My Lords, I should probably record that I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. I also reference my entry in the register of interests, not least my position as vice-president of UNICEF.
The UN global goals for sustainable development were agreed in 2015, partly because our work was not done. The millennium development goals agreed in 2000 were perhaps right for the time—perhaps sufficient given what could be agreed then—but they were very targeted and simplistic. They were focused on particular aspects of education, health and access to water, and made only limited reference to, for example, gender inequality or climate change.
Although much progress had been made, even in areas where there had been substantial progress, such as reducing extreme poverty, the job was only half-done. So when the UK led the international consultation on what should replace the millennium development goals, it was agreed by everyone involved that there should be a much more comprehensive roadmap to the future that dealt not only with specific aspects of life that needed immediate attention, but other areas where the causes of extreme poverty, violence and despair were so deep that a comprehensive set of solutions was required.
We needed a set of goals that tackled peace and justice in strong institutions, as goal 16 does. We needed a set of goals that talked about resilience against extreme weather events and natural disasters, and did not just try to pick up the pieces afterwards. We needed a set of goals that addressed gender inequality and economic inequality, as well as the crucial issue of economic growth and development, particularly in expanding cities in developing and middle-income countries across the world. The goals needed to be in context, so there was a summit on financing development in Addis just three months before. They also needed to be placed firmly in the context of the impact of climate change, so they were agreed just before—but implemented after—the summit on climate change in Paris in December 2015.
So for once, the world had thought about this in advance. We did not just write the goals on the back of an envelope, submit them to a meeting and then walk away with another set of warm words, without the actions associated with them. We actually had a set of goals that had been debated and agreed in a proper context, and that had an implementation plan. At the core of that plan was the system of voluntary national reviews and national strategies that each country was expected to adopt and then offer back to the UN. We have seen incredible progress in some areas. In just three years, 111 countries have presented their voluntary national reviews to the UN. Not all of them have been high quality and perhaps not all have even been as honest as they needed to be, but at least there is a system in place early in the 15-year programme for countries to start to assess the progress they are making and discuss it with their peers.
Most interestingly, we have seen across the world businesses adopting the sustainable development goals in a way that never happened with the millennium development goals. In my view, that has not yet happened enough in this country, but around the world multinational corporations in particular—in Japan, for example; others are headquartered in Europe—are adopting these goals as part of their business planning for the future, realising that dealing with the risks associated with climate change, conflict, extreme poverty and a world where an increasing young population do not have the skills and opportunities to make the most of their place in it, has to be central to any sustainable, successful multinational business in the 21st century.
In all these areas where businesses are coming on board and countries are producing and presenting their voluntary national reviews, the UK has slipped a bit behind the curve. However, I do not doubt for one minute the commitment of individual Ministers, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Bates, who will respond to our debate today, or the Secretary of State for International Development, who made an excellent speech at an all-party group event last Tuesday, where we launched an initiative to encourage parliamentarians to become more involved in the consultation on the voluntary national review.
If we look back over the past three years—unlike the period before that, when the UK was at the head of the international charge to get a set of ambitious goals agreed and a comprehensive planning and assessment process in place—we see that not all the DfID programmes agreed over that time have really embedded the goals at their core. They may have been appropriate to the goals, but the bilateral programmes we agreed were not directly linked to countries’ individual strategies. Even in DfID, we could probably have done more on that, but across the rest of government, not enough departments have embedded the goals into their single departmental plans. The goals have not been the subject of an effective cross-government scrutiny process.
The UKSSD report published this summer, Measuring up, which considered UK progress on the goals, was a pretty fair assessment of the lack of UK progress. We could all have done more, the Government included, to encourage more UK businesses to adopt the goals. We could have taken the approach of Japan, where the Prime Minister’s office has led initiatives to get businesses to adopt these goals and take a sustainable approach to their development. Across all areas, the Government could probably have engaged more with civil society.
However, the Government have been distracted these past two years; I understand that and am willing, almost, to forgive it. We now need to use the voluntary national review as an opportunity to rekindle the process and re-establish Britain at the forefront of international and domestic action for these goals. To do that, we need not only the UK Government and Parliament to lead that charge; we need more local governments across the UK to do so too. I know that Birmingham City Council has recently formally adopted the goals and wants to see them at the heart of its preparations for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. That is a great objective and ambition for the city, but more of our cities, districts and counties across the UK could be adopting the goals and building them into their local planning.
The devolved Governments in Scotland and Wales—and, when they exist, in Northern Ireland—should be doing the same thing and should also be part of the voluntary national review process. We should be working with civil society and businesses across the UK to ensure that more of them integrate and embed the goals in their day-to-day work. If we do that, not only will we be able to present an honest voluntary national review next summer to the United Nations, assess our progress and engage people in that ambition; we can also rekindle the momentum here in the UK for our work at home and abroad to adopt, campaign for and achieve the goals by 2030.
There is a very good reason why a comprehensive set of goals was needed: the complexity of the modern world and of the challenges domestically in the UK. Look at somewhere such as the Philippines, where a typhoon or an earthquake can demolish 25 years of development in just 25 minutes. Look at the African Sahel and the complexity across the region of the challenges of migration, climate change, extreme poverty, violence and conflict. Surely the answer is a comprehensive programme of goals and targets that recognises that each country will have different priorities but that together, these solutions give us some of the answers to the challenges that we face. If we are to do that, we all need to demonstrate more urgency. We are three years into a 15-year programme. We are nowhere near far enough along that journey, globally or nationally.
In the words of Malala Yousafzai, who spoke in September 2015 at the General Assembly at the hour when the goals were adopted, and who stopped the diplomats chattering on the General Assembly floor and asked them to listen for a minute: “Do not do what you have always done and agree these goals at a summit here and then walk away and leave them aside. Remember these goals, remember your commitments and implement them. Do not let us down”. Those words should ring in your Lordships’ Chamber today.