Sustainable Development Goals – Bishop of St Albans calls for a new moral vision

“I believe that the time is ripe for a new moral vision of the one world in which we all live, not just because it is morally right that we should do that but because, frankly, it is in our interests.” – Bishop of St Albans, 16/6/15

On Tuesday 16th June 2015 the Lords debated a motion by Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale “to ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their priorities for the Sustainable Development Goals to be agreed by the United Nations in September.” The Bishop of St Albams, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate.

Bishop St Albans June 2015The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, for securing for us this opportunity to debate this important area.

As we mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta this week, we are reminded that some ideas, initiatives or visions take a long time to come to fruition. Sometimes, all that one generation can do is to plant the acorn and it is for subsequent generations to appreciate the fully grown oak tree. Certainly in the years leading up to 1215, there was a period of exhausting negotiations, as Archbishop Stephen Langton travelled repeatedly between London and Windsor trying to find a text that would satisfy both sides and prevent war. It was, like many other negotiated settlements, a fudge, and, as Ralph of Coggeshall, one of the chroniclers of those days, wrote:

“By the intervention of the archbishop … and some barons, a sort of peace was made”.

No one was really satisfied. It was soon overturned but it was a vital step in a long process which has unfolded in the centuries since, leading us to where we are today.

I believe that the time is ripe for a new moral vision of the one world in which we all live, not just because it is morally right that we should do that but because, frankly, it is in our interests. Threats to the environment, political instability and resurgent nationalism in many parts of the world, the growth of extremism and so on call for a bold vision of creating a world in which we can all share in its opportunities and responsibilities and also share in its wealth. This is not a time for us to prevaricate, even if there are some details that we do not particularly like or we wish were not there. I know that there is a range of voices, even in our own nation, some of which do not support the initiatives at all and some of which do not support some of these goals. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will resist these and continue to give a strong lead on the world stage, just as our Government have given a magnificent lead in funding international aid at a time of financial austerity.

We have these goals and targets, all of which have been examined in depth by scientists and academics, who have looked at their feasibility, cost and deliverability. Although there are clear inadequacies, I know that they are the best that we have so far. Some people are concerned that we may be left with just a series of bold but unrealistic promises which raise hopes but cannot be delivered. I certainly agree that if you want to bring about change in the world, you probably ideally need fewer goals and certainly fewer targets. I also think that, while the concept is inspiring in its scope, it does not come over as very inspiring when you wade through the unbelievably long and turgid material. Indeed, there is very little that is memorable about these 17 goals. One of my concerns is: how are they going to capture the hearts, minds and imaginations of people as things that we need to do? I certainly think that we need to try to summarise more what they are about. I am reminded of a sentence in an article I read—I think it was in the Economist—that suggested that the SDGs were about ending poverty and building global prosperity and sustainability. That is pretty abstract, but at least it might begin to focus on something memorable and communicable.

I would like to draw on a few points that have been made by Christian Aid, with which I am in close contact. Christian Aid has been working on the post-2015 development agenda for the past three years and is co-chair of the Bond Beyond 2015 UK coalition. Members of this House will know that Christian Aid works through and with partner organisations in more than 40 countries and is part of the global ACT Alliance, a network of church-based organisations working in development and humanitarian responses underpinned by a human rights-based approach. There are some points that Christian Aid wants to argue and underline.

First, there is a strong welcome for the prominence of “leave no one behind”, as has already been mentioned, within this political declaration and a hope that it could be retained and strengthened.

Secondly, Christian Aid gives a strong welcome to the emphasis on gender equality, including the stand-alone bullet point within the co-facilitator’s introduction. There is a need to see this strengthened in the political declaration, with reference to women’s rights and social norms. I hope that there should be a stand-alone paragraph on financing for gender equality under the section on “means of implementation”.

Thirdly, there is a desire that we should strengthen references to climate change and sustainability, with some specific targets for named temperature levels. Christian Aid thinks that that needs tightening up a bit if this is going to bite, and I agree, with the inclusion of references to sustainable energy and clear articulation of the green thread. The new agenda should drive low-carbon, climate-resistant development and address disaster risk.

Fourthly, there is a hope that the final text on “means of implementation” will incorporate strong paragraphs on tax and illicit financial flows, climate-smart development finance, private sector reporting and accountability, and financing for gender equality.

Finally, the section on follow-up and review needs beefing up, as some of the proposals are far too tentative. Could not the document make a clear recommendation on peer review and include references to stepping-stone equity targets in national implementation plans to ensure that no one is left behind?

The message we are picking up from our partners in the worldwide Anglican communion is that they are generally positive about these goals. Indeed, they comment that they would like them to be challenging but realistic. They point out that the millennium development goals provided a broad narrative within which we have been framing development, a narrative that has animated the church’s networks across the world and our relations with those around the Anglican communion, as well as with government and international bodies. The ever-expanding support for the millennium development goals was instrumental in shaping the development consensus and providing the political space for Governments, not least our own, to take a more progressive stand on development. There is great hope that these SDGs can do the same. However, the transition to SDGs will pose risks and opportunities. How can we manage the transition and carry our constituencies? How do we ensure that the transition does not result in declining levels of support for development or an erosion of an already fragile development consensus?

As with MDGs, these sustainable development goals place emphasis on revitalising global partnerships for sustainable development. As part of the effort to develop multiple stakeholder partnerships that mobilise and share knowledge and expertise, it is important not to overlook the role of churches and faith communities as agents of change. The last Government made good progress in this area, not least with their Faith Partnership Principles of 2012. Sadly, however, the potential benefits of strategic collaboration between the Department for International Development and the church remain largely untapped. I hope it is something that we can work on together.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Verma) (Con): [Extract] …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans wanted reassurances that the UK will continue to lead and will remain a strong voice. I reassure him that we absolutely will. We have, both through our legislation of 0.7% and our commitment that at every conference that we attend and with all our partners we will re-emphasise the importance that the UK places on it. The Prime Minister has said on many occasions that we cannot prosper on the backs of poor people; they must come up along with us. The UK’s priorities for this are clear. Over the next 15 years, we must eradicate the scourge of extreme poverty and put the world on a pathway to sustainable development. We must finish the job of MDGs, but also go beyond them to focus on the quality of services such as education, rather than just on access to education. We have to tackle climate change and environmental degradation as an integral part of our work on poverty eradication and global prosperity….

…The right reverend Prelate asked about faith groups. We are working hard to ensure that the implementation, monitoring and review of SDGs includes all relevant groups, including faith groups. Part of my own area of responsibility is working with civil society and faith groups, and I look forward to the right reverend Prelate working with me…


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