UK Government’s Voluntary National Review casts doubt on its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals
The International Development Committee (IDC) identifies serious failings in the preparation and presentation of UK’s first Voluntary National Review of progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
The UK has taken a long time to get around to producing a VNR (some countries have produced two since 2015) and so expectations were naturally that much higher, and the disappointment that much greater.
The Government had 19 months between committing to a VNR and producing it. Despite this, the timeline was squeezed and most of the work – and virtually all of the engagement activity – was left to the last few months, preventing stakeholders from meaningfully engaging in, or influencing, the final report.
The engagement activity recommended by the UN – consultation with stakeholders like human rights institutions; trades unions; business and industry; NGOs; parliamentarians and UK academia – was not only late but also ‘ad hoc’ and superficial.
The VNR itself was selective and partial, relying on cherry-picked data, context-free snapshots and positive vignettes, to present a ‘good story’. It skirted discussion of some serious issues, for instance: food security, poverty trends and EU withdrawal. The Secretary of State for International Development told the Committee there was “nervousness” around the Government “marking [its] own homework”.
The implications of these failings of process and substance in the VNR is that the UK is not taking the SDG initiative seriously – as integral to, and coherent with, the Government’s overall agenda. This is also evident in making DFID the lead coordinating department, as opposed the Cabinet Office, whose role is “supporting collective government, helping to ensure the effective development, coordination and implementation of policy”. The IDC will return to this matter later in the year.
In consequence, today’s IDC report calls for:
- Steps to implement the UK’s commitment to the SDG agenda (such as: a convincing statement at today’s UN High Level Political Forum; giving overall responsibility for SDGs to the Cabinet Office; building the Goals into cross-government planning, spending review and reporting processes), and
- A commitment at the HLPF to: producing a further Review in three years’ time, with a more collaborative, consultative and comprehensive VNR process; and delivery of a more rigorous, data-driven, contextualised evaluation of the UK’s performance against the SDG targets next time.
The Chair of the Committee, Stephen Twigg MP said:
“Today, the UK will present its first Voluntary National Review to the UN. This should have provided a clear indication of how far the UK has progressed towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, a global agenda which includes the most crucial challenges facing the world today, across the full spectrum of social, economic, political and environmental issues. However, we have found both the preparation and the presentation of the VNR to be gravely flawed.
“We fear that the priority and resources committed to the VNR process – and the whole SDGs agenda – reflect a lack of engagement and understanding at the heart of, and throughout, the UK Government.
“We do welcome the progress the UK is shown to have made, and signs of some efforts made to incorporate sustainable development across government departments. But this progress has been uneven, and knowledge of the Sustainable Development Goals across Government remains limited. Our sincere hope is that the Government has learned important lessons from this first VNR process and that, at today’s presentation at the HLPF, will kickstart a fresh commitment to the SDGs.”