Building back better and the sustainable development goals

It has been widely remarked that 2021 is going to be an important year for defining the UK’s future role in the world. Having completed our exit from the European Union, we are working out what our new relationship with the bloc is going to look like and how we utilise our new-found freedom to strike trade deals. A new, rather different, President in the White House is changing how we approach our alliance with the US. And as the world continues to deal with the effects of Covid-19, we need to determine how we will work with other nations to distribute vaccines and ‘build back better’ from the pandemic.

So how should we approach this moment of national renewal? What does building back better mean? Where do we start in trying to craft a better world from the global catastrophe we’ve all just lived through?

Well, perhaps our guide to building back better is already available. Last year, we worked with the international development network Bond and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development on an inquiry and report assessing progress towards (and COVID-19’s impact on) achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Titled – you guessed it – Build Back Better, the subtitle of the report is clear on the overwhelming view of the experts we took evidence from: ‘The SDGs as a roadmap to recovery’.

The 17 goals that comprise the SDGs, agreed in 2015 by 193 governments around the world, include a global commitment to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality and address climate change, pointing the way to a sustainable future for the world. As we were told in the inquiry, “it’s the closest thing we’ve got to a global strategy [and] everyone is agreed on it”. In other words, the roadmap to recovery from COVID-19 already exists – we just need to get on and deliver it.

In addition to placing the SDGs at the heart of domestic policy, the UK can begin its new role on the international stage by helping to drive renewed international commitment to meeting the SDGs. As we seek to strike new trade deals around the world, we should follow the lead of the nations working on the initiative for an Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability (recently debated in the House of Lords) by ensuring the deals we agree are in line with the SDGs. And as host of both the G7 Summit in June and the COP26 climate change talks in November, we have a crucial opportunity to ensure the SDGs are front and centre in international diplomacy.

Time to find out whether ‘build back better’ is more than just rhetoric.