UK implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals Contents

5DFID’s support for the SDGs overseas

Where should DFID prioritise?

91.One of the questions in our terms of reference for this inquiry asked, ‘Where should DFID prioritise?’ A number of organisations, including Save the Children, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Bond and WWF, indicated that there was a fundamental problem with this question, citing the indivisible nature of the SDGs agenda and cautioning against ‘cherry picking’ of the Goals. Despite this, in written evidence many organisations pitched for their preferred focus Goals, generally emphasising the importance of achieving a particular Goal for the broader SDGs agenda. For example, progress on gender equality would have a positive impact on a large number of other goals, due to the effect it would have on ending poverty (Goal 1), improving wellbeing (Goal 3), ensuring quality education for all (Goal 4), and promoting economic growth (Goal 8). On climate change, Andrew Norton at IIED stated: “We expect climate change to have dramatic impacts over time, across the full range of attainment—virtually every SDG.”152 Other witnesses referred to the fundamental and innovative importance of SDG 16.153 Overall, these arguments served to emphasise the truly interconnected nature of all of the Goals and the need to work towards achieving them in their entirety.

92.Even if it is right that DFID should not pre-emptively decide to focus on certain Goals, the Department will need to work out where it can most effectively contribute to the global achievement of the goals, and how it can best support its priority countries to make progress against the goals at the national level. As the Minister of State stated very recently: “we are working across Government and with our development partners to determine where our comparative advantage is and where we can make the greatest impact.”154 Evidence to the inquiry has suggested a number of ways DFID could most effectively support developing countries to achieve the SDGs; some of which were particularly compelling.

National ownership

93.National ownership of the SDGs is emphasised throughout the Agenda 2030 document, which states that the Goals are: “applicable to all, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respecting national policies and priorities”. UNDP’s evidence emphasised, “It is the sovereign responsibility of countries to ensure that they apply the SDG agenda.”155 DFID have recognised this in their evidence, stating that, “Primary responsibility for implementation of the agenda rests at the domestic level with national governments.”156 The Secretary of State also told us:

“[…] in the end, countries have to own their development and be politically committed to it. There is only so far we can go with our improvements in capacity-building and our investment. In the end, it absolutely has to be country-owned.”157

94.It is clear that national ownership of the SDG agenda will be essential to ensuring the Goals are prioritised and actioned appropriately in developing countries. DFID will therefore need to work closely with governments in the countries it supports—as well as with civil society, donors and other in-country stakeholders—to identify how it can most effectively support the country to make progress on the SDGs. As Oxfam’s evidence states:

“As a signatory to the Busan development effectiveness principles (and Paris, Accra and Rome before that), the UK has committed to maintaining and supporting democratic ownership of development. This means that when drawing up new country plans or SDG strategies, DFID should develop these in partnership with developing countries, working both with national governments and with other stakeholders including national civil society, local government and parliamentarians.”158

IIED highlighted the need for SDG implementation plans to be formed through “country-led processes, ideally democratically-organised and with space for a genuine national debate.” It stated that, “DFID should not be a direct participant in these processes” but emphasised how DFID can support them by being prepared to “respond to the needs that emerge from national strategies and action plans”.159

Comparative advantage

95.In supporting countries to achieve the SDGs, evidence has suggested that DFID may be able to identify areas of comparative advantage, dependent on the circumstances. Simon Maxwell from ODI told us:

“It would be unrealistic to expect that every item in the SDG Framework should be equally visible in HMG Her Majesty’s Government] and DFID priorities […] HMG and DFID are not the only actors and have specific strengths and weaknesses. The issue is one of comparative advantage.”160

He emphasised that this advantage is “not just in terms of their own capabilities, but also in relation to others”.161 It could be:

a)an area where DFID has done a lot of work in the past therefore can rapidly develop programmes or deploy expert staff;

b)an area that is being neglected by other partners where DFID has sufficient capability to fill the gap; or

c)an issue that DFID is uniquely placed to tackle because of its relationships with government, civil society or local communities.

96.Evidence pointed to a number of areas where DFID had particular expertise. For example, Jessica Woodroffe of the Gender and Development Network stated that, “DFID has a very strong record on what they would call “women and girls”,162 but added, “Where DFID is particularly placed around gender inequality is challenging taboos and showing leadership on difficult issues. We saw that around FGM.”163

Plan UK stated that:

“DfID has a number of specialisms for which it is well known, not least in its work on Education, Health, Gender Equality, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Governance and Economic Development, and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. DFID should maintain its commitment to these areas in which it already has a strong reputation.”164

Andrew Norton at IIED argued that one of DFID’s strengths was the longevity and quality of its staff:

“[…] one of the things that DFID is known for is very high quality engagement in partner countries, being there with high-quality staff over a long period. There have been two consecutive years of reductions in administrative costs. There is a concern about whether you have the spending in that area necessary to maintain the kinds of engagements you need, particularly on these complex issues.”165

Focusing on the Goals furthest behind

97.ODI has projected global progress towards the Goals if the current trajectory of progress remains unchanged (see Figure 2). It has highlighted those Goals which are easy wins, those which require a reversal in current trends and those which will not be met unless there is a complete reversal in current trends.

Figure 2: ODI SDG Scorecard166

On this basis, ODI has recommended that DFID focus on those Goals which are unlikely to be met without considerable support from donors:

“While the UK government may want to focus on some of the easy wins to showcase progress, it should focus the majority of its attention on the reversal targets, which are highly unlikely to be met without significant support from the international community.”167

Root bottlenecks

98.UNDP suggested that DFID could focus on key issues which, if tackled, could result in progress on a number of SDGs at the same time. Their evidence suggests that:

“Analytical work and multi-stakeholder approaches can help governments to identify synergies and trade-offs in the implementation of the SDGs, and find ‘root bottlenecks’ which, if unlocked, could accelerate progress across a number of SDGs at the same time.”168

99.To be most effective and stand the best chance of success, governments’ implementation of the SDGs must be aligned to existing national priorities. National implementation must be a country-led process with opportunities for democratic engagement by citizens and civil society. We welcome DFID’s emphasis on encouraging national ownership of the SDGs in its priority countries. It can do this by supporting governments as they map the targets and indicators against national plans to identify where they align with existing priorities and where there are gaps. DFID will then be in a position, in partnership with other stakeholders, to offer support to the government to fill these gaps.

100.In supporting countries to make progress towards the SDGs, DFID should assess where its work is likely to make the most impact. This will potentially require country teams to look at all of the areas outlined in evidence to us, such as: where DFID has particular skills and expertise to deliver; where other development actors are not already providing support; where there might be root bottlenecks which, if tackled, could have an impact on a number of goals; or indeed the goals where the country is most off track and may need the most support. These assessments will be country-specific and will help DFID contribute to a holistic response to the SDGs in its partner countries.

101.Once an approach has been developed, DFID should outline how it is supporting countries to achieve the SDGs within the Operational Plans of each of its priority countries.

Integrating the Goals into DFID’s work

102.DFID will need to integrate the SDGs into its broad portfolio, across Whitehall, East Kilbride and all of its country offices, as well as being reflected in its work through multilateral agencies, civil society and the private sector. It has yet to reveal how it plans to do that, although DFID’s evidence states that, “The SDGs will […] be the starting point for all DFID’s work in the coming years”.169

103.Evidence to the inquiry urges caution around mainstreaming the SDGs into DFID’s work in case specific goals may lose their visibility through this process. Jessica Woodroffe told us that standalone projects as well as mainstreaming were required to tackle gender equality. She stated, “If you do not have some of those standalone projects […] mainstreaming can make things invisible”.170 Thomas Wheeler from Saferworld made similar comments with reference to conflict and fragility, expressing a hope that DFID would:

“prioritise both having a cross-cutting focus […] through making sure a programme is conflict-sensitive, while at the same time having very specific programmes that are engaging on that specific issue. I hope that we can have both.”171

104.On DFID’s implementation of the SDGs their evidence stated that, “There will be a clear line of sight between the SDGs and the Department’s Single Departmental Plan (SDP), which will set out the key areas of emphasis for DFID over the next five years.”172 However, the publication of DFID’s Single Departmental Plan, and the broader UK Aid Strategy, have provided little clarity on how the Department will support the implementation of the SDG agenda overseas. Although the SDGs (or ‘Global Goals’) are referenced in both documents, no clear link is drawn between specific Goals and the Government or DFID’s policy priorities. This is despite the fact that the UK Aid Strategy was published in November 2015, two months after the agreement of the SDGs, and the Single Departmental Plan in February 2016, five months after the Goals’ agreement and two months into their official implementation.

105.We were told that the legislative framework determining much of the UK’s aid spending is also not fit for the post-2015 development agenda. As IIED points out:

“DFID’s Public Service Agreement is framed around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This will need to be updated post-2015. The new PSA should endorse the full set of Goals and clarify which of the Goals and Targets are particularly relevant for DFID, and in which countries and sectors DFID’s efforts will be focused.”173

106.Much (but not all) of the UK’s ODA is spent under the International Development Act 2002,174 and three subsequent Acts passed in 2006, 2014 and 2015 (see Box 2). The 2006 Act refers extensively to progress against the MDGs and the 0.7% target; the first of which has now expired and the second of which has been achieved. There is also some limited reference to reporting commitments relating to policy coherence. Amendments to this Act are required to bring it up to date with the new 2030 Agenda; as was recommended by our predecessor Committee in the ‘Beyond Aid’ Report.175 The language and commitments around policy coherence should also be strengthened. Given the need to update elements of existing legislation, it makes sense at the beginning of this new and transformative 15 year sustainable development agenda to update and consolidate the four acts into one single International Development Act.

Box 4: UK International Development Legislation

1)International Development Act 2002

2)International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006

3)International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014

4)International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015


107.In our recent Report on DFID’s allocation of resources we raised concerns over whether the new aid strategy had reduced the emphasis on poverty reduction. Similarly, and in light of the absence of clear linking of SDGs to policy priorities in DFID’s new Single Departmental Plan, it seems that the SDGs have not sufficiently informed the Government’s overseas aid strategy.

108.We recommend that the Government produces a White Paper on International Development to provide clarity on its approach to Agenda 2030. Following the Multilateral, Bilateral and Civil Society Partnership Reviews, DFID and other government departments will be in a position to provide a comprehensive overview of their approach to international development over this Parliament and towards 2030, within the framework of the SDGs. A White Paper would serve an important function for the UK’s partners across the world, demonstrating the UK Government’s commitment to the Goals and explaining how it will support developing countries to achieve them. It would also be a useful exercise for the Government, bringing together different departments to ensure there is a coherent approach to Post-2015 development policy across all of Whitehall and all branches of DFID, from Westminster and East Kilbride to country offices across the world.

109.The legislative framework determining much of the UK’s aid spending is also not fit for the post-2015 development agenda. The Government should use this critical juncture to consolidate and update the four International Development Acts (2002, 2006, 2014, and 2015) into one single Act. With the passage of the International Development (Official Development Assistance) Act 2015 and the agreement of the SDGs, many of the clauses within the 2002 and 2006 Acts are now obsolete. We recommend that the Government should consolidate these acts and update the provisions to reflect:

a)A legal requirement that poverty reduction (including through the provision of global public goods) is the primary purpose of all ODA spending (including by Other Government Departments);176

b)A commitment to support the achievement of the SDGs, to incorporate them throughout DFID’s policy and programmes, and a legal requirement to report regularly on its contribution to progress in countries where it has bilateral programmes; and

c)A legal requirement of more systematic efforts towards, and reporting on, policy coherence across Government in support of the SDGs, substantially improving on the reporting currently conducted through DFID’s annual report which merely ‘cherry picks’ examples of collaboration.

152 Q134

153 For example, see Q45, Q149, Saferworld (SDG0043), Adam Smith International (SDG0076)

154 HC Deb, 13 April 2016, col 165WH [Westminster Hall]

155 Q127

156 DFID (SDG0062) para12

157 Q186

158 Oxfam (SDG0060) p. 2

159 IIED (SDG0065) p. 2

160 Simon Maxwell (SDG0006) para 20

161 Simon Maxwell (SDG0006) para iv

162 Q141

163 Q141

164 Plan UK (SDG0085) para 15

165 Q141

167 ODI (SDG0056) para 22

168 UNDP (SDG0021) p. 2

169 DFID (SDG0062) para 19

170 Q148

171 Q148

172 DFID (SDG0062) para 19

173 IIED (SDG0065) p.1

174 See International Development Committee, Third Report of Session 2015–16, UK Aid: allocation of resources: interim report, HC927, incorporating HC533, para 12

175 International Development Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2014–15, The Future of UK Development Cooperation: Phase 2: Beyond Aid, HC663, paras 43-45

176 See International Development Committee, Third Report of Session 2015–16, UK Aid: allocation of resources: interim report, HC927, incorporating HC533

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2 June 2016