MSc Environment and Development candidate, Eloise O’Carroll reports on UK’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) which tracks progress made towards the SDGs in the UK and around the world. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came about in 2015 to replace the Millennium Development Goals. As you probably know, they consist of 17 goals with 169 underlying targets. The Global Goals seek to tackle issues in developed and developing countries, ranging from climate change to inequality, health and education. While very ambitious, many have criticised them for being too vague, designed without being measurable and simply unattainable.

What exactly are countries around the world doing to work towards the Sustainable Development Agenda?

One such country is the UK, where I recently attended a consultation at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as part of the United Kingdom’s Voluntary National Review (VNR), which is tracking progress made towards the SDGs in the UK and around the world. Globally, countries are expected to publish their progress and this year, the UK will present its VNR at the United Nations during the High Level Political forum in July 2019 alongside 50 other countries.

The Government is gathering evidence from its work as well as the role of the private sector and civil society through data and case study collection. It also invited these stakeholder groups to a series of events presenting the country’s Emerging Findings and Further Engagement.

I appreciated the collaborative nature of the VNR reporting. Indeed, at the event, the International Development community raised its concerns, be it regarding the “next steps” after the VNR, aligning UK priorities with local needs, and addressing lessons learnt (including challenges and failures!)

In fact, the VNR wants to hear from you! DFID’s SDGs Team is still accepting case studies to add to its review. Individuals, charities and businesses alike are invited to send in their cases, highlighting their efforts in working towards the SDGs. To submit a case study, you need to complete the survey or online form. You may find more information here.

So, what are the findings of the VNR?

The VNR is focusing on partnerships, using data and goal inter-linkages to report on UK progress, both nationally and internationally through its foreign aid programmes. Thanks to this, it is tracking each and every goal, highlighting what more needs to be done. The Office for National Statistics has already reported on 70% of its commitments. The SDG Tracker tool, designed by Our World in Data, looks at each indicator and maps recent global trends, somehow measuring progress made towards the SDGs. Having a “bigger picture” trend is a more significant way of quantifying and attributing success than the “snapshot” approach the VNR is taking.

What stands out to me is that, while a lot is being done, not enough is being achieved. Take UK poverty for example (SDG 1 is “No Poverty”). In November 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights paid the UK a visit. He reported on the shocking 14 million people (a fifth of the population) who live in poverty, as well as on the predicted child poverty rates of 40% in 2022. He wrote that “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.” The Special Rapporteur was quick to point out the link between rising poverty, and the roll out of government austerity programmes and the Universal Credit.

The UK Government refused to acknowledge Philip Alston’s report, as he used a relative poverty measure – which looks at the percentage of people living with less than 55% of the median income, taking into account costs such as housing, debt, disability and childcare. The government uses a measure of absolute poverty, which looks at the number of people in households with less than 60% of the median income (baseline 2010/11), thus showing how living standards have changed since the benchmark year. By its count, the government claims there are a million fewer people in absolute poverty than in 2010. Poverty measures are often contentious, but moving beyond the debate surrounding methodology, it is clear that current austerity measures are not doing anyone any good.

Reporting on the SDGs is a laudable goal, but I believe more should be done by the UK Government to address the root of the problems at hand, be it poverty, inequality, school funding cuts, unambitious environmental plans and the list goes on. Overall, while much has been achieved, such as highlighting the gender pay gap for companies in the UK that have more than 250 employees, more action needs to be taken to effectively tackle the root causes of such inequalities (SDG 5 is “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”). It is clear that there is a tremendous gap in making significant progress towards achieving the SDGs, and not just in the UK.

Filling that and other gaps will need a lot more money – there is an annual $2.5 trillion investment gap in meeting the Global Goals. Recently, the World Bank found that western governments provide “only” $150bn worth of aid, which increases to about $1tn when multilateral funds are included. It is extremely hard to leverage sufficient financial investment but without it, we may be far off from ensuring that “no one is left behind”.

The UK Government is currently campaigning to get 1% of assets from the City of London, worth $110bn, invested in global development. While impact investment of the sort, aimed at generating social and environmental returns on top of financial returns, is becoming increasingly popular, it is not sufficient. Big banks such as the Swiss UBS and American Blackrock are starting to invest in the SDGs but some suggest that instead of impact investment, major financial institutions could reduce the amount the “amounts they funnel out of developing countries and into secret jurisdictions to avoid paying taxes”.

It seems as though as the ultimate constraint in achieving the Global Goals is lack of money. After all, once the funding is there, the lofty Sustainable Development Goals may not be so out of reach.


Eloise O’Carroll is studying for an MSc in Environment and Development and is an Economics graduate from McGill University. She has a keen interest in sustainable development, and particularly in the role of the private sector in advancing environmental and social goals.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.