Can the UK be an SDG trailblazer?

Youth activists Fahma Mohamed and Hamda Mohamed meet Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening to share their support for the Global Goals of reducing inequality, improving gender equality and supporting good jobs and growth. Will the U.K.’s adoption of a “cross-government” approach be effective in achieving the SDGs? Photo by: Jessica Lea / DFID / CC BY

Global goal number 13 — the goal to reverse climate change — is already proving unlucky for the U.K. government.

As Prime Minister David Cameron, Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening and various members of parliament descend on New York City to adopt the sustainable development goals this weekend, the U.K. government in London is coping with media reports of leaked documents revealing it secretly supported loopholes in European Union carbon emission tests.

It may be the first time a top aid donor comes face-to-face with its own contradictions before the ink is dry on the SDGs, but based on comments from experts and officials at U.K.-based Plan International, NGO confederation Bond and U.K. aid chief Greening, it likely won’t be the last — and this may be good news.

“Of course, as a country, the goals are applicable to us as well,” Greening told the International Development Committee last week at the second hearing for a parliamentary inquiry into the SDGs.

Indeed, if the SDGs are implemented as planned, the responsibility to deliver on goals 12 and 13 — waste management and climate change — will fall squarely at the developed world’s doorstep.

“The biggest environmental impacts are likely to stem from the emerging and developed economies [BRICS and OECD nations], which are driving the negative global trajectory,” Susan Nicolai, head of the U.K. think tank Overseas Development Institute’s project Development Progress wrote in a report released this week showing progress on the SDGs by 2030 if current trends continue.

“Even in the richest countries, major shifts are needed to achieve the SDGs, particularly in climate change and sustainable waste management,” she wrote.

In an interview with Devex, Nicolai added that the universality of the SDGs should present a challenge for countries of all income levels, but accountability will be especially important for those countries driving negative trends.

“I think a lot of pressure is still needed in order to use [universality] as a central principle for implementation,” she said.

No one left behind

Greening explained that the U.K. Department for International Development is adopting a “cross-government” approach to the SDGs in which it enlists the help of other departments to ensure the SDGs touch all realms of human development and environmental sustainability.

“We have talked a lot about the need to improve this ‘golden thread’ as the prime minister calls it, in terms of these key institutions that underpin development,” Greening told the IDC DfID already works with other segments of government, namely the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, Her Majesty’s Royal Customs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

“Britain’s golden thread is probably second to none, so we want to reach into those broader institutions outside of government to enlist their help,” Greening said.

The sooner the U.K. and other donor countries take stock of their own policies’ alignment with the SDGs the better, Ben Jackson, CEO of Bond told Devex, especially since December’s COP21 climate negotiations in Paris are fast approaching.

“We are concerned about an erosion of the sustainability commitments by the U.K. government,” Jackson said. “The U.K.’s position on climate change for Paris is crucial, as well as the other EU countries.”

Even beyond December, the U.K. will play a leading role as the world begins to plan SDG implementation and assessment in earnest.

John Pullinger, the U.K.’s national statistician, will chair the U.N. Statistical Commission, the body responsible for determining how the SDGs are measured.

“To know how to hold themselves accountable for the SDGs, governments will be watching the U.K. to set the example, not just donor countries but broadly,” Jackson said.

‘Cross-government’ approach

So what will a “cross-government” approach to the global goals look like?

“There are areas of government beyond aid that affect the international dynamic, whether it’s trade, energy or education,” Jackson said.

“One crucial aspect of the goals is this concept of universality, that government as whole is just simply not inclusive enough to be prepared for this, and so a crucial challenge is how we would ensure accountability through the current machinery of government.”

One area where departments are likely to play a larger role in the U.K.’s SDG strategy is accountability, Liam Sollis, Plan International’s policy and advocacy adviser told Devex.

“[Plan] and a range of other organizations are pushing for the responsibility for delivering on the SDGs to not just sit with the minister for international development, but there be a real top-level government priority,” he said. “Not just for the prime minister, but that the cabinet office has some role in coordinating the response and the implementation.”

Sollis added that it will likely be a few weeks before the government commits to a specific accountability model, but noted that internal discussions are ongoing within government about whether the International Development Committee — which currently oversees U.K. aid spending with reports from the watchdog the Independent Commission for Aid Impact  — should have a larger role in oversight, or share responsibilities with other departments and committees.

“This is one major outstanding issue that hasn’t been clarified yet, and a big reason why the [IDC members] are attending the summit.”

Sollis added that the ongoing inquiry by parliament will be a key first step in establishing how the U.K. government will approach the SDGs, from accountability to implementation at the contractor and subcontractor level.

“With such a strong emphasis on value for money, we expect to see an alternative to the siloed approach to development, one that links the goals in an efficient and accountable way,” he said.

Greening, who initially expressed concerns that 12 or 13 goals would be more feasible than the 17 currently on the table, now views the breadth of the SDGs as an opportunity to “follow up ourselves as a country.”

“What all governments now need to do is look at the goals and understand how they relate to their own domestic circumstances,” she said.

Jackson added that civil society organizations should also take the opportunity to do some soul-searching.

“To be fair, civil society needs to get its act together,” he said. “We tend to work in development siloes, and here is the chance to move away from that.”

Although all eyes may be on New York City this week at the Sustainable Development Summit, COP21 in Paris is already presenting a challenge for the U.K. and other donor countries to begin resetting the status quo.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.