Paul Johnston: Achieving sustainable development goals will make all of us more secure

As of now, only 15% of the SDGs look likely to be met by 2030

New British Foreign Secretary David Cameron is determined to renew efforts to get the sustainable development goals back on track

“Times change, and we change with them”: an old adage, but it rings true.

In 2015, in what feels now like a very different age, the UN set ambitious goals for sustainable development, to be reached by 2030. This was not rich countries’ altruism, but rather enlightened self-interest. By helping developing countries escape from poverty, and tackle climate change and biodiversity loss, we were committing to change, which would make us all more prosperous and secure.

But at the half way point, the scorecard reads, “must do better”, and the global context for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in terms of conflict, crisis, cost of living and complexity, has got that much worse. As a result, only 15% of the SDGs look likely to be met by 2030.

In a newly contested world, a radical rethink is needed – conventional aid spending alone will not achieve the vision set out in the SDGs. And liberal democracies need to realise that less enlightened actors use their aid budgets cynically and opportunistically, rather than with the interests of genuine development in focus.

Therefore, we decided some months back to take a fundamental look at how we in the UK did international development. And we’ve come up with some new answers. These are reflected in the White Paper Rishi Sunak launched on November 20.

This sets out a new agenda for working with partners to accelerate progress on eliminating extreme poverty, tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, and thus accelerating progress on achieving the SDGs by 2030.

We’ve listened to criticism and sought to address it. Thus, our new approach to partnerships with developing countries will be founded on mutual respect, with an emphasis on country ownership, accountability, transparency and common values. We will work towards a more inclusive and more locally led approach.

The UK will prioritise its development spend where it is most needed and most effective, including aiming to spend 50% of all bilateral aid in the world’s Least Developed Countries.

The White Paper establishes key areas for action to deliver a step-change:

• going further, faster to mobilise international finance and increase private sector investment in development;

• strengthening and reforming the international system to improve action on trade, tax, debt, tackling dirty money and delivering on global challenges like health, climate, nature and energy transition;

• harnessing innovation and new technologies, science and research for the greatest and most cost-effective development impact. Being back in the EU Horizon programme, and working bilaterally with Partners like Ireland, will greatly assist this;

• ensuring opportunities for all, putting women and girls centre stage and investing in education and health systems that all societies want;

• championing action to address state fragility, and to anticipate and prevent conflict, humanitarian crises, climate disasters;

• building resilience and enabling adaptation for those affected by conflict, disasters and climate change, strengthening food security (very much an Irish priority, too), social protection, and disaster risk financing; and

• standing up for our values, for open inclusive societies, for women and girls, and preventing any rollback of such rights anywhere in the world.

The White Paper sits squarely within the framework of the UK's so-called “Integrated Review”, and its 2023 Refresh which looked at our international policy across the board from sanctions to diplomacy, peacebuilding to military action.

International development forms a key part of the UK’s overall international approach. Successful development action protects our interest in an open and stable international order, and the UK’s core national interests in the sovereignty, security and prosperity of the British people and that of our partners, not least Ireland.

It’s an agenda David Cameron, our new Foreign Secretary, championed when as Prime Minister he represented the UK at the 2015 Summit which endorsed the 2030 SDGs.

Returning to office at the mid-way point in this journey he’s determined, as we all are, to renew and redouble our efforts to get the SDGs back on track.

Despite the inevitable and correct focus on the immediate crises of Ukraine and Gaza, we need to get development right or we will not be securing the shared future we need.

Paul Johnston is British Ambassador to Ireland