94.This chapter examines the role business and civil society could play in working with government to achieve SDG 5. It assesses current levels of partnership working and examines what could be done to improve the Government’s engagement with business and civil society on the Sustainable Development Goals.
95.Collaboration between business, civil society and the state is at the core of the Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 17, ‘Revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development’, is specifically directed towards the creation of this tripartite partnership as the central means of implementing the goals. The UN says:
A successful sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. These inclusive partnerships built upon principles and values, a shared vision, and shared goals that place people and the planet at the centre, are needed at the global, regional, national and local level. Urgent action is needed to mobilize, redirect and unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources to deliver on sustainable development objectives [ … ]. The public sector will need to set a clear direction.
The ongoing role of civil society and the private sector in monitoring progress towards implementing the SDGs is also emphasised by the UN, which states that “contributions from indigenous peoples, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders, in line with national circumstances, policies and priorities” should be drawn on during “regular and inclusive reviews of progress.”
96.Partnership working therefore needs to be built into the UK’s plan for implementing the SDGs, and SDG 5 in particular. Womankind Worldwide noted that “any serious implementation strategy must involve mechanisms to engage a wide range of stakeholders.” It emphasised the need for “formal avenues to build collaboration with women and women’s rights organisations” in order to successfully implement SDG 5 in the UK.
97.Evidence from the Millennium Development Goals, which preceded the SDGs, showed the value of stakeholder engagement. Jessica Woodroffe of the Gender and Development Network told us that, where women’s organisations were involved in the design, implementation and, especially, the monitoring of plans for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, there was more success in achieving those goals.
98.Harnessing the expertise of NGOs was cited as a likely key factor in the achievement of SDG 5. Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson pointed out that there are women’s organisations “with a huge level of expertise” working across all the targets included under SDG 5. The Home office already works very effectively with organisations on its VAWG strategy and continuing to use women’s organisations wealth of experience and expertise will be critical to SDG 5. The National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO) elaborated on some of the skills and services that civil society can contribute towards achieving SDG 5, including the expertise and reach to provide direct services, information and advice to statutory bodies, training to business and the public sector at all levels and monitoring of implementation.
99.The UK Government recognises the importance of working with civil society in its international work. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact has highlighted how DFID has funded NGOs to pilot new approaches to preventing violence against women and girls, and includes them as an integral element of its theory of how to effect change in this area internationally. The Minister for International Development told us that his Department had extensive experience of consulting with civil society:
because the issue of women and girls is at the heart of everything that we do—that is our declared policy—the level of consultation we have with civil society in this area is immense. I am sure that that is mirrored particularly in the Government Equalities Office.
100.Although DFID offers the Government a model for working with civil society, many witnesses we heard from said that this approach was not consistently replicated domestically. This was substantiated by evidence from the British Council’s report on gender equality and the SDGs. Dr Helen Mott explained:
One of the most consistent findings in our report—we interviewed over 35 gender equality stakeholders in the UK—was the issue of women’s and girls’ voice to Government. It feels to civil society as if that has been lost over recent years, and it is something that needs to have attention paid to it.
Dr Mott suggested that the evidence she had gathered led her to the conclusion that “a platform for engagement between Government, civil society and women’s organisations,” would be the most effective means to achieve progress on SDG 5.
101.There is currently no formal ongoing mechanism for engagement with civil society in the UK. The absence of such a structure was noted in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee’s most recent observations on the UK in 2013. It raised concerns about the closure in 2010 of the UK Women’s National Commission, and “the lack of a cross-departmental culture at UK level of regular engagement with women’s organisations.”
102.We questioned the Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years on the evidence we heard from civil society organisations who told us they felt levels of engagement with government were poor. She told us:
I always value feedback from this Committee and, if you can come up with strong suggestions as to how we engage better, I will always take that into consideration.
103.Levels of engagement between UK businesses and government on the SDGs also appear to be weak. Whilst there is some evidence that international businesses are taking an interest in the SDGs, UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) cited evidence from the Ethical Corporations State of Responsible Business Report 2016 which shows that less than half of global companies plan to engage with the SDGs. UKSSD said levels of engagement were likely to be even lower amongst small businesses and organisations in the UK. It suggested that “a demonstration of commitment from within the Government for the implementation of the SDGs in the UK would [ … ] go some way to remedy this.”
104.The view that more needs to be done to engage with business on the SDGs was also put forward by the International Development Committee. That Committee welcomed DFID’s commitment to working with the private sector but concluded that “there is still a long way to go to get a wide range of companies engaged”. It noted that the agenda is not just relevant to those businesses engaging in developing countries, but to all businesses. The Committee recommended that:
The UK Government should take a leading role in communicating the SDGs to a wide private sector audience in the UK, including through leading business organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Business. [ … ] the Government should support the development of international benchmarks against the SDGs to enable companies to monitor and report on their progress against relevant targets.
105.The evidence we heard throughout this inquiry suggested a need to build better structures to allow civil society to work in partnership with government on SDG 5. Dionne Nelson of the Women’s Resource Centre told us that “there needs to be some mechanism to feed in from what is going on in the lives of women on the ground.” She suggested that such a mechanism would need to “engage with grassroots organisations that are working with women every day and their struggles.”
106.There was widespread acknowledgement that a platform for better engagement between government and civil society was needed and a recognition that finding the right model would not necessarily be straightforward. Dr Carole Easton of the Young Women’s Trust warned that the NGO sector was “huge and fragmented”. She also argued that any model would need to ensure that the Government heard from those women who are often neglected, including very financially disadvantaged young women.
107.One model suggested for engaging with women’s organisations was the Women’s National Commission (WNC). The WNC was an advisory non-departmental public body (NDPB) set up in 1969 to advise the UK Government on women’s views, and to act as an umbrella body for UK-based women’s groups in their dealings with government. It was funded by the Government. In 2010 it was closed after a review of NDPBs, and its public engagement role was taken over by the Government Equalities Office (GEO).
108.Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson described the WNC as “a very, very good model for engagement with the women’s voluntary sector”, saying that “it involved women from very large, nationally known groups like the WI, and very small, grassroots women’s groups.” She said it was a mechanism for ensuring smaller grassroots groups “had direct access to Ministers and officials.”
109.Lesley Irving, Head of Equalities Policy at the Scottish Government, offered an alternative model for engagement based on the Scottish Women’s Convention (SWC). Unlike the WNC, which sat within government, the Scottish Women’s Convention is an independent organisation. It is funded by the Scottish Government to communicate and consult with women in Scotland to influence public policy, which it does through local roadshows, conferences, informal networking, celebratory events and online surveys.
110.The Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years also suggested that new models for engagement are needed:
The Women’s National Commission was very much of its time; it was very valuable back in the days of the 1960s and 1970s, when female economic empowerment was really quite recent in this country. These days, we have so many more ways of reaching out to really marginalised groups around the UK. Our team is looking at how we really maximise the use of things like social media, how we can really get to the voices of women from all different age ranges and how we speak to everything from Girlguiding UK to Mumsnet to the WI. We are looking at really reaching out to little groups [ … ].
111.Dr Mary Ann Stephenson told us that whatever mechanism for working with civil society was developed, it needed to ensure:
112.The National Alliance of Women’s Organisations suggested that the Government could look at its own international work to improve domestic engagement between civil society and government on SDG 5. It recommended drawing on the experience of international organisations working in the UK to “ensure the diverse voices of women are heard.” It also called for:
A strong, well-resourced, institutional mechanism with civil society as well as the establishment of the Women and Equalities Select Committee on a permanent basis. [ … ] Resources will be required to implement the action plan for Goal 5 and other related gender targets and the action plan should be costed, recognizing as a priority the need to reach those further behind first.
113.In its evidence to this inquiry, the Government made no mention of additional resources to fund achievement of the SDGs. However, under the Millennium Development Goals, countries were often given funding to develop and support civil society engagement.
114.Plan International UK emphasised the importance of resources in achieving SDG 5 in the UK. It argued that there are “no easy or quick fixes,” and that “increased investment” is needed for success. In addition to political leadership, it called on the Government to commit to investing financial resources in SDG 5.
115.Some evidence indicated organisations working with marginalised women and girls were struggling financially and would therefore not be able to play an effective role in supporting the achievement of SDG 5 targets without additional resources. Agenda noted that specialist services providing support to women with complex needs were “few and far between and increasingly struggling for funding.” It noted that these organisations often provided a wide range of services, including support around abuse and violence, counselling and mental health services, drug treatment, employment skills, health and well-being activities, child care and support with parenting, and housing assistance. Agenda argued that these services were crucial for addressing the “multiple difficulties” faced by some women and girls in order to achieve SDG 5, and required adequate funding.
116.Lesley Irving argued that her experience in Scotland demonstrated that government funding for women’s organisations was central to their success. She pointed to the Scottish Women’s Convention and Engender, which are both core funded by the Scottish Government, and noted that without this funding they would not be able to produce their shadow reports to CEDAW.
117.The UN has made it clear that it is not only civil society which needs to be involved: business engagement is also needed for the successful implementation of work towards the SDGs. In the rest of this chapter we examine the role business can play in implementing SDG 5 and how action by business can be most effectively facilitated.
118.The Minister for International Development acknowledged the importance of working with business. He said:
we cannot deliver a lot of the SDGs internationally without working in partnership with the business sector. I was very involved, when I was at the Home Office, in the modern slavery legislation that went through, and I know how important it is in tackling, for example, abuse that occurs within the supply chain. It is absolutely critical that business organisations, as part of the problem, must be part of the solutions.
119.With regard to SDG 5 specifically, Plan International UK noted that the private sector could support its implementation by “emphasising the importance of gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment in the workplace,” and by taking action on the gender pay gap, discrimination, and women in leadership. It also pointed to the role business could play in influencing wider social norms and stereotypes through marketing.
120.Although there is a clear role for business to play, UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) highlighted the fact that this will not happen without improved Government engagement. It told us that the private sector could “only reach its full potential with the correct facilitation from Government particularly in the case of smaller organisations or those that have not engaged with this agenda so far.”
121.When we asked what the Government had done to engage with business on SDG 5, the Minister for Women, Equalities and Early Years told us that work was at an early stage. She said the Government was “at a listening phase at the moment, where we are really trying to scope the best way forward with this.”
122.A number of specific ideas for improving UK business engagement with the SDGs were put forward during our inquiry. In its report, the International Development Committee recommended using public procurement chains, to ensure that Government’s private sector partners are held to a clear set of standards on “mainstreaming the SDGs into their working practices.” The Government accepted this recommendation.
123.Developing a National Performance Framework, such as the one that has been adopted in Scotland, was also suggested as a mechanism for ensuring contracts for government business meet relevant SDG targets. Lesley Irving explained that, through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, private bodies that receive money to carry out public functions are required to have due regard to national outcomes on “things like eliminating the significant inequalities in Scottish society”. Ms Irving explained that “businesses that wish to get government contracts to carry out public services” have to “give due regard” to the outcomes listed in the National Performance Framework. She also pointed out that the SDGs will be “embedded very firmly” in the next iteration of that Framework. This gives the Scottish Government a clear mechanism to encourage businesses to incorporate the Sustainable Development Goals in how they do their business.
124.Embedding the SDGs in procurement processes is also used in Germany to encourage alignment with SDG targets. Farooq Ullah of UKSSD told us that the German Sustainability Code sets out in business terms “what sustainable development in Germany should look like,” and said that companies which sign up to it “are very much favoured by the Government in terms of procurement.”
125.Lynn Everson, owner of a small business and a representative of the Business and Professional Women’s Network, had already had experience of procurement processes that reference the SDGs. She told us that that she had seen tenders from European countries which were “starting to ask questions about the SDGs.” Ms Everson recommended that public tenders in the UK follow this lead and use alignment with the SDGs as “differentiator in the selection process.”
126.The importance of embedding SDGs in public sector commissioning processes, in particular local authority commissioning, was raised by Pragna Patel of Southall Black Sisters. She said:
It would help in terms of making sure that policies [and] services [ … ] are equality-proofed. We need to make sure that every time somebody puts their hand up and says, “We would like to provide this service and we would like to work with you, as the Government, in partnership,” the Government are making the criteria of achieving those SDG outcomes as part of that process.
127.In addition to government procurement criteria, a mix of incentives, publicity, and enforcement actions were also suggested as ways to increase business participation in the SDGs. Lesley Irving, for example, told us about schemes run by the Scottish Government to increase engagement on women’s representation, which is one of the SDG 5 targets. These include the Scottish Business Pledge, which over 300 businesses have signed up to, and the ‘50/50 by 2020’ campaign. Both schemes work by encouraging businesses to commit to a range of positive actions, including trying to achieve gender equality on their boards. There are also “benefits to being part of the pledge and the campaign, as well as the feel-good factor of putting something back into society.”
128.Other suggestions made by Lynn Everson included:
129.We welcome the Government’s recognition that partnership working is central to the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs. It is promising to hear that the Government Equalities Office has been listening to businesses about the most effective ways to engage with them on SDG 5.
130.However, more needs to be done to engage with civil society in a structured way on this important issue. The Government has models for civil society engagement in the work of the Department for International Development and in Scotland. This expertise should be used to help the GEO and the Cabinet Office to work more effectively with civil society in the UK on achievement of SDG 5.
131.We have outlined a range of suggestions that the Government could implement to improve engagement with civil society and business on the SDGs. The most important in relation to SDG 5 is developing an effective mechanism for civil society organisations to work in partnership with government, sharing their knowledge and expertise and delivering services in local areas. This partnership working must be properly resourced in order to be effective.
132.Our main recommendation is that the Government Equalities Office should immediately launch a consultation on developing the most effective mechanism to facilitate ongoing partnership between government and civil society to implement SDG 5. A plan, outlining how this mechanism will work and how it will be funded, should be published by September 2017. Alongside this, a timetable should be published setting out when this partnership mechanism will be established and demonstrating that it will have met regularly prior to the 2018 High Level Political Forum.
133.We also recommend that the Department for International Development, or the Cabinet Office, should ensure that the relevant government departments investigate the possibility of incentives to increase business engagement with SDG 5 goals. This should specifically examine the possibility of embedding SDG 5 targets within public procurement criteria, as already undertaken by DFID.
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104 Independent Commission for Aid Impact, (May 2016)
108 British Council, (2016), p 14
110 PwC, (2015)
111 (SDG0032), para 3
113 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 103, para 62
114 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 103, para 63
116 Q129 [Dr Easton]
119 Scottish Women’s Convention, , accessed 20 February 2017
123 (SDG0004) para 12
125 UN, accessed 28 February 2017
127 (SGG0018), para 28
128 (SDG0032), para 23
130 International Development Committee, First Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 103, para 64
131 International Development Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2016–17, , HC 673
10 March 2017