The UK and the UN SDGs: Make or Break Time

Professor David Hulme, Global Development Insitute, The University of Manchester

This week, the UK government sought to put itself firmly in the global driver’s seat for cutting carbon. The Prime Minister announced an amazingly ambitious target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 78% from 1990 levels by 2035. This is world-leading, if delivered, and bolsters the UK’s role as chair of the COP26 (annual global meeting to tackle climate change) in Glasgow in November 2021. It allows the UK to claim that it is “putting its money where its mouth is”.

At one level this is good news, but, set against the context of recent UK policy changes this could be an attempt to hog the spotlight whilst leaving the stage. At the same time as the UK is claiming global leadership on decarbonisation it is relinquishing the global role it played with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The UK has a proud history of taking a lead in formulating and achieving UN goals. Around 2000 Clare Short, Gordon Brown and Labour Party colleagues made foundational contributions to 193 countries agreeing the UN Millennium Development Goals or MDGs (the predecessor of the SDGs) and energised MDG implementation. The goal of committing 0.7% of GNI to development assistance won cross-party consensus in 2005, was met in 2013, then enshrined in law in 2015.

In 2012-2015 Prime Minister David Cameron, of the Conservative Party, took on a key role in the formulation of the SDGs. He was the ‘rich world’ co-chair of the UN’s High Level Panel on post-2015 development goals and established a UK Cabinet Office-Department for International Development (DFID) team that fed directly into UN negotiations. One negotiator at the 70-seat meetings told me that the UK’s technical capacity and commitment was so trusted that “…sometimes the text from London is cut and pasted straight into the new draft document”. While many foreign aid agencies worked only on spending aid DFID collaborated with other UK departments (the Treasury, Environment, Trade) in an effort to achieve ‘joined-up policy’ in the UK.

But, those days of UK global leadership on poverty reduction and the SDGs have faded, as four recent policy actions appear to confirm. First in 2020 DFID, regarded by most professionals as one of the world’s best bilateral development agencies, was merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) development is a secondary goal and ambassadors or high commissioners can weave diplomatic and geopolitical goals into UK development efforts. The FCDO has been steadily losing its dispirited senior officials from DFID ever since.

Second, the UK has reduced its aid spending from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%: in effect suspending the 2002 International Development Act. In the space of just a year, the aid budget will be slashed by almost one third, from £14.5 billion in 2020 to £10 billion this year. While the government has claimed that Covid-19 indebtedness makes this necessary work by the IFS reveals that this cut makes a ‘negligible difference’ to UK public debt. The cut reflects the UK reducing its moral commitment to helping the world’s poorest people.

Third, the reduction of the aid budget has been badly managed by FCDO. It has led to sudden reductions in humanitarian support for conflict victims in Yemen and Syria that may mean that people go hungry or die for lack of food. It has also led to the UK’s Conservative government-designed Global Challenges Research Fund being slashed so that UK-developing country university partnerships on health, environment and scientific problems have been disrupted. (I must declare an interest here as the FutureDAMS project I lead has been cut).

Finally, the Conservative’s much trumpeted Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy focuses on security and defence and says little about global development and the UK’s contribution to global public goods to achieve the SDGs. Scant attention is paid to key SDGs such as Goal 1 (eradicate poverty) and Goal 10 (reduce inequality).

So, the UK and its government appear to be at a crossroads. Is delivering on the global development commitments within its last election manifesto being replaced by big promises on decarbonisation?

UK withdrawal from genuinely contributing to global leadership is a possibility, but it is being energetically challenged by British civil society – NGOs, religious communities, independent media, think tanks, universities and others. Over the last 25 years many individuals and groups in the UK have committed themselves to the idea of a world that can meet the needs of all its people and of a Britain that thinks beyond its self-interest to contribute to global public goods and social justice for all. British civil society is actively pushing for the UK to maintain its global role in achieving the SDGs.

While UK civil society may not have the mobile numbers of Boris Johnson (as James Dyson does) or Rishi Sunak (as David Cameron does), it can use morally and legally legitimate forms of advocacy and lobbying to get the government to see that achieving the SDGs will improve the future prospects of UK citizens now and in the future.

These are strange times, but they are not times for complacency. Be annoyed, be outraged, take action at the way in which the UK appears to be withdrawing from its long-held commitment to provide leadership in reducing human suffering and achieving the UN SDGs in 2030.
Professor David Hulme, Executive Director of the Global Development Institute

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