A common challenge that we hear from clients in engaging with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) here in the UK is a lack of leadership and direction from the UK Government. It was little surprise therefore to hear the Government’s attempts at addressing and implementing the SDGs described as “a total fail” with Mary Creagh, Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), claiming that responses from all but two of 18 government departments – the Department for International Development (DFID) and HMRC – failing to mention SDGs as part of their plans.
In order to achieve the Goals that all governments have signed up for, it is vital for political leaders to fully understand and know how to apply their understanding of the principles of the SDGs to their decisions and actions. Without political leadership, the SDG agenda will lose momentum. With a stretched UK Government choosing to ignore the SDG agenda, UK-based businesses have little direction on national priorities when it comes to the Goals. It’s widely accepted that for the Goals to be achieved, business must work together with government (and other actors), but it is the latter which ultimately sets each national agenda. It is a common misconception that the SDGs are a framework for developing nations only – where development challenges by definition are often greater – and it must be remembered that this is a global agenda.
It is therefore the responsibility of Government to bring the Goals to life for a country through its leadership, to make it tangible and real for the general population and for the businesses that operate there. In any country, achieving the SDGs will require government, business, NGOs and civil society to work together, adopt flexible approaches, share knowledge, measure progress, and understand how the various targets are interconnected.
Colombia is one country which seems to understand this and the UK may do well to take note of certain elements of the integrated approach taken by its government. According to Colombia’s finance minister, the country is localising the SDGs through the planning department, using the SDG framework to guide reforms relating to the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC, OECD accession, the National Development Plan, and the Paris climate agreement.
Colombia’s policymakers are taking care to highlight the benefits of these efforts – in areas ranging from health care and education to employment – for the public. They understand that a top-down approach will not work on its own. To achieve the SDGs, all levels of government, economy, and society must feel connected to the goals, understanding the concrete impact that achieving them will have. Colombia’s ‘bottom-up’ approach, supported by strong engagement with local communities and civil society has been key to its success with Colombian youth deeply involved in promoting and implementing the SDGs. Public awareness of the Goals as a result is extremely high. Colombia has a different set of challenges in many ways to the UK but its integrated, localised and community approach is a track which others would do well to consider following.
Could business play a bigger role in influencing the UK Government to demonstrate similar leadership and outline the UK’s priorities and contribution to meeting the SDGs? Definitely, and before it’s too late.