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How can the UK become a leader in sustainable development?

Andrew Griffiths, March 2019
Aminata stands at the blackboard, holding a ruler to point out words.

The SDGs, VNRs, IDC, HLPF… while world leaders have agreed a clear framework for sustainable development, we can get lost in the acronym soup that we have created in order to implement it.

In the UK over the past couple of weeks, the parliamentary International Development Select Committee has been taking evidence on the government’s approach to developing a Voluntary National Review, which is a report on progress towards implementing the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I recently gave evidence to the committee on behalf of the Bond SDG Group, alongside Emily Auckland from UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development. We also heard evidence from officials from two UK government departments, as well as from Penny Mordaunt, Secretary of State for International Development, and Lord Bates, Minister of State for International Development.

The Secretary of State stated that a ‘step change’ is taking place, but all the evidence that the committee heard showed that the UK has not done enough on SDG implementation, and we are still lacking clarity on how this change is going to be delivered.

What we really need is strong leadership to turn a set of aspirational goals into reality, and this will require three things:

A clear plan

We cannot simply hope that by saying that every government department needs to implement the SDGs in their work, it will happen. We need to see leadership, from ministers and government departments, working together to agree and set out how the SDGs are going to be implemented. This would not be the top-down approach that was implied by the ministerial evidence, it is simply clear and effective leadership.

Clear expectations and accountability

Once there is a plan, we need to make sure that everyone plays their role in its implementation. The leadership structure that Lord Bates set out to the International Development committee implies that in SDG implementation there is a contrast between everyone having responsibility to play their part, on the one hand, and holding them to account for doing so, on the other. Good leadership allows people to have the responsibility to deliver, and holds them to account for doing it.

Proper consultation and stakeholder engagement

Everyone recognises that the government alone cannot achieve the SDGs, and this means a meaningful partnership with the private sector, civil society and others is required. Through a process of listening to all these other stakeholders the government can properly identify and hold others to account for the delivery of their role in SDG implementation.

We need to recognise that the SDGs are not ‘business as usual’. They dictate that the world should develop in a way that does not leave anyone behind and does not harm the planet on which we all live and depend. That’s a big task, and meeting it will require significant change in the way all of us live and work. We will definitely need a ‘step change’ in leadership to achieve the goals, and that is what we are calling for from the UK government.

A group of children hold hands in a circle in a school in Uganda, with a backdrop of lush green hills.

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name of person followed by a fullstop.Andrew Griffiths
Andrew is Head of Advocacy at Sightsavers.
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