10 Apr

Leaving the UK Behind? A review of the UK government’s policy paper ‘Agenda 2030: Delivering the Global Goals’

Whilst this paper is a bold step for the UK government, there are some gaps to be addressed if we are serious about delivering the Global Goals at home and abroad.

In September 2015, 193 countries adopted 17 Global Goals (Sustainable Development Goals), a set of goals to eradicate poverty and promote sustainable development by 2030. These 17 Goals have shifted the development discourse towards a new concept that simultaneously enables social, economic, and environmental development (sustainable development).

In addition to the concept of sustainable development, there are other defining features of the Global Goals which makes them a unique addition to the global development agenda. These include the principles of universality, “all countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership”, and leave no one behind,  to facilitate inclusive development.

The goals came into effect on January 1 2016 and the global development community have been proactive in furthering this agenda. Member States have drawn up country strategies on how they would adapt this agenda to national contexts, and civil society as well as the private sector have set out plans to incorporate this agenda in to their operational plans. On March 28 2017, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) launched a policy paper outlining their approach to delivering the Global Goals at home and abroad.  Unfortunately, the official triggering of Article 50 and the Brexit process on March 29 2017 overshadowed this policy paper preventing a lively public dialogue on the paper itself.

The launch of this paper is a bold and encouraging step for DfID. However, there are some challenges in this policy paper which need to be addressed if DfID’s strategy will deliver the transformational change outlined in the Global Goals. Here, I review some of the conceptual and strategic challenges in the government’s paper.


Framing transformational change

In the preamble text to the policy paper, DfID describes the Sustainable Development Agenda, as the ‘17 Global Goals {that} will shape the world’s approach to growth and sustainable development until 2030.’ Interestingly, growth and sustainable development have been separated into two components, a divergence from the concept of sustainable development which presumes that social, economic and environmental development are indivisible components of development.

The sequencing of the two concepts, growth and sustainable development, hints at the UK government’s priority on economic development which has been demonstrated through Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel’s focus on trade and private sector development as well as the recent launch of the Department for International Trade.

If this is so, it poses a challenge to the transformative nature of the Global Goals for two reasons. Firstly, economic growth is not an end but a means to development so it’s important to remember that economic development is a necessary but not sufficient condition for transformative change.

Even if economic growth was an end to development, the form of economic growth matters more for transformative change. This includes the way the gains are spread (equitable and inclusive growth), how this growth spreads out in the long-term (sustainability) and whether economic development undermines or complements other forms of development elsewhere (coherency).  I stress this point because DFID’s approach to Goal 1, ending poverty, is all about stimulating economic growth and labour productivity while the conversation on poverty reduction in the development community has progressed way beyond this.

The demarcation of the sustainable development concept between growth and sustainable development in DfIDs’ paper does show the difficulty in integrating the three aspects of development in the Global Goals agenda. This could result in different countries prioritising some but not all aspects of the Global Goals in order to factor external influences such as national politics and the availability of resources. How to balance a 15-year multilateral agenda with the short-termism of national politics and an ever-changing context remains an opportunity for discussion in future review processes.

Implementation without vision

While it claims to outline an implementation plan, this policy paper instead ‘provides an overview and examples of how the UK Government is contributing to the delivery of each of the Goals.’ As such, the paper is more of a discursive document affirming the government’s commitment to the Global Goals as opposed to a strategic plan outlining in detail its vision, priorities, goals, and targets.

If we compare this paper within other national efforts, one wonders whether we can expect more from the department at this point.  We have already built momentum at the national level with the UK Action 2015 Network which I was a part of, the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development network, the Parliamentary inquiry on the UK implementation of the SDGs, and the British Council policy paper on advancing Global Goal 5 on Gender Equality in the UK.

The formal implementation of the Goals began in January 1 2016, and we are coming up to the second High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) since the Global Goals were formally adopted. The HLPF is a UN intergovernmental dialogue set up for Member States to report on their progress towards achieving the Global Goals. This policy paper is more suited to the context of the HLPF dialogue than a paper outlining the vision and strategy for implementation of the Goals.

Aside from this, the paper provides an implementation plan without reference to the UK’s specific vision for the Global Goals. Apart from the preamble text and its reference to ‘growth and sustainable development’, and DfID’s multilateral and bilateral aid reviews, the paper does not set out in detail what achieving the Goals will mean for UK and its work globally.

Outlining the government’s approach to implementing the Goals at home and abroad would have been a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the extent to which the UK’s national priorities are aligned with international development goals. If I were to rewrite this paper I would outline a government vision of the paper which addresses the following questions:

  • What does the UK government want to achieve and why?
  • How will this agenda help them achieve this?
  • What is their take on the Global Goals? What is their M/I/L (Must, Intend, Like)? Ideally all 17 goals but we can start somewhere.
  • How do the Global Goals signal a shift from or affirm what UK government has been previously done within the context of international development?
  • Policy coherence: How is DfID aligning national priorities with international development goals?



Localising the SDGs

The paper details that the Goals will be implemented via three channels. DFID will retain ‘policy oversight’ for UK’s implementation of Agenda 2030. At the national level, the relevant government departments will implement the Goals through ‘Single Departmental Plans’ and through the devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Surprisingly, there is no reference to localising the Global Goals in the paper and a crucial discussion has been missed on how central government can facilitate an enabling environment to make the Goals responsive to local issues. Localising the SDGs (Global Goals) was a priority agenda during the negotiations of the Global Goals. This resulted in the Turin Communique, a declaration outlining how the Goals could respond to local contexts and what would be needed to empower local stakeholders to act on these goals. It is not clear whether the Single Departmental Plans or the involvement of the devolved administrations focus specifically on local implementation but not referring to it in the paper misses out an important step.

Intersectoral delivery v. Single Departmental Plans

Interlinking action across sectors and between stakeholders was one of the biggest lessons learned during the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals from 2000-2015. It is not clear whether the Single Departmental Plans will develop strategies interlinking the Goals or whether each department will be assigned a goal to address without co-ordination with other departmental plans.

In addition to the Single Departmental Plans, the UK Government should create a team tasked with the role of co-ordinating the implementation of the goals across the departments. This will increase efficiency of resources and help identify areas where policies can contradict or complement each other.

Co-ordinating the Single Departmental Plans will also help identify existing assumptions within different departments that could undermine consistency in implementation. Research by the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) shows how different assumptions about development across a government administration influences their priorities and consequently the extent to which policies can be formulated that simultaneously advance economic, social and environmental change. This point is especially important because it is a reminder of the deeply political nature and environment within with policy implementation happens. There is a lot of ground work to do in terms of gaining stakeholder buy-in and commitment before implementation begins.

Monitoring and review process  

The lack of information on the monitoring and review process makes it difficult to i) hold the UK government accountable and ii) engage the public on the national progress on these goals. The paper states that the monitoring and review process will be ‘in line with the UN follow-up review process’ using available data provided by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).  As this paper is meant to be an implementation plan, there should be more information provided on how the monitor and review process fits the national and sub-national contexts. A clear monitoring and review process should address the following questions:

  • What existing mechanisms at the local and national levels exist to monitor and review progress?
  • What is the UK government doing to ensure the monitoring and review processes are inclusive, accessible and consider new forms of data (i.e. citizen generated data)?
  • The ONS will be reporting progress using available data but what about areas where there are data gaps? How can civil society, private sector and academia address these gaps?
  • Are there existing spaces to discuss and review progress on these goals and have they been clearly communicated to all stakeholders?
  • What will be the role of Parliament in providing scrutiny on the UK’s progress?


Perhaps the biggest critique of this policy paper is the lack of detail provided. The overview and examples provided for each goal are linked to the indicators and targets for each goal but a member of the public with little knowledge of the Global Goals would not know this. There is little information given about the annual timeline of the monitoring and review process up until 2020 (the next UK General Election) and how national monitoring and review processes will be linked to the UN follow up processes.

It is not clear which departments will be addressing which goals, and how local governments will be involved in implementing and reporting of the goals beyond the involvement of devolved administration systems. A brief assessment of how Brexit will affect the UK’s approach to the Global Goals could have been provided even if a brief statement acknowledging the potential impact at the national and global levels. All in all, a brave first step towards commitment to global progress but if the gaps in policy paper are not addressed, UK could be the one being left behind…

What is your take on the UK’s approach to implementing the Global Goals at home and abroad? Let’s keep the momentum on this agenda going! In my follow-up thinkpiece next week, I will provide a few recommendations to the UK government on how they can use the Agenda 2030 paper to add value to the SDGs at home and abroad.

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