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The Sustainable Development Goals must guide the future of UK aid in recovery from COVID-19

With ten years to go to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) deadline and with emergence of the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO), the UK has a moment of opportunity.

Now is our chance as a country to demonstrate our commitment and leadership on the SDGs and the pledge to Leave No One Behind. and to use the SDG framework as a tool for effective foreign and development policy. 

Despite the huge challenges ahead, we must press forward: the world’s children are counting on us. 

The 2020 High-Level Political Forum, the main intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder platform that reviews the SDGs annually, took place last month. The most striking takeaway from the meeting was that, when it comes to the SDGs, the world can’t afford to go back to business as usual.

Pushing forward with Agenda 2030

It’s been highlighted now in many reports. If the world had been on track to meet the SDGs – which integrate the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development – our response to the public health crisis and socioeconomic impact of the pandemic might have been stronger.

The painful truth is that we live in a highly unequal and unjust world. New projections by Save the Children and UNICEF reveal that, without urgent action, the number of children living in poverty across low- and middle-income countries could soar by up to 117 million by the end of this year. The long-term effects of the pandemic, which are unleashing crises in education, livelihoods and child protection, will be borne by those least responsible for the crisis: children. and in particular, children from the poorest and most marginalised groups.

That’s why now is the time to recommit to the principles that underpin Agenda 2030 – universality, interconnectedness, solidarity, human rights, inclusion and equity, and a whole-of-society approach. We need to scale up implementation and investment in sustainable development, and to use the SDGs as a political framework for recovery.

The UK played an important role in leading the negotiations around Agenda 2030 and is recognised as being one of the most progressive and passionate advocates of the Agenda’s Pledge to Leave No One Behind. As the new FCDO emerges, the SDGs must remain the compass for the delivery of UK aid. And tackling chronic poverty and inequality must be an explicit priority in our efforts to meet the SDGs.

Why the SDGs should guide the mandate of the FCDO

  • The SDGs, unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, are a universal agenda, agreed by all UN member states. The 17 goals, 169 targets and the framework for follow-up review and monitoring remain a commitment by all countries to their citizens. At a time where multilateralism is under attack, as seen in recent years over the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, the SDGs are a beacon of hope. They represent the most comprehensive plan in history to end poverty and to ensure that our children inherit a liveable planet.
  •  The SDGs provide a clear roadmap to tackle the most pressing societal fault lines that have been magnified so clearly by COVID-19 – from persistent and deepening inequalities, to discrimination and exclusion, to chronic poverty.
  • The interconnected nature of the SDGs requires a policy focus that breaks down siloes and prioritises integrated solutions that can address the multiple and complex challenges facing the global community. The SDGs encourage cross-departmental collaboration for sustainable development and bring together policy areas previously split between the former Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development.
  • As six months into the pandemic the world hits the grim milestone of 20 million COVID-19 cases, the importance of multilateral cooperation, solidarity and a global coordinated response to COVID-19 is exemplified. As a global multilateral framework, the SDGs are an ideal platform for breathing life back into genuine stakeholder multilateralism and global cooperation
  • The SDGs call for a whole-of-society approach, which will help the UK government meet its commitments as laid out in its Civil Society strategy. This approach recognises that, while governments have primary responsibility in delivering on sustainable development, all stakeholders are partners in the process and that meaningful participation requires transparency, commitment and accountability.
  • The SDGs, if fully realised, will be transformational. COVID-19 has shown us all that tinkering at the margins is not only costly, but deadly. We can’t afford to go back to business as usual.
  • The SDGs are a useful vehicle to drive the realisation of children’s rights in practice.

The FCDO role in implementing the SDGs

In practical terms, the UK government should, as a matter of priority, mandate the FCDO to ensure cross-government implementation of the SDGs. This should include ensuring rigorous monitoring and reporting on how UK aid is promoting interlinkages and synergies among different SDGs – for example, through integrated programmes such as child benefit schemes that are linked to nutrition and health services. To help hold the government to account on its commitment to the SDGs, it’s important to strengthen parliamentary oversight of UK aid.

The UK government must also use its leadership of the G7 and its Financing for Development work on recovering back better to ensure that the principles of Agenda 2030 and a strong equity lens are shaping the policy options that are being negotiated at the UN.

Lastly, the UK government should follow-up on the commitments made in its 2019 SDG Voluntary National Review, including establishing a multi-stakeholder engagement mechanism to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs domestically and internationally, and to ensure the inclusion of the most marginalised and deprived people.  Crucially, this engagement needs to include children – recognising their role as agents of change.

As an established, comprehensive and integrated global framework for addressing some of the biggest challenges of our time, including those laid bare by the COVID-19 crisis, the SDGs should be the cornerstone of the global policy agenda for the FCDO. 

Read more from our blog series on The Future of British Aid.

 

Global policy agenda