Sustainable Development Goals: How is the UK performing?

In 2015 the UK Government committed to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals aim to improve peace, prosperity, access to healthcare and education and tackle climate change worldwide.

The SDGs, also known as the ‘Global Goals’, replaced the 2001 Millennium Development Goals, which only covered developing countries. The new goals apply to advanced economies like the UK.

Each country signed up to a deadline of 2030 to achieve the SDGs and has to report on how they are performing.

On 26 June, the UK Government published its report on the implementation of the SDGs so far. The UK’s report – the Voluntary National Review (VNR) – will be presented at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development scheduled for 16-18 July in New York.

Critics argue that the UK’s performance has been inadequate in important policy areas, including combating hunger and food insecurity at home. They also state the Government has not established effective structures and processes for implementing the goals. There has also been dissatisfaction over how the Government conducted the VNR process.

Public awareness of the SDGs appears still to be low. Only 9% of respondents to a 2018 ‘Aid Attitudes’ survey knew what the SDGs were.

This Insight looks at how the UK is performing so far.

What are the SDGs?

There are 17 goals, with 169 associated targets for human development (plus 230 statistical indicators). The rallying cry is ‘leave no one behind’.

The Sustainable Development Goals. 1. No poverty. 2. Zero hunger. 3. Good health and well-being. 4. Quality education. 5. Gender equality. 6. Clean water and sanitation. 7. Affordable and clean energy. 8. Decent work and economic growth. 9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure. 10. Reduced inequalities. 11. Sustainable cities and communities. 12. Responsible consumption and production. 13. Climate action. 14. Life below water. 15. Life on land. 16. Peace, justice and strong institutions. 17. Partnerships for the goals.
Source: ONS

The UK’s performance at home

In the VNR, the UK Government claimed these achievements:

  • a high-quality health service, free for all at the point of use;
  • high and rising standards of education;
  • increasing employment, with more women and disabled people in work;
  • progress made on climate and the environment; and
  • some of the world’s strongest legislation on equality issues.

At the same time, the Government acknowledged areas that need further work, including:

  • tackling injustice to ensure no one is left behind;
  • further increasing efforts to address climate and environmental issues;
  • ensuring the housing market works for everybody;
  • responding to mental health needs; and
  • supporting a growing and ageing population.

In July 2018 the NGO coalition UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) offered a ‘score card’ on the UK’s domestic performance on all seventeen SDGs. Summing up, it said:

Out of 143 relevant targets […] the UK is performing well on 24% (green), with 57% where there are gaps in policy coverage or performance is not adequate (amber), and 15% where there is little or no policy in place to address the target or the performance is poor (red).

Examples of targets where the UK scored ‘red’ included: ‘recognizing and valuing unpaid care’ (part of goal 5 – gender equality) and ‘achieving and sustaining income growth of the bottom 60% of the population at a rate higher than the national average’ (part of goal 10 – reduced inequalities).

Earlier this year the Environmental Audit Committee published a report criticising the Government’s domestic performance in combating hunger and food insecurity.

The UK’s performance abroad

In terms of its performance across the rest of the world, the UK Government stressed in the VNR it was meeting the UN’s target of spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on aid. The target became a legal obligation in 2015. Since then it has been met each year.

The Government also highlighted tackling climate change, addressing the “root causes of extreme poverty” and contributing to “inclusive and sustainable economic growth” as areas of strong performance.

Prior to the publication of the VNR, the UK network for organizations working in international development, BOND, published its own ‘goal-by-goal’ assessment of the UK’s “global contribution”.

It claimed that UK aid policy was undermining its stated commitment to the SDGs by not investing enough in “human development for all, gender equality and women’s rights, and social equality, in direct collaboration with relevant communities and civil society.”

It also criticised the Government for moving the focus of aid policy away from its “primary purpose of poverty eradication” since 2015, so reducing the UK’s “potential impact on the SDGs”.

It added that the UK should be doing more to reform the international tax system and support “domestic resource mobilisation” and on “climate action and environmental sustainability”.

BOND concluded the UK should be investing more in “capacity-building and empowerment programmes,” deepening and broadening its range of partnerships.

Which Government department should take the lead?

The Department for International Development (DFID) is currently leading Government efforts to implement the SDGs. There has been a widespread view in Parliament and civil society that this should not be the case, given that it is not qualified to do so on the domestic front.

Until now the SDGs have featured in the plans of individual ministries – called Single Departmental Plans – but there is no single cross-government plan.

Some members of the International Development Committee (IDC) have suggested that the Cabinet Office should be in the lead during the next phase of implementation.

Criticisms of the VNR process

Opposition politicians, select committees and NGOs have made numerous criticisms of how the VNR process was conducted. Some alleged the UK was slow to put itself forward for the VNR and, when it did, there was inadequate consultation with stakeholders.

Secretary of State Rory Stewart, speaking on the day that the VNR was published, acknowledged that the process had been “imperfect”, adding: “This is our first VNR. We are learning from it. I think it will grow and strengthen.”

What happens next?

Each goal-specific chapter of the VNR sets out “key challenges and actionable next steps” for that goal. More broadly, the VNR identifies a “number of overarching themes that the UK will continue to focus on, including collaboration, data and financing for the Goals.”

On collaboration – an issue which critics have expressed concerns about – the Government says:

The UK government will review and further strengthen the existing means and mechanisms to oversee its contribution to domestic delivery of the Goals, building on the Single Departmental Plan process […] an effective mechanism will also be established to enhance stakeholder engagement and cooperation with government in the domestic sphere.

On financing, the Government’s priority will be “harnessing the potential of UK financial services and institutional investors.”  This approach could also court further controversy.

Less contentious (unless progress stalls) will be the Government’s commitment to continue filling in “data gaps” on domestic implementation of the goals. The Office for National Statistics is currently able to source data for 74% of the statistical indicators, leaving 26% of them still unmeasured.

Whether these steps will satisfy critics remains to be seen. UKSSD welcomed the proposal to establish a stakeholder engagement mechanism but regretted that there was no explicit commitment to developing a national plan or to the SDGs being coordinated by a “more appropriate domestic department” in future. BOND asked : “has the UK missed an opportunity for global leadership?” Whatever their assessment of the UK’s performance so far on the SDGs, all may agree with the Government when it says in the VNRs conclusion that there remains a long way to go on the “journey to 2030”.

Further reading

UK Voluntary National Review on the Sustainable Development Goals, House of Commons Library.

Jon Lunn is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs.

Photo:global-goals by DFID / image cropped. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Stay up to date

Sign up to email alerts every time we publish new research on the topics you’re interested in