Own goals

Ruth Lister on the government’s failure to grasp the SDG agenda and tackle domestic poverty and hunger

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the UN in 2015 broke new ground with the recognition that issues such as poverty, hunger and inequality must be addressed within richer countries as well as in the traditional international development context. No surprise therefore, that a Lords debate this week on the UK government’s Voluntary National Review (VNR) of progress towards the SDGs focussed on domestic matters. 

Earlier this year, the Environmental Audit Select Committee identified a ‘doughnut-shaped hole in domestic implementation of the SDGs’. Using SDG2 ‘zero hunger’ as a case study, it concluded that the ‘Government continues to see hunger and food insecurity as overseas issues’ and lamented its ‘blind eye’ to the issue. And cited UNICEF data from the Food Foundation which indicated a higher proportion of UK children living in severely food insecure households than in any other EU nation.   

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights places a duty on governments to ensure ‘the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger’. According to Human Rights Watch, the UK is failing in that duty as its research reveals families with children going hungry. One issue, integrating the domestic and global dimensions of the SDGs, concerns migrant families with no recourse to public funds and their children excluded from free school meals.   

The VNR document makes no mention of this shameful hunger. But it does refer to the welcome investment in the National School Breakfast Programme, whose organisers are driven by the knowledge that ‘some children are too hungry to learn’. The benefits reported by schools include improved behaviour, attendance and attainment. Yet Ministers refuse to confirm that the scheme will continue beyond March 2020, using the next Spending Review as cover. Given the sums involved are a fraction of the money raised from the Soft Drinks Levy, which funds the government contribution, surely an extension could be granted until the end of the next school year?       

Hunger is a symptom of poverty – the focus of SDG1. Analysis by the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development warns ‘unless the UK takes a different tack, everyday life for its most financially challenged will continue to become more stressed and the prospect of achieving SDG1…is a remote possibility’.

Responsibility for SDG1 lies with the DWP. According to the VNR report, ‘each UK government department has embedded the Goals in its Single Departmental Plan’; each plan ‘outlines how planned activity will support the delivery of the goals’. Yet there is not a single explicit reference to them in the Department’s ‘objectives’.

Indeed, there are no UK wide poverty targets, supported by a delivery strategy – something you would expect if SDG1 were genuinely integrated into the plan. It reads as if drawn up without reference to the SDGs before officials have added in parenthesis where they thought an action could be presented as contributing to them.

While target 1.2, reducing poverty in all its dimensions, is key for the UK, target 1.1. ‘eradicating extreme poverty’ is also relevant. A Joseph Rowntree study developed a measure of destitution appropriate for a wealthy country and estimated 1.5 million people in the UK – including 365,000 children – were destitute during 2017. And those numbers are likely to be worsening as the benefits freeze and other cuts push people further below the poverty line.

The government expresses pride in what it has achieved with SDGs while acknowledging the need for humility in the face of what it has not. Independent analysis underlines the need for that humility. Although shame would be more appropriate given that it has failed to grasp the potential of the SDGs to drive forward domestic action against poverty and hunger.

Baroness Ruth Lister of is a Labour Peer and Honorary President of Child Poverty Action Group

Published 11th July 2019

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