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Covid-19: UN Sustainable Development Goals

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 22 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

[Inaudible.] It is clear, however, that Covid-19 poses yet further challenges to reaching the sustainable development goals by 2030 and that urgent action to accelerate progress is required. The UK is committed to this aim. To date, we have provided £769 million of UK aid to the international response and we are co-leading work through the UN Financing for Development work stream on sustainable recovery.

My Lords, this pandemic has proved the importance of the global goals. Sadly, last year’s Voluntary National Review was evidence that the SDGs were not prioritised by the top level of government, despite David Cameron’s early leadership role in their establishment. What practical and institutional steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that the SDGs are at the centre of their plans to “build back better” at home and internationally post Covid?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the sustainable development goals remain central to the Government’s plans, both internationally and domestically. We remain strongly committed to responding to Covid-19 and, in parallel, it is of course important to consider how we will recover. The SDGs are an important lens to help shape policies that will help us build back better from Covid-19 both here in the UK and in our international work.

My Lords, in what ways are the UK Government ensuring that their rebuilding and recovery efforts are guided by local partners and in line with the national SDG strategy, including working with the private sector globally?

My Lords, it is of course important both that we work with the private sector and that we champion localised action as well. We work very closely with front-line responders and southern women’s rights organisations; we know that those people are best placed to ensure that the response is informed by the voices and needs of those being affected.

Now that the Department for International Development has been scrapped, which Minister and which department are responsible, and ultimately accountable, for the UK’s delivery of the sustainable development goals?

My Lords, the department is being merged to form the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The SDGs will remain at the centre of that department and the Cabinet Minister with ultimate responsibility for the SDGs is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

As part of our commitment to achieving the SDGs, Her Majesty’s Government have signed up to eradicate extreme poverty for all people, including those in the UK, and to reduce by at least half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions, according to national definitions. I welcome the fact that the Government have committed to developing the Social Metrics Commission measure of poverty as the UK’s measure but, given that the officials undertaking the work have been deployed to the front line as part of our Covid response, can my noble friend the Minister tell me when work will resume and, when it does, what the strategy will be for halving the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to these national definitions?

My Lords, as my noble friend says, due to the current circumstances, work to develop experimental statistics has been suspended. DWP’s current focus is on supporting people financially in these unprecedented times. In the current uncertain climate, I am afraid that I am unable to provide my noble friend with a date for when this work will continue. It will happen only when we are able to do so and are sure that benefit payments and support to the vulnerable will not be put at risk.

My Lords, the global devastation caused by Covid-19 tells us that we must redouble our efforts to deliver the SDGs. This will require vision, finance and open and transparent collaboration between Governments and stakeholders, both public and private. Why are we dismembering the one department within government that is closest to those requirements? How will our experience be any different from Australia’s, where a similar merger led to a loss of over 2,000 years-worth of experience?

My Lords, as I said, the UK remains committed to the SDGs and to the underpinning pledge to leave no one behind as we strive to achieve them. The Prime Minister said in his statement to the UN high-level event on financing for development at the end of May that, following Covid-19, there is every need for us to work together to advance shared international objectives, including the SDGs. The SDGs will therefore remain central to the new department’s mission.

My Lords, given that Covid-19 has exacerbated gender inequality, pushing the rights of women and girls backwards, how will we ensure that more girls across the world are able not only to go to school but to stay in education at secondary level? Without girls’ education, SDG 5 will be impossible to achieve.

I completely agree with my noble friend. We know that we will not achieve all the goals without strong action on gender equality, and women and girls are key to their success. We absolutely agree on the importance of girls’ education. The Prime Minister and the department champion the right of every girl to 12 years of quality education.

My Lords, the pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the importance of having strong health systems everywhere in the world. In that context, what assessment have the Government made of progress towards universal health coverage—part of goal 3—and will they increase their support for achieving universal health coverage?

My Lords, the weakness of developing countries’ health systems is one of the biggest risks of the global impact and spread of Covid-19. Equitable, resilient and sustainable systems for health are the foundation for meeting all health needs and preparedness for future health threats. Working towards universal health coverage is more important than ever, given the increased barriers to, and need for, accessible healthcare. The Government will continue to support access to universal health coverage.

My Lords, when, as we all hope, a vaccine to deal with this scourge becomes available, what plans are in place to ensure that adequate supplies of the vaccine are getting to the most needy in the Third World?

My Lords, a globally accessible and affordable vaccine is, of course, needed to end the pandemic; we are working very closely with organisations such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi. The noble Lord will know that recently we hosted the Gavi replenishment conference. We will work with the WHO on its ACT Accelerator and with partners across the globe to make sure that, if and when a vaccine is found, it is accessible to all.

In his Statement announcing the incorporation of DfID into the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister complained:

“We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine … and we give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to … the western Balkans”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/6/20; cols. 666-7.]

At a time when the number of those facing food insecurity and consequent health vulnerability is likely to double, according to UNDP, is it right to think of taking money from sub-Saharan Africa and giving it to middle-income countries which have been well supported by the EU and aided by the UK contribution to the EU budget?

The noble Lord is right to highlight the issue of food insecurity. Pre-existing levels, before Covid-19, were historically high and the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions on trading and supply chains are likely to increase food insecurity. That is why we are working very closely with the World Food Programme and UNICEF to ensure supply chains for food supplies and life-saving treatment for acute malnutrition.

My Lords, now that Covid-19 is affecting earning power, health and access to education worldwide, it is obvious that many girls in developing countries may not get a quality education, which will affect the SDGs. What plans do the Government have to meet their 2019 pledge of ensuring 12 years of education for more than 12 million children, half of them girls?

My Lords, the Covid-19 crisis has had an incredibly negative impact on the education of millions of children—at least 1.5 billion children in more than 150 countries were out of school at its height. We are working to ensure that we are pivoting our existing programmes to allow remote learning, through radio and television programmes. The important thing is to make sure that all pupils, especially girls, return to schools as and when they reopen. We know that children outside school are at risk of child marriage and violence, so the important thing is to get girls back into school and then ensure that we are doing more to deliver 12 years of quality education for every girl in the world.