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Reflection on the UK’s VNR

“The Voluntary National Review process has brought the spotlight from what we do abroad to what we do at home. We have made progress. On climate for example, we have now committed to net zero by 2050. We have achieved remarkable employment figures, some of the best employment figures we have ever had historically. Over the last 10 years our education system has improved with more children in good and outstanding schools than ever before. But there are also very significant challenges in the development of Britain.” - Rory Stewart

On July 16th, the former International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, flanked by representatives from business and civil society, took to the world stage in New York to present the UK’s Volunary National Review (VNR). VNRs are a way for member-states of the United Nations to showcase their country’s progress in achieving the SDGs and reflect upon the areas in which momentum is yet to gather. Coincidentally, I had arrived in New York the day before, so I was able to attend the UK’s VNR, shake hands with Rory Stewart, and ask him about the role of civil society organisations in promoting development, on behalf of UN House Scotland and the United Nations Association UK.

From my perspective, the UK’s VNR was thorough and fair. Stewart emphasised the importance of introspection and humility in promoting international development. “Humility is endless,'' Stewart proclaimed; a desire to solve the most pressing national and global challenges should transcend party lines, and development should not be a politically charged or an afterthought for the representatives who make decisions on our behalf. Further to this, Stewart was a big advocate of devolution, both in the literal and figurative sense, to regional and local governments, and empowering civil society organisations. However, while Stewart was able to highlight areas which the UK had made genuine improvement in since 2015, he nevertheless highlighted the “serious problems” the UK faces in housing, poverty, and prison. An equitable report was unfortunately missing from many other states’ VNRs, with the exception of Mongolia.

“This has been a process of learning what we’ve done well and what we’ve done badly. It has been a process of learning from our devolved administrations for the work that Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales has undertaken.” - Rory Stewart

Stewart preceded a representative from a large investment firm. The speaker, whose name I fail to recall, spoke about the importance of development from above. She argued that there is only so much grassroots progress which can occur without large corporations investing in a sustainable future for all, over mindless, destructive, superficial profit maximising.

I had the privilege of hearing the next speaker who was the CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. He gave an alternative perspective on how data is the backbone of accountability in ensuring progress towards the SDGs. Interestingly, he also spoke about the discrepancy between poverty and data, identifying that the most vulnerable are often the most excluded from data and so development can often fail to take place.

After the presentation had ended I managed to catch Rory Stewart just as he was going to leave the conference hall. After shaking hands and introducing myself and the organisation I was there to represent, I spoke to him briefly about the role of civil society organisations in fostering development on a local, regional, and national level.

While the UK’s VNR highlighted areas of development we are as a national furthest ahead in, such as being the first major economy to commit to achieving an ambitious environmental target, there is still a long way to achieving sustainable development which leaves no-one behind. I left the meeting with a renewed sense of resolve to not only work at a grassroots level but also to lobby corporations and governments at all levels to commit to doing their bit to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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