Myles Wickstead CBE on the SDGs

Myles Wickstead

The SDGs: what are they, and why should we care?

Myles Wickstead CBE is Visiting Professor (International Relations) at King’s College London and Associate Professor at the University of Exeter.  He has held senior positions in the Department for International Development; represented the UK on the Executive Board of the World Bank; was British Ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union; and was Head of Secretariat to the Commission for Africa.  His book: ‘Aid and Development: A Brief Introduction’ was published by Oxford University Press in June 2015.

At a UN Summit in late September 2015, Governments signed up to a document called: ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.  Were you, I wonder, aware of that? And whether or not you were, is it relevant and does it matter?

The ‘Transforming Our World’ document contains a set of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs).  There are a lot of them – 17, to be precise, and ten times as many ‘Targets’ (169 of them).  And there are many more ‘Indicators’, designed to measure progress against those Goals and Targets where possible.

It is unlikely that most of us will be able to remember 17 Goals, let alone 169 Targets.  It is important to remember the overarching Goal – eradicating extreme poverty everywhere by 2030 – but the ‘Transforming Our World’ document gives us a handy little reminder about the key elements of the rest of it.  Think ‘P’.  The key elements of the new agreement are:

Prosperity (the need for inclusive economic growth);

People (the importance of equity and fairness, and leaving no-one behind, whatever their ethnicity, sexuality, disability etc);

Planet (the importance of respecting the environment and dealing with the causes and consequences of climate change);

Peace (progress on any of the above will be difficult or impossible without a reasonable degree of peace, security and good governance);

Partnerships (the three key organisational pillars – Governments, civil society and the private sector – need to work together to make progress).

I rather assume that readers of this article will generally be in favour of such objectives, and support the efforts of the UK Government through its international development programme to help other countries make progress towards these Goals.  And by the way the proportion of people living in absolute poverty (less than $1.25 per day) in the world was halved between 1990 and 2015; that overarching Goal of eliminating absolute poverty by 2030 is not a wild aspiration, and the UK can make a significant contribution towards that, in spite of the unfounded and frankly malicious campaign against aid currently being waged in some sections of the press.

But it is actually a little closer to home than that – these are universal objectives, and therefore apply as much to the UK as to less economically developed countries.  So in addition to providing support to less developed countries the Government is committed to making progress within the UK on some really quite tricky issues.  For example, Target 10.1 commits Governments to: ‘By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average’.  That is a significant commitment, as indeed are commitments to address ‘global public goods’ like climate change or environmental sustainability.  That is why we need to insist that – as much in the UK and the US as Liberia and Indonesia – Governments draw up a plan for how they propose to implement the SDG agenda, thus giving Parliaments and civil society organisations something by which to hold Governments to their commitments.  Many countries -such as Finland and Colombia, Germany and Uganda  – have already done so; we are in the UK still waiting.

The private sector too has a huge role to play in delivering this agenda, in the UK and internationally; SDG 17 is all about building partnerships between Governments, civil society and the private sector to make all this happen.   Private sector expertise and financing is required, and if people get rich through working hard and delivering essential services, so be it – though if they are ready to put something back into the system, as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have done, so much the better.   What should really concern us is not people getting rich (with the important caveat that that should not be through the exploitation of others), but people staying poor, especially when the progress that has been made over the past 15 years shows that it is possible to eliminate absolute poverty over the next decade and a half and do so in a way which does not endanger the future of the Planet.  A failure to do so would be shameful for all of us.  Getting some energy behind the SDGs is the best way to bring solidarity to that challenge.

Why should we care about any of this, either as individuals or as companies?  A peaceful, stable world in which people are making progress and in which the very existence of the Planet is not threatened has to be in all our interests.  It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to put up the shutters (or build walls) and act as though the world outside doesn’t exist; politicians everywhere, not least in the US and the UK under current circumstances, need to be reminded of that.  We all benefit from – for example – more open trade.  And some of the key challenges of our time – diseases that cross borders, climate change and environmental pollution – can only be addressed on a regional or global basis.  Aid is in the overall scheme of things generally less important than it was; but it will continue to be an important instrument for supporting those ‘global public goods’ as well as helping very poor people more directly.  Especially as all the evidence suggests that, on the whole, aid is an effective way of supporting poverty reduction.

Making progress on all this demands a sixth ‘P’ – political will.  Governments sometimes need a little help to demonstrate that political will – and that is where you come in.  Encourage the British Government both to support progress towards the SDGs in other countries, but also to set out how it plans to see the UK make progress in this country.  Is Target 10.1 relevant to the UK?  I rather think so. So are many of the others; take a look at them.  This is a universal agenda; we are all in this together, and perhaps not only our well-being but our very survival depends on making significant progress towards the SDGs.


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