On 16 July 2019 the UK Government presents its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York. This is the first assessment of the UK’s progress towards the SDGs at home and its contribution to their achievement overseas. It is an important moment for the UK and an opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to achieve this transformative global agenda, which covers everything from infrastructure to inequality and poverty to peace, both here in the UK and overseas.
The Secretary of State conceded that the coordination of the UK’s first VNR has been an “imperfect process”, with a lot of “nervousness” about the Government “marking [its] own homework”. The timeline for the Review has been unnecessarily tight, with most of the activity to pull the Review together taking place in the last eight months. The Government should have allowed more time for the VNR process, and in future should produce a detailed, publicly available timeline at least 18 months before presentation of the Review.
Stakeholder engagement throughout the VNR process has been inadequate and disappointing, with undue weight placed on the collection of ‘case studies’ in the VNR document. Departments’ engagement with stakeholders was ‘ad hoc’ and much of it took place late in the process, with little evidence of coordination from the centre. Consultation events were largely superficial, and it is hard to see how this engagement has influenced the final Review; or could have. The authors welcome the Government’s commitment to develop a formal mechanism for stakeholder engagement on domestic implementation of the SDGs, but require further details on this. The authors also want to see a commitment to create a similar mechanism for consultation on the UK’s global contribution.
The VNR process has doubtless resulted in increased awareness of the SDGs in pockets across the government departments. However, it was clear that initially the bar was very, very low, with some departments having virtually no knowledge of the agenda at all. The authors welcome the Global Goals being put on the agenda at Cabinet, which ensured some visibility of the SDGs for Cabinet Ministers at least. The authors hope that the next Prime Minister will follow up on these small steps with some leadership to ensure that the new Cabinet receives the message that the SDG agenda is integral to, and coherent with, the UK Government’s agenda. As the Secretary of State told us: “if you had a Prime Minister who made this central to their domestic agenda. That is what would really transform this.”
Placing the responsibility for implementation of the SDGs—and by extension the Voluntary National Review—in the Department for International Development is simply wrong. The practicalities are that DFID is an internationally-focused department whose Ministers have recognised that they have “relatively few, if any, domestic levers”. The message in this arrangement is that the SDG initiative is one for developing countries (when the whole point of the agenda is the shared and global nature of the goals). It is clear that the VNR—and UK implementation of the SDGs more generally—should be the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. For substantial progress to be made on the SDGs, across Government, it is essential that an appropriate mechanism is created in the Cabinet Office, at the very heart of government, to lead on communication and implementation of the SDGs, including coordination with the devolved administrations.
Overall, the UK’s first VNR was a welcome, but ultimately disappointing, review of the UK’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The authors found that despite some strengths, too often the VNR lacked coherence, depth and breadth of analysis, focusing instead on “cherry picked” data and case studies at the expense of facing up to the challenges that remain to be tackled in the UK and around the world. For its next VNR, the Government should be more ambitious and rigorous in its review of the UK’s progress. It should include more contextualised data, and analyses, showing trends and comparisons with other countries to illuminate the UK’s performance against SDG targets, including the variations across the four UK nations. Where case studies are deployed, there should be one real challenge—and in 2019 the withdrawal from the EU is an obvious choice—for every inspiring vignette or impressive new initiative.
The presentation of the VNR to the UN HLPF this week is an opportunity for the UK to reaffirm its commitment to the SDGs on the international stage and to once again show leadership on this vital agenda. The authors hope that the UK’s presentation will include a wide range of stakeholders involved in implementation of the SDGs across the UK, including young people and civil society representatives. The Government should use this year’s HLPF to commit to producing its next VNR in three years’ time: in the summer of 2022.
It is also vital that the next Prime Minister attends the SDGs Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in September, to speak to the UK’s progress on the SDGs and its first VNR. It is crucial that the UK reinforces its commitment to this transformative global agenda, supports the push—by Project Everyone and others—to deliver the SDGs by 2030, and demonstrates that the country remains a force for good on the international stage.
As part of the legacy of the VNR, the Government should also commit at the HLPF to a process of public review meetings on the Review, to include the devolved administrations; human rights institutions; trades unions; business and industry; NGOs; Parliamentarians and UK academia. Key points and recommendations could be summarised, appended to the VNR and submitted to the UN at next year’s HLPF. This process would allow the Government to raise awareness of the Goals by launching a national conversation about the VNR alongside these meetings. It would also ensure an accurate and comprehensive baseline for future reporting. In a spirit of peer learning and global engagement, the Government should assemble a peer review panel to feed into this process and kickstart implementation.