Sustainable Development Goals — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:05 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 1:05 pm, 17th September 2015

I thank my noble friend, Lord Chidgey, for securing this debate and for opening it so effectively. I also thank the many NGOs, including Save the Children, RESULTS, WWF, Safer World and others for their engagement. I am proud of the fact that, under the coalition Government, we reached 0.7% of GNI on aid. As my noble friend Lord Purvis reminded us, it was he and my other Lib Dem colleague, Michael Moore, who took through the Bill that placed that in law. Now we must make sure that this aid is used effectively. Our debate yesterday on the refugee crisis, as people flee from war-torn and unstable regimes, underlined the importance of the global commitment to development. As my noble friend Lord Chidgey pointed out, conflict is the more significant cause of poverty. Therefore, development is something in which we all have an interest—not only moral but for global prosperity and stability. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Sheffield is right to remind us that we have to get across, not least in the United Kingdom, this sense of the global community and responsibility.

When the MDGs were first drawn up for the year 2000, it was largely the hand of one man, the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown. He did a pretty good job. There was clarity and purpose about the MDGs. That is why they have been so influential. Huge progress has been achieved in a number of areas as my noble friend Lord Chidgey and others have pointed out. Extreme poverty has been cut by more than a half; the number of people who experience extreme hunger has also been cut by almost a half. Primary school enrolment for children is now well over 90%. Hugely importantly, MDG3, the gender goal, has been successful in galvanising resources and political will for girls’ and women’s empowerment and gender equality. Progress has been made. Globally, more girls go to school, women are living longer, they are having fewer children, and participating in the economy more.

The UK, both under the Labour Government and the coalition Government, has been at the forefront of taking action to ensure that these goals are implemented. The UK has used its expertise across health, education, nutrition, women’s rights and many other areas for the benefit of the poorest and most vulnerable, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, indicated. We should be proud of that record. I certainly am. But the very success of the MDGs has brought international engagement in their replacements. I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, wondered whether the best thing would be to continue and simply tweak the MDGs. People had learnt that money and effort followed the MDGs, so this time it has not been the hand of one person. Everyone has wanted to make sure that their area, their perspective, their country, their region, their NGO might come within the new aims. It will be the new sustainable development goals that will help to determine where the money goes. So the danger was producing a Christmas tree.

The high-level panel to which my noble friend Lord Loomba referred was ably supported by Michael Anderson from DfID as it sought to come up with something effective and streamlined. Out of this came the proposal, still retained, to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to leave no one behind. That is a brilliant encapsulation. After the report was given to the UN, it went out to regional groups with the danger that various aspects, especially the need to prioritise women or political accountability, would be knocked out as being culturally unacceptable, while pressures to add things in would also serve to dilute. Clearly, there are lessons that we needed to try to address, such as focusing on outcomes as well as access. It is one thing to get children into schools, for example, but ensuring that they receive a good quality education is a different matter.

It is also clear, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and my noble friend Lord Purvis said, that the SDGs needed to address issues such as the rule of law and the vital importance of peace and stability. I note what my noble friend Lord Chidgey has said about money laundering and corruption. He is surely right. Can the Minister reassure us that in the United Kingdom the Serious Fraud Office, now investigating, for example, the role of Soma Oil in Somalia, will not be weakened? Will she dispel rumours that the Bribery Act 2012 will be weakened and confirm that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 will likewise not be weakened? DfID should be commended for its work with the Metropolitan Police in combating corruption. This good work could be countered by these other moves.

We also know that treating the environment and development as separate issues does not work; they are interrelated. The noble Lord, Lord Rees, is right about that, and we must surely harness new technology for sustainable economic growth, especially as we know that the poorest will be the first and the worst to be affected by climate change. Again I note that the right reverend Prelate said that we cannot advocate one thing internationally while doing something else at home, and the move away from leading on tackling climate change in the UK is of deep concern. I look forward to the Minister’s replies to these points.

The millennium development goals have been criticised for their focus on averages, and noble Lords have made reference to that. Countries have reported successes on many targets according to average figures while many of those who are hardest to reach have been left behind. These people are often the most vulnerable and marginalised: women, children, ethnic or religious minorities, the elderly and the disabled. It is right that we put a new focus on being inclusive.

Where are we now? We have 17 goals and, I think, 169 targets. The noble Baroness, Lady Mobarik, rightly identified how difficult it has been to keep the goals even to this long list, and that it is indeed unwieldy. Like the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, I also pay tribute to Amina Mohammed for her efforts to ensure that the goals and targets are as focused as possible. For me, the critical elements of the new SDGs remain these: to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and to leave no one behind. This is about as comprehensive as it could get. However, I have heard it said that the SDGs themselves leave no targets behind, they are so long. I share the concern of my noble friend Lady Tonge that I will never remember them. I had a list of the MDGs stuck up on my fridge, and I had difficulty remembering those ones. All these goals and targets mean that the focus over the next few months must be on the technical details of how things will be measured and delivered. This is the key stage, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the details of what is being done here.

Most importantly, can the noble Baroness fill us in on gender? This issue has come up several times in the debate. I have mentioned the progress we have made on gender, but significant challenges remain. Some two-thirds of people who are currently living in extreme poverty are girls and women. Across 63 developing countries, girls are more likely to be out of school than boys among both the primary and lower secondary age groups. My noble friend Lady Brinton also made reference to this. Globally, at least one in three women is beaten or sexually abused by an intimate partner in her lifetime, although actually, evidence from the South African Medical Research Council shows that the percentage is much higher. Moreover, like my noble friend Lady Brinton, I urge a continued concentration on combating FGM. Gender equality is vital if we are to end poverty.

Evidence shows that where girls and women are “locked out”, economies and societies underachieve. We know that gender equality is essential to help economies grow. As my noble friend Lord Loomba so rightly emphasised, widows can suffer the double discrimination of being widows as well as women, and they must have the focus on them.

I turn to family planning and pay tribute to Andrew Mitchell MP for his brave and sterling work in this vital field, a point rightly made by my noble friend Lady Tonge. Women should be able to choose how many children they have. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has fewer children, and her children are more educated and healthier. She, her family, her community and her country all benefit.

What we aim to do now is in many ways even more difficult than it was before. Addressing political structures, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and my noble friend Lord Chidgey have outlined, is very challenging. Reaching out to the most marginal can be socially challenging. Later we will come on to a debate tabled by my noble friend Lord Scriven on the rights of LGBTI people worldwide. Further, as my noble friend Lady Brinton has flagged, disability can render people invisible. When she was at DfID, Lynne Featherstone—shortly to be my noble friend—rightly sought to shift the focus to ensure that those who were previously excluded and under the radar would receive the support that inclusive development demands should be the case. Perhaps the noble Baroness can update us on what is happening in regard to the emphasis on inclusive societies.

I should point out that the SDGs are applicable here, which is different from the MDGs, so how are we ensuring that the Treasury recognises its responsibility? When I was the Government equalities spokesperson and the spokesperson for DfID, I realised the read-across—I tried to get the Treasury to disaggregate data on policies affecting women, but it said that that would be too difficult. If we hold that view here, how can we expect developing countries to do so? Can the Minister tell me what progress we in the United Kingdom have made?

This has been an excellent debate and I thank my noble friend Lord Chidgey once again for tabling it. We should all be proud of the United Kingdom’s record. DfID is an outstanding department, making a huge difference globally. I know that the department will be working constantly to make sure that the new SDGs transform the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable around the world. I look forward to the noble Baroness’s update on how this will be taken forward.