels of aid for education rank highly in international terms. Based on data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (which is not directly comparable to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) figures), the UK provided the equivalent of US$632 million in 2021 in aid for education.

This was the fourth-highest among OECD countries. The top three were Germany, at US$4,049 million, France, at US$1,654 million, and the United States at US$997 million.

UK aid strategy and evaluation of aid spending

In May 2022, the UK Government launched a new ten-year aid strategy. It has four broad priorities: strengthening reliable investment, providing humanitarian assistance, addressing climate change, biodiversity and global health, and empowering women and girls.

While education is not a distinct priority, the aim to empower women and girls includes working towards ensuring that every girl receives 12 years of quality education.

A separate policy document, Every girl goes to school, was published by the FCDO in May 2021, to cover the five years to 2026. This sets out three pillars for UK work on education: Advancing a global coalition to advance girls learning, directing UK aid efforts to increase girls’ participation and retention in school, and championing and disseminating related research.

The FCDO estimates that since 2015 the UK has supported around 19.8 million children to “gain a decent education.” Around 10 million of these were girls.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) published an evaluation of UK aid work on education in April 2022, ranking it as “green/amber” (the second possible highest-ranking).

It said that UK aid was “ambitious and mainly well implemented,” but found “that a quarter of the programmes which targeted girls explicitly in some way did not achieve their goals.” It noted that budget reductions in other sectors, such as sexual and reproductive health, “are likely to have had a knock-on impact on girls’ access to and attainment in education”.

The Government accepted all five of the ICAI’s recommendations in its response, published in July 2022.

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