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Will the UK's first SDG review answer the right questions?

Tomorrow the UK government will release the first Voluntary National Review (VNR) of its progress towards achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). So far, experience with VNRs has been mixed, with some much more comprehensive and insightful than others. Will the UK VNR ask the right questions and answer them fully?  

Accountability and addressing failure

The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets apply to all countries. They are interdependent, and so should be treated holistically. But it remains to be seen whether the UK will report against all the targets, as it should, or just the 17 goals.

But beyond this, what else will it report, and leave out? It is particularly important that the UK reports its progress against principles that apply across the whole SDG framework - such as reducing inequalities, and realising human rights.

It will hopefully include mention of important progress that has been made on human rights, such as the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act. Here, we hope the UK VNR will consider where further action is needed, to build on this strong foundation. This should include mandatory human rights due diligence for UK companies in other areas, in line with a proposed UN Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights.

But the VNR could also report transparently on challenges around inequality and rights. There is a danger in governments omitting to consider areas where there has been little or no progress - or what should be done about them. For example, will the VNR report a recent decision to repeal legislation explicitly outlawing caste-based discrimination in the UK, which runs counter to SDG targets on non-discrimination? This is critical if the VNR process is to offer any accountability, or guide future progress.

Shared prosperity and global partnership

Another important principle of the SDGs confers on wealthier countries a fair share of responsibility for delivery of the SDGs globally, in line with their advantages in wealth and power.  Agenda 2030 includes targets for multilateral cooperation and partnership in areas such as aid, investment and support for raising domestic tax revenues. The VNR is an opportunity for the UK to consider how well it contributes and whether it could be doing more to enhance global equity.  

The emphasis should be on quality as well as quantity. For example, is the UK’s investment of increasing amounts of aid through the private sector creating jobs for those who most need them or putting ‘national interest’ before development impact?  Is the UK’s financial services sector investing in green technologies or continuing to support for fossil fuels, and is it transparent and accountable for the environmental and human rights impact of its investments abroad?

To help increase tax revenues in poor countries, shouldn’t the UK finally put an end financial secrecy in its Overseas Territories by enforcing registries of those who own and benefit from companies who use them as tax havens? What else could it do to stop multinationals avoiding tax and to prevent tax abuses and other illicit financial flows? The UK’s development finance institution CDC also routes many of its investments via tax havens, and it should commit to greater transparency.

How well will the UK report on these and other ‘means of implementation’ for the SDGs?  The VNR is an opportunity for the UK to document its trailblazing role, such as its support for the Inclusive Data Charter to help improve the monitoring of poverty reduction and inequalities, and its recent commitments on climate change emissions reduction. But it should also address some of these more difficult questions about tax, transparency and illicit financial flows.

Inclusivity and participation

The 2030 Agenda calls for the participation of all segments of society to contribute to its implementation.  Will the UK VNR consider whether its consultations with civil society in the run-up to the UK VNR were adequate, and whether the right mechanisms are in place for civil society participation and feedback on delivery of the SDGs in the future?

Inclusion in decision-making and participation are particularly for those groups most at risk of being ‘left-behind’ or excluded from the benefits of development, both in the UK and in countries where it is delivering aid.

Domestic polices in harmony with global goals?

Another ‘means of implementation’ for the SDGs is a target on policy coherence.  This demands that governments put in place mechanisms, such as systematic policy reviews, to ensure domestic and foreign policies support and do not undermine progress towards the SDGs in the UK and other parts of the world. Will the UK VNR consider its progress in this?

The VNRs could also provide an opportunity for policy-makers to get to grips with the inherent contradictions in the SDG framework - perhaps the most important of which is that between sustainable consumption and economic growth.  Will the UK VNR consider how economic development can support rather than undermine progress towards environmental goals and targets beyond climate change? 

The VNR is an opportunity to inform next steps for progressing the SDGs within the UK and strengthening the UK contribution to their achievement globally.  Will the UK rise to the challenge?