The UK’s progress on the Global Goals
What is a Voluntary National Review?
The United Nations High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), which meets annually, is responsible for monitoring and reviewing progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a Global level.
Each year several countries present their Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), country-led and country-driven progress reports which aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with the intention to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Ireland presented their first VNR in 2018 and have committed to present another in 2022. However, this was first time the UK presented, after putting itself forward in 2017. Accordingly, expectations were high.
The UK’s approach to the VNR
The UK’s VNR was co-ordinated and led by the Department of International Development (DFID) with the support of the Office for National Statistics for data collection, and input from the devolved administrations. Stakeholder engagement activities commenced in October 2018 which included sharing case studies and hosting engagement events, and the VNR report was published in June 2019.
"The UK presents the VNR with a mixture of pride in what it has achieved so far, but also humility, given the scale of the challenges that lie ahead." UK VNR, 2019.
The VNR report highlights examples where the UK is performing well, citing the high-quality service provided by the National Health Service (NHS), high standards of education and progress made towards decarbonising, including the introduction of legislation committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It also recognises areas that require further work including supporting a growing and ageing population and increasing efforts to address climate and environmental issues.
Under each goal, the VNR describes actions being taken domestically in devolved administrations, around the world, relevant challenges and next steps. There are also various “activity snapshots” showcasing examples of organisations addressing a part goal. For example, under Good Health and Wellbeing (Goal 3 of the UN SDGs), the VNR highlights the UK’s leadership in global efforts to address antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and its commitment to continue this through its 20-year vision for AMR, and its contribution to global health funds.
Outcomes of the reportIn a report published by the House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC) on the same day as the VNR was due to be presented in New York, “serious failings” in the UK’s VNR presentation and preparation were identified. The main criticisms were around stakeholder engagement which was deemed as too little and too late to be meaningful – although the Government had 19 months to produce their VNR, engagement activity was largely left to the final few months.
In addition, the VNR report was deemed superficial and selective with a reliance on cherry-picked data to present a good story. The IDC also strongly reiterated previous recommendations for a Cabinet Office led approach to addressing the SDGs, rather than the current DFID led one, to ensure coherent and collaborative cross-Government planning and reporting on the SDGs.
The VNR presentationThe UK’s VNR presentation at the HLPF began with a video clip showing how various goals were being addressed. For example, a UK company addressing plastic pollution through the development of biodegradable packaging from seaweed and plant extracts was shown. This was followed by a summary of UK’s VNR by Rory Stewart, International Development Secretary, who emphasised that above all the lesson the UK had taken was of humility.
Other talks were given by UK representatives on ethical investing, highlighting organisations in the UK such as the Impact Investing Institute; the importance of improving data collection in the poorest countries and the UK’s commitment to the Inclusive Data Charter; and from a civil society representative urging the UK Government to develop policies to achieve their net zero by 2050 commitment.
The UK’s VNR was well received by representatives from other nations who congratulated and commended the presentations. However, the Women’s Major Group stated that the UK had “failed to demonstrate accelerated ambitions to implement the SDGs” and the Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Major Group criticised “inconsistencies of policies at home and abroad and with its obligations to international human rights and environmental standards”.
What next?It was acknowledged that the UK had to revise how it addresses the SDGs in the future and that there were many ways in which it could improve.
The VNR was an important milestone for the UK as there are only 11 years until the SDG deadline. It is important that the lessons learnt through delivering the first VNR are taken onboard and that NGO’s, academia, the private sector and others also play their part.