Tory failure on sustainable development on show in Britain and abroad

29th February, 2016 1:12 pm


The EU renegotiation may be dominating the headlines but few will know the Government has spent the past four years embroiled in another set of international negotiations.

This process culminated in September 2015 when the UN formally adopted the 2030 Agenda, within which was contained a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals cover a broad range of issues from poverty, health and education to infrastructure, governance and inequality. The challenge now lies in implementing these Goals and in ensuring they make a tangible difference at a national level.

The SDGs differ from their predecessor framework the Millennium Development Goals in one very distinct way: They are universal goals. This means that all countries – whether developing or developed – have a commitment to reaching the goals and all countries have a responsibility to develop national action plans.

While it is true that not all targets contained within the goals will be relevant to the UK, the impact of certain ones should be felt here. Despite this the Government has no plans to implement a national action plan. Instead when questioned at an International Development select committee hearing, Justine Greening said: “the action plan we have is actually delivering on the manifesto, on which we were elected. “

Last time I checked the Government’s manifesto had been used to actively dismantle our march towards progress. For example:

  • Target 1.2 sets a commitment to reducing, by at least half, the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions. Some 13 million people in the UK live in poverty. Tory welfare cuts have actively pushed people into poverty. Last year one million people used food banks.
  • Target 5.5 ensures women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in public life. Women’s representation in Parliament is woefully low at only at 29.4 per cent, lower than 38 other countries including Rwanda, which tops the table at 63.8 per cent.
  • Target 16.10 ensures public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms. Instead the Government has curbed freedoms by watering down the Freedom of Information Act, introducing the Lobbying Bill and proposing the Trade Union Bill.

These targets represent a microcosm of the chasm that exists between what the Government has signed up to in the Sustainable Development Goals and what they are actually doing.

This presents an opportunity for Labour.

The Government’s adoption of the SDGs and their complete failure to acknowledge what this means for the UK can be used as a lever for effective opposition.

Firstly, it is an opportunity to expose the hypocrisy and complacency of Government. The Government sought to play an active role and present itself as a leader in the negotiation process. Now they are lagging behind countries like the US, Colombia, Germany and Montenegro who have already actively sought to understand explore and introduce measures to implement the goals, including updating national and regional development plans. The UK on the other hand has focused only on what DfID can do in developing countries. Labour could co-ordinate a comprehensive review of where the Government is failing to meet the goals and use this as a basis of attack.

Secondly, the integrated nature of the challenges the SDGs seek to address required joined up, multi-stakeholder solutions. The Shadow Cabinet should be working together to present cross-departmental solutions to the challenges facing the UK and putting these into practice where possible. It should also be using the SDG framework to strengthen international and domestic stakeholder relationships with the aim of encouraging cross-sectoral learning and solution building. For the shadow international teams it also provides a platform to engage on national issues through the lens of how international frameworks and complex global challenges affect us domestically.

Thirdly, this is an opportunity to champion where Labour is already making a difference at national, regional and local level and to use regions where we already have power to address Tory failures. Our leadership on issues like the bedroom tax, NHS and early childhood development that relate to the SDGs can be amplified. The local and London elections in May provide an opportunity to help councillors, local authorities, candidates and backbenchers promote campaigns which feed into a central strategy to promote national implementation of the SDGs.

Poverty, inequality and sustainable development are major challenges in the UK, not just in poor countries. It would be disingenuous to believe otherwise. The SDGs can be an asset around which to mobilise national change. Ignoring a set of commitments we have signed up to as a nation is not a way to achieve them and is an affront to UK citizens. Labour has an opportunity, and a responsibility as the Opposition, to act.


Jessica Toale is a political and international development consultant and former political advisor to two Shadow Secretaries of State.

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