UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals Contents


The Sustainable Development Goals

1.During a landmark year for international development, in September 2015 193 Member States attending the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Summit in New York adopted a new global development framework: ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.1 The Agenda consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (or ‘Global Goals’ as they are popularly known) and 169 targets, which commit all signatory countries to tackle issues as diverse and deep-rooted as gender inequality, climate change, access to quality education and the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies. The SDGs officially came into force on 1 January 2016 and the UK must now move forward with implementing the Goals at home and supporting other countries to achieve them overseas.

Table 1: 2015 - A Landmark Year for International Development



March 2015

Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan

Outcome: Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030

July 2015

Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FFD) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Outcome: Addis Ababa Action Agenda

September 2015

UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York, USA

Outcome: Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

December 2015

COP21 / 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference

Outcome: The Paris Agreement

December 2015

Tenth WTO Ministerial Conference in Nairobi, Kenya

Outcome: Nairobi Package

2.The SDGs are the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted at the UN in September 2000 and expired in 2015. The eight MDGs included seven specific Goals focused on areas of human development in which developing countries had considerable progress to make: extreme poverty and hunger, access to primary education, gender inequality, child and maternal mortality, diseases such as HIV/AIDs and malaria, and environmental sustainability. The eighth goal—which also applied to developed countries—was to create a global partnership for development. Analysis of the MDGs’ success has been mixed, but the Goals provided a common focus for global development efforts from 2000–2015, during which time, some very positive development results were achieved. Most significantly, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was halved, as was the global mortality rate in children under five.2

3.Going far beyond finishing the job of the MDGs, the SDGs are an attempt to set a new agenda for the whole world, to redefine global norms, and to reinvigorate international cooperation. Whereas the MDGs concentrated on specific challenges faced by developing countries, the SDGs aim to solve common problems and secure economic, social and environmental gains for everyone. They reflect shared objectives. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon stated at the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September 2015:

“It is an agenda for people, to end poverty in all its forms. An agenda for the planet, our common home. An agenda for shared prosperity, peace and partnership. […]

To do better, we must do differently. The 2030 Agenda compels us to look beyond national boundaries and short-term interests and act in solidarity for the long-term. We can no longer afford to think and work in silos.”3

4.The 17 SDGs are the result of the most extensive and inclusive UN consultation in history.4 As Simon Maxwell, Senior Research Associate at ODI (and Adviser to the International Development Committee), told us, the Agenda is valuable because, “it represents consensus among many stakeholders from the official and non-official sectors: NGOs and the private sector, as well as Governments”.5 The Goals reflect the complexity of the ongoing challenge of tackling insecurity, poverty and environmental degradation across the world. They acknowledge that solving such intrinsically universal problems will require coordinated action from all 193 signatory nations, including the UK. As such, the SDGs move beyond placing different responsibilities upon donor and recipient countries (the model for the MDGs) and rather are universal and applicable to all. The SDGs are not legally binding, but there is a moral imperative for action. As the Agenda 2030 outcome document states:

“This is an agenda of unprecedented scope and significance. It is accepted by all countries and is applicable to all, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities. These are universal goals and targets which involve the entire world, developed and developing countries alike.”6

5.Under each of the 17 Goals there are a number of targets. Some targets focus on the desired ends of the Goal, such as target 1.1: “By 2030, to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day”.7 Others focus on the means of implementation, for example target 1.b: “Create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions”.8 This represents a departure from the MDGs framework, where the means of implementation were concentrated in a single Goal 8, and gives some further guidance (albeit very broad) to countries on how they can make progress.

6.To measure progress towards the Goals, the SDGs indicators were agreed by the UN Statistical Commission in March 2016. These are due to be formally adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN General Assembly later this year. The 231 proposed indicators have been mapped against the Goals and targets and will be used as the foundation for the national indicators that all countries, including the UK, are now developing to locate gaps and track their progress towards the Goals.

Table 2: MDGs vs SDGs



8 Goals

17 Goals

18 Targets

169 Targets

48 Indicators

231 Indicators

Source: UN

Box 1: The Sustainable Development Goals

  • Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  • Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  • Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  • Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  • Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  • Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  • Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts*
  • Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  • Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  • Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

* Acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.9

Source: UN, Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (September 2015)

The UK’s role in negotiating the Goals

7.The UK showed early commitment to, and leadership on, the formation of the SDGs, when Prime Minister Rt Hon David Cameron MP held the position of Co-Chair of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda from 2012–2013. He was appointed to the Panel by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon—alongside President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia—to provide advice on the global development framework to succeed the MDGs. Its final report strongly influenced the SDGs that were to follow, recommending five transformative shifts as priorities for a new development agenda. The first of these was the pledge to ‘leave no one behind’; to reach those most marginalised communities and those who are most in need. This has remained central to the 2030 Agenda and to the UK’s approach to the Goals, which was demonstrated when the Prime Minister personally hosted a side-event on ‘leave no one behind’ during the Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015.

Box 2: Five Transformative Shifts proposed by the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda

1)Leave No One Behind

2)Put Sustainable Development at the Core

3)Transform Economies for Jobs and Inclusive Growth

4)Build Peace and Effective, Open and Accountable Institutions for All

5)Forge a New Global Partnership

Source: UN, A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development, the Report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (May 2013) p. 29

8.Following the High-Level Panel, the UK continued to play an important role in the subsequent intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs. According to DFID, the UK fought hard for the inclusion of contentious issues including Goal 5 (Gender Equality) targets on FGM, early and forced marriage and sexual and reproductive health, and Goal 16 on peaceful and inclusive societies.10 However, it was well documented that the UK was keen to see fewer Goals than the 17 that were negotiated. At a side-event at the UN General Assembly in 2014 the Prime Minister was reported to have said:

“I don’t believe they will cut it at 17. There are too many to communicate effectively […] There’s a real danger they will end up sitting on a bookshelf, gathering dust.”11

9.In its Report on ‘Post-2015 Development Goals’, published in 2013, our predecessor International Development Committee also advocated fewer Goals, stating that:

“[…] the number of goals should be no higher than 10, and all should have quantifiable targets. If the new framework is to be successful as the MDGs, this simplicity will be fundamental.”12

However, the Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, told us in September that she accepted the additional Goals as the result of “an incredibly complicated, challenging negotiation” and expressed delight at the inclusion of those issues the UK had fought hard for.13 The UK’s role in the global implementation of the SDGs is set to continue as the Secretary of State has recently been appointed to the UN Secretary-General’s new High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, backed by UN Women, the World Bank and the UK Government.14

Implementation of the SDGs

10.The SDGs cover seventeen areas which are fundamental to social, environmental and economic development. A lot of the written evidence we received gave strong arguments for DFID to prioritise specific Goals, citing their particular importance, and the potential impact of their success or failure, on the SDG agenda as a whole. However, numerous others highlighted the integrated and indivisible nature of the SDGs and the need for DFID to support delivery of the entire SDG Agenda and avoid ‘cherry picking’.15

11.What is clear from the evidence received is that the UK Government will need to devise a coordinated and coherent response in order to fulfil their promise to support achievement of the SDGs by 2030. DFID will lead its own work on ensuring it supports the SDGs through its policy and programming overseas. However, there is also a substantial role for the Government as a whole, both to deliver the Goals in the UK and ensure policy coherence across government, to make sure all departments are supporting the achievement of the SDGs, at home and overseas. This is a considerable task.

Our inquiry

12.We launched our inquiry on 13 July 2015 and asked for written submissions on how the UK should implement the SDGs, specifically with regards to the following terms of reference:

Our Report

13.The SDGs were adopted in September 2015 and officially came into force in January 2016. The 231 global SDGs indicators were agreed by the UN Statistical Commission in March 2016 and will only be formally adopted by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in autumn 2016.16 The process of establishing baselines and developing national indicators is only just getting underway. Implementation plans are therefore still in their infancy, which made it an ideal time for us, as a Committee, to look forward to how the Government should implement the Goals through this Report.

14.During our inquiry, we received 91 pieces of written evidence from a diverse range of stakeholders and heard from 21 expert witnesses across six oral evidence sessions. The Committee also visited Washington and New York during the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, to meet with stakeholders involved in the Goals’ formulation, negotiation and agreement. These individuals included: Amina Mohammed (the then UN Special Adviser on the Post-2015 Development Agenda), Helen Clark (Administrator, UNDP), Matthew Rycroft (UK Permanent Representative to the UN) and Dr Jim Yong Kim (President of the World Bank). Our Report will bring together the common themes from the extensive range of evidence we have received, so that the Government can take this into account as it develops its SDG implementation strategy.

15.If implemented by governments with appropriate ambition and focus, the SDGs could have a transformative impact on the wellbeing of people all over the world. However, as we heard from Melissa Leach at the Institute for Development Studies, if the Goals are to be reached, “Business as usual is no longer an option”.17 Achieving the SDGs by 2030 will require unprecedented effort to integrate the Goals into countries’ national and international policies, and it is crucial that governments are held to account on their promise to do this.

4 Unlike the MDGs, which were conceived without wide consultation, the SDGs were the result of an extensive consultation and negotiation process, including the High Level Panel on Post-2015, the Open Working Group of the UN General Assembly and the My World global citizen survey

5 Simon Maxwell (SDG0006) para 2

9 A full list of the SDGs and Targets are included as Appendix 1

12 International Development Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012–13, Post-2015 Development Goals, HC657, para 84

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15 For example see WWF (SDG0029) para 14; Bond Beyond 2015 UK (SDG0046) para 5; CAFOD (SDG0045) para 1

16 For a full list of SDGs indicators see: UN, Report of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (February 2016)

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2 June 2016