Sustainable Development Goals — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:37 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 12:37 pm, 17th September 2015

My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on securing this debate on such an important topic for all our futures, I declare an interest as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health.

It is widely accepted by the World Bank, other institutions and academics that there is a correlation between development and economic growth and the empowerment of women, a phrase that we hear much about. That is done by the reduction in family size and, subsequently, women’s access to education and training. Women can be empowered, though, only if they have power over their own bodies, and in many countries, developed and developing, women do not have that power. At this point I commend my noble friend Lord Loomba for the speech that he gave and for the work that he does in this field. It is much admired and appreciated.

I am sure that noble Lords all know the 17 sustainable development goals and the 169 targets attached to them. Personally, I have only just learned to recite the millennium development goals; now my failing memory has to cope with 17 SDGs and 169 targets, and I am not going to remember them. Can noble Lords recite them? Do your Lordships remember doing the catechism at school? Perhaps the right reverend Prelate remembers it; I never learnt that either, I have to say. Most important of all, for me, are SDGs 3.7, on good health and well-being, and 5.6, entitled “Gender equality” but dealing with women’s health and sexual and reproductive health and rights in particular. They do not deal with just maternal health, family planning and safe abortion but FGM, child marriage and violence against women generally, all of which are rife in this world and which must be eliminated. Here I must congratulate and thank the Government and the coalition Government before them for the continuing support on these issues and the high profile they have given them. Long may it continue.

My all-party parliamentary group recently produced a paper—here is a visual aid for noble Lords—following hearings on population dynamics and sustainable development. That is a rather clumsy title, but it is a good paper. It was chaired by the former MP Sir Richard Ottaway, who was one of my vice-chairs at the time. This paper deals with the advantages of reduced fertility rates—that is, family size—and links them to climate change, desertification and water shortages, which with large and often young populations lead to conflict and certainly to mass migration, which the world is experiencing now, not just in the Middle East but in Africa and Asia.

A friend on Facebook recently sent me an article. That is at least two times this week that Facebook has been mentioned in this House, I think, which may mean that we are modernising. This article was a very interesting one that I had never seen before, which gave a brilliant example of all these factors of population dynamics and climate change, and so on, coming together in the story of Syria. It was written a couple of years ago by William Polk, one-time professor of history at Harvard and I believe an adviser to the American Government, and was published in the Atlantic magazine. He describes Syria as densely populated in 2010, with a population of 24 million; one quarter of the land is arable, and the population is clustered in a very small area. He writes:

“Four years of devastating drought beginning in 2006 caused at least 800,000 farmers to lose their entire livelihood and about 200,000 simply abandoned their lands”.

In some areas there were 75% crop failures, and 85% of livestock died of thirst. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian farmers gave up and fled to the towns. Some noble Lords know this, I am sure. There they had to compete with refugees from Palestine and Iraq from previous troubles for water and food. Hostile groups formed. Representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Syria—I did not know this—turned to USAID and described the situation as “a perfect storm”. No aid was given; nobody took any notice. They left Syria to it. When a relatively small group gathered in Deraa to protest against the Government and their failure to help them, the brutal crackdown by President Assad’s Government started and, as we say, the rest is history. I tell that rather lengthy story to remind noble Lords because it is very important as an illustration of what sustainable development goals should all be about.

From countryside to cities and between countries, human beings are on the move. This is why we in the group concentrated on the term “population dynamics”, which encompasses the demographics structure of a society, ageing populations who have a shortage of working-age citizens, and populations which are predominantly young. We must take all these things into account. All these factors have been recognised by the latest document to emanate from the United Nations, which we have already heard about in this debate, entitled Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Paragraph 34, in a section on urban development, states joyfully:

“We will also take account of population trends and projections in our national, rural, and urban development, strategies and policies”.

The UN gets it—I must send it a copy of our paper.

Let me stress that we are not talking about population control, but giving women the choice and necessary commodities to decide how many children they have means that mankind benefits in many ways. Countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh are already benefiting. So are Rwanda, Tunisia, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Even Iran has reduced its fertility rate and the country has benefited as a result.

Finally, I thank the Government once again for their promotion of these issues and plead that when the Prime Minister addresses the assembly on the sustainable development goals in the autumn, he specifically mentions the benefits of the often marginalised subject of sexual and reproductive health and rights in his speech.