Time for honest reflection: How well is the UK performing on the SDGs?

Sustainable Development Goals icons
Kirsty Smith.
Author:Kirsty Smith
Posted on: Thursday, 25th July, 2019
UK presents its Voluntary National Review

This year’s High Level Political Forum at the United Nations in New York was an important one for the UK Government, as it presented its Voluntary National Review (VNR) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In total, 47 countries presented their VNRs across the nine days of the forum. As well as 125 senior government officials, there were over 2,000 participants, including representatives from CBM.

The VNR, which many had hoped the Government would submit in last year’s round, reported on the UK’s progress on the Goals both in the UK and through its international development work. This involved considerable cross-government and cross-legislature coordination, as well as the opportunity for public participation through online consultation and a number of sector-specific engagement events. Organisations such as UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) and Bond also provided opportunities for coordinated input into the process, and are already following-up on the event to ensure accountability.

The UK VNR highlights the Government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) and to meet the UN target (as part of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda agreement) to allocate between 0.15-0.2% of GNI to ODA in Least Developed Countries. These are welcome commitments, although do not assuage concerns over the direction of travel on what the Government hopes can be classified as ODA spend, for example support to high income overseas territories experiencing natural disaster.

Reporting on disability within the VNR

There is a smattering of reporting on disability throughout the VNR, as the SDGs include targets on disability in Goals 1, 4, 8, 11, 16 and 17 (and indeed 34 out of 47 VNRs referenced disability). The UK’s report highlights:

  • The importance of data disaggregation in identifying which groups are at risk of being left behind, for example in education and economic participation
  • The continuing levels of violence against women and girls, especially those with disabilities
  • The role of the Global Disability Summit in 2018 in galvanising commitments to further inclusion
  • DfID’s commitment in its Disability Inclusive Development Strategy to put disability at the heart of everything it does
  • The challenge of truly achieving targets on inclusion in Goal 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions)
Time for honest reflection

One of the most useful results of the VNR process is the obvious pause for reflection it has given the Government and the hint of honesty expressed about where the UK really is in achieving the SDGs, especially at home – which is refreshing as the Government has long clung on to the coat tails of David Cameron’s co-chairing of the High-Level Panel of eminent persons in developing the Goals. In its main message to the HLPF, the UK Government stated:

“Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this has been applying these lessons to how we think about development and politics in the United Kingdom. We are, like every government, trying to do the very difficult task of balancing realism with optimism and all the competing demands and priorities of millions of citizens. The Sustainable Development Goals have helped us not just to compare our programmes abroad with those at home but also to reconsider our approach in the United Kingdom – a vision that is not just about raising incomes but stretches to thinking about the quality of our cities, the strength of our communities, the air that we breathe, our nature and landscape and the way we preserve our heritage for future generations.”

However, I may not be alone being nervous reading the following sentence, that “The challenge is to keep this vision connected unflinchingly to reality, to specific people and places” – that this could provide room to opt-out of even trying to reach certain target groups if this seems too difficult.

Unsatisfactory consultation process and depth of analysis

Parliament’s International Development Committee (IDC) certainly doesn’t hold back in its criticism of the UK’s VNR, especially of the process which allowed very little time for genuine participation from other government departments and devolved administrations– let alone for civil society and other stakeholders. Because of the very short timescale, the Government missed an opportunity to engage with stakeholders outside the ‘usual suspects’, and doubtless people with disabilities would have been amongst those left out, as so often provision for a full range of communication methods is not made. What engagement there was, the IDC argues, was superficial and, disappointingly, very unlikely to have influenced the final VNR.

However, the IDC observes that the VNR kick-started a greater understanding of the SDGs across Government, albeit starting from a low bar. In order to strengthen responsibility for the implementation of the SDGs, the IDC recommends that oversight should reside with the Cabinet Office, rather than DfID – which, the IDC argues, has insufficient domestic levers to coordinate; and much of the international development sector is in support of this recommendation.

The IDC was also critical of the substance of the review and expressed disappointment that it lacked coherence, depth and breadth of analysis. It was also overly focused on ‘cherry picked’ data and case studies at the expense of challenges that remain to be tackled in the UK and around the world.” Another welcome recommendation from the Committee is the call to set up a peer review panel of experts from global partner countries, both developed and developing, to input into the next VNR – to be initiated by Parliament rather than Government, if necessary.

But progress is taking place globally

At the global scale, progress is being made on some of the SDGs. Extreme poverty and child mortality rates are falling, progress has been made on gender equality and more people now have access to electricity. However, the extreme poverty rate is projected to be 6 per cent in 2030, hunger is on the rise for the third consecutive year and one million species are facing extinction. People with disabilities continue to face multiple challenges and ongoing marginalisation, and those in the most vulnerable countries bear the brunt of failure to achieve the SDGs.

One of the events at the HLPF explored the importance of bridging the gap between national policy and local implementation. CBM is working with the International Disability Alliance (IDA) and International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) to build the capacity of disabled persons’ organisations (DPOs) to provide training on building the bridge between the SDGs and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), through the BRIDGE CRPD-SDG Programme. CBM is also working with Humanity and Inclusion and IDA to develop specific training on Article 11 of the CRPD, on situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies.

That the SDGs will be achieved by 2030 has always been an ambitious target. The UK’s experience of the VNR process has taught us that the scale of work to be done is perhaps more than we imagined, but that with some humility and plenty of determination we could make a decent go of it.


Keep up to date! Enter your email to receive information about our vital work, appeals and events as well as how you can make a difference.

Please complete the fields below: