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UN Sustainable Development Goals

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2024

Question

Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what steps he is taking to promote the implementation of the UN sustainable development goals.

My Lords, the UK was instrumental in developing the sustainable development goals. Following the global recommitment to the SDGs at the United Nations General Assembly last autumn, we recognise the opportunity to reinvigorate a sense of collective purpose and partnership to deliver those goals. The international development White Paper sets out a re-energised agenda for the UK, working with partners, to accelerate progress on the SDGs by 2030. We will champion the SDGs throughout the key summits and meetings this year, and I will be making a speech on the SDGs in Davos tomorrow.

I very much welcome that last comment. Of course, one barrier to progress is debt. The average low-income country now spends 2.3 times more on servicing debt than on social assistance. At the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, the Minister stressed the importance of cross-Whitehall working to address priority areas, and debt is one of those areas.

One of the mechanisms that the UN adopted for monitoring progress on the SDGs is voluntary national reviews. We had our last one—our only one—in 2019. Spain is due to publish its third, Argentina its fourth, but what are we doing? Can the Minister explain why we have not followed that example and used the voluntary national reviews?

I very much agree with the noble Lord on the important position regarding debt and what needs to be done to help countries to relieve their debt. I do not necessarily think the answer is always to cancel debt, because in many cases that affects a country’s credit rating, but we support things such as climate resilient debt clauses and the flexibility they give.

On voluntary national reviews, we had one in 2019, as the noble Lord knows, but we have not made a decision about a follow-up. I say to him: look, it is not really Britain that is the problem in meeting the SDGs. What has happened here is that, because of Covid and Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, African countries have had a triple whammy. They have had the whammy of Covid, the whammy of higher fuel prices and the whammy of higher food prices. That has caused an increase in poverty and set the SDGs off track. We have to energise the world—the voluntary sector and, crucially, the private sector—to invest in the future of the SDGs and get us back on track.

My Lords, instead of going on with slogans such as “Stop the boats” and gimmicks such as deportation to Rwanda, is not the best way to help to reduce illegal migration to see increased assistance to these countries to make it possible for the people who have to migrate, who are forced to leave their countries, to live there in peace and prosperity?

I certainly half agree with the noble Lord: the investment that we can put into the countries from which the migrants are coming is essential. We have to ensure that countries in north and sub-Saharan Africa are building a future for their own people and providing jobs; otherwise, those people will be on the move. The figures are outstanding: the population of Europe in 1950 was twice that of Africa, but by the end of this century the population of Africa will be four times that of Europe. So making sure that those countries develop is crucial but, at the same time, when you have problems of widespread illegal immigration, it is important to stop the boats.

My Lords, will the Foreign Secretary not take another look at the issue of debt forgiveness that he spoke rather critically of just now? In previous iterations of this saga, we have recognised in the end that debt forgiveness was necessary for some of the poorest countries. Could he not look at that again, as well as whether we could link it with the commitment by a country that was forgiven its debt to do more on climate change?

I respect the noble Lord and what he says. We have been leaders on this through the Paris Club and other mechanisms; in many cases it has been the right thing to do to write down a country’s debt. With respect to climate change, these climate resilient debt clauses can make a great difference in helping these countries. Fundamentally, if we want to achieve the SDGs, we need to motivate global finance, and one of the ways that we can do that is through the multilateral development banks because if they expand their balance sheets there is probably an extra £400 billion that they can invest to help these countries with their growth.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary has said he thinks that the merger of DfID and the Foreign Office, and the cuts in aid, were justified; that was not what he said at the time. How much does he regret that his successors have trashed his proud legacy and, more to the point, how assured can he be that the funding for Africa, which is still being cut even if an increase has been promised, will not be diverted to the Home Office, as has happened in the last two years?

That is not exactly what I said. I am very proud that we reached 0.7%. I had some disagreements with this Government before I joined but politics is a team enterprise; when you decide to join a Government, you accept Cabinet collective responsibility and you accept you are going to work with that team and the policies they have. I am proud that, with 0.5% and a growing economy, we are seeing more money going to overseas development. Now that the refugee crisis is abating—I mentioned Africa—we will see, in our budgets, an increase from £600 million to over £1.2 billion, and we are committed, when the fiscal rules allow, to get back to the 0.7% that we historically achieved.

My Lords, the biggest threat to the SDGs in Africa is conflict and internal instability. In the Sahel, this has increased ever since the disastrous Libyan incursion that the Foreign Secretary will remember very well. What steps does he personally intend to take to enhance security and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, and will that include aid to civil society organisations?

The noble Lord is quite right that if you look at the SDGs and poverty more generally, half of the poorest people in the world are now in fragile states. If we cannot help to fix fragile and conflict-affected states, we will not meet the SDGs. If you look across the Sahel, there have been a number of coups and wars and a lot of instability, so I do not think there is a single answer to this, but one of the issues, when we look at aid and development and how we help these countries, is how making sure that they have adequate security is essential. Often in this House, or in the other place, we say that defence is the first duty of a Government, but when it comes to aid, we set up a whole series of different things that we think countries ought to achieve. We must help them with their fundamental and basic security, and that is something we are committed to doing.

Some 60% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder farmers, and most of them are women. Food from domestic resources is crucial for reaching many of these SDG goals: poverty; hunger; health; management of water; even education, because these lady farmers put nearly every penny they make from their food production into educating their children. Will the noble Lord please undertake—and I ask as one Lord Cameron to another—to boost the currently small team in his department that is involved in agriculture to enable them to help these lady farmers to feed their families and their nations and resolve many of these sustainable development goals?

I will certainly take away what the noble Lord said and look at it carefully. In history, it is true that a green revolution of productivity in agriculture has almost always been necessary to see more of an industrial revolution and an increase in prosperity. But the noble Lord made a good point about small farmers—as we should keep it in the family, I had better go and have a careful look at it.

My Lords, the sustainable development goals included volunteering this time. As Prime Minister, the noble Lord really supported volunteering and introduced the International Citizen Service, which was run by VSO in this country incredibly successfully, so that the African Union then took it up as a major way of engaging the millions of young people in Africa whom he talked about. But a generation of young people in this country, and in the countries that organisations such as VSO work in, has missed out. Can he assure me that volunteering will now play a central part in the Government’s strategy to re-energise the achievement of the sustainable development goals and to do something to enable young people, here, in Africa and around the developing world, to get the skills and leadership that they need?

One of the great strengths of the SDGs was that they were much more comprehensive than the millennium development goals that they replaced. In fact, I helped to chair the panel that set them up, and we were determined that we would involve the private sector, bring together economic growth and climate, have much more to say about gender, and, as the noble Baroness rightly said, make sure that things such as volunteering were included. I am glad she mentioned the International Citizen Service, which I was proud to establish as Prime Minister. My International Development Secretary was Andrew Mitchell; the noble Baroness will notice that he and I are now back in the same department, and we hope to make some progress on this issue.