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Penny Mordaunt and Richard Curtis: “We must deliver the Global Goals. We want to get over the line”

Penny Mordaunt and Richard Curtis: “We must deliver the Global Goals. We want to get over the line”
11 min read

At first glance, Penny Mordaunt and Richard Curtis seem an unlikely double act. But, through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the duo have found common ground. With a $2.5trn annual funding shortfall to make up, do they have a plan to ensure the objectives are met by 2030? Sebastian Whale sits down with the Cabinet minister and the film director in parliament

I can feel my phone vibrate. One jolt means it’s either a text, email or a breaking news alert. I lift the device out of my right trouser pocket and unlock the screen. ‘Breaking News,’ a BBC push notification reads. ‘EU and UK negotiators agree…’.

It’s gone 4.30 on Tuesday 13 November, and I’m standing in a deserted corridor outside a committee room in Parliament. After more than two years of wrangling, a Brexit withdrawal agreement has finally been struck.

I touch through to see the full article. The page has just loaded as Penny Mordaunt, one of two people I’m due to interview, opens the door and walks out. She’s on the phone and, given the diplomatic nature of her words, I speculate that she’s being asked about the deal. Probably by another pesky journalist.

We are ushered into a sprawling room where Richard Curtis, the screenwriter, producer, director and philanthropist, is waiting. Around six aides are there. I shake Curtis’ hand and exchange pleasantries.

“Do you know who Catherine Deneuve is?” he asks me. In a blow to my cultural credibility, I draw a blank. “Penny reminds me of her.” He types the name of the French actress into Google, selects an image and points his phone at me. 

Mordaunt comes back into the room. Curtis apologises politely before repeating the claim. The Cabinet minister looks at the picture of a young Deneuve. There is a brief but mildly awkward silence.

“It’s jolly nice,” she says. Curtis laughs and turns to me.

“I’m going to start the article. ‘I sat down with Catherine Deneuve and a bloke who vaguely looks like Bill Clinton to discuss...’”

The unlikely double act is here to talk about the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); 17 social and economic objectives underpinned by 169 targets that UN countries pledged to achieve by 2030. They include ending poverty, zero hunger, sustainable consumption, reduced inequalities, gender equality, clean water and sanitation, sustainable cities, and affordable and clean energy. Curtis co-founded Project Everyone, an organisation that aims to increase awareness of the goals. He is formally known as a UN SDG Advocate.

We haven’t heard too much about the SDGs in recent times. They were formulated towards the end of 2015 when the world was a markedly different place. Since then, Donald Trump entered the White House, outsider Emmanuel Macron became French President, the UK voted to Leave the EU, far right-winger Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil, Italian politics continued to self-implode, and so on and forth.

“Clearly, we’re in a very interesting and complicated political moment. But, meanwhile, the people who are working on these things continue to do so every day. At DfID, you haven’t stopped your job and said politics has got more complex,” Curtis says, looking at Mordaunt, whose phone is now vibrating in her hands several times a minute.

I finally address the colossal elephant in the room. With the withdrawal agreement in place, are you still going to be the Cabinet minister to oversee this agenda, I ask Mordaunt. Curtis laughs.

“Well, you see, you are receiving all my attention,” she replies wryly. “My phone is buzzing – you’re my priority. So, I have no news to give you I’m afraid.”

It’s clear Mordaunt isn’t going to elaborate until she’s seen the terms of the deal. So, we soldier on, and drill down into the world of the SDGs.


Curtis is a veteran of the anti-poverty movement. He is a co-founder of Comic Relief, Red Nose Day, and Make Poverty History. In 2005, he helped to organise the Live 8 concerts along with Sir Bob Geldof. He credits the former Boomtown Rats singer with providing one of the most transformative moments of his philanthropic life.

“Bob Geldof said to me that he made more money having a cup of tea with [former French] President Mitterrand than he did in the whole of Band Aid and Live Aid put together,” he recalls.

“My journey of life has been from fundraising to realising the primacy and importance of government in all these issues,” he continues. “So, I’ve become very interested as someone who’s passionate about these issues, in working with DFID, which Comic Relief has done, and then in encouraging DFID to being as powerful and potent a figure on the world stage as they possibly can be in order to promote the MDGs [Millenium Development Goals] before and the SDGs,” he says. Nodding his head at Mordaunt, he adds. “She’s got the key job in my mind.”

Mordaunt says: “I recognise that we’re coming up to the last decade of delivering these goals. We’re 80 years adrift on nutrition, 100 years on education, 200 years on poverty. So, if we carry on as we are, we’re not going to meet them. What we need to do is get people to really lean in and to do that you have to capture the public imagination, you have to get business to think about things differently.

“I have a certain platform to do that. But actually, we need help. We need help from all sorts of organisations and individuals who can really help us do that… We really need to deliver the goals; they’re not just a thing to aspire to. We want to get over the line.”

Curtis believes that the answers to modern day phenomena are “implicit” in the goals. “You sometimes worry that the UN will say, ‘well, look, we can’t focus on the goals this year because we’ve got to focus on refugees’. But the way that you’re going to solve those issues is by getting rid of extreme poverty, by improving health, by improving education, by making stronger institutions,” he says.

One of the key SDGs relates to action on climate change. Therefore, surely it is deeply detrimental to have a climate change sceptic take his seat in the Oval Office? “Every time I watch any news thing about the past, you realise they always thought they were in crisis. Everybody says ‘there’s never been a time as bad as 1978. There’s never been as bad as 2008’. Do you know what I mean?” asks Curtis. He argues that President Trump’s ambivalence on the issue has galvanised cities around the US to take “unilateral action”.

“There is a push and pull to all political things and for all you know, many of the systems that will be working on climate change are being reinforced and strengthened by having opposition to it,” he adds.

Mordaunt, who was appointed International Development Secretary in November 2017, adds: “It’s up to all of us to do this. Another example is family planning which is a really absolute key part of empowering women to continue education, becoming economically active, giving people control over how many children they have. All of those things. There are nations who are leaning out of that and everyone else is leaning in because we know it’s the margin of victory. We just need to be driven by the evidence. We need to look at what’s made a difference, what we know works and keep doing it.”

With Britain undertaking a voluntary review of its performance on the SDGs next year, do we need to get our own ducks in a row? The UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development found the UK is performing well on less than a quarter of the 143 targets relevant to the country. A damning report by Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, says ministers are in a “state of denial” and warned he had encountered “misery” during his 12-day tour of the country. The government strongly rejected the analysis.

Mordaunt, speaking before the publication of Alston’s findings, says “we are doing very well”, but wants to see improvements to Britain’s 15th position on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index. That said, she believes the goals will not be achieved by 2030 unless participants think creatively about how to address the $2.5trn annual funding gap required to meet them. For this, she looks to the private sector.

“We have to get other people to a, step up and plug that gap but see the opportunities for them in doing so. So, if we just got one per cent of the assets in the City of London invested in developing nations or invested in Africa, we would near triple global aid that is going in to there,” she says.

“We are unique. We have amazing expertise, we have the City of London. If we can be a bit of a trailblazer on some of this stuff and then get other nations to follow suit, we can plug that funding gap.”

Curtis agrees. “That’s so important,” he says. “Britain is poised to be very strong on these issues. The huge difference between now and the MDGs is the involvement of business. I remember having meetings in 2004 with businesses and I’ve never known a less interested and condescending attitude than we used to get when they would say, ‘seriously, this is none of our business. It’s only up to you dangerous, left-wing anarchists’. It’s completely different now... It’s a much more optimistic scenario than it was 15 years ago.”

I ask Mordaunt to comment on a report in The Times that claimed she wants the UK to withdraw from Unesco, the UN’s cultural and educational body.

“I’m a very well-behaved parliamentarian. If we were doing anything I would be tabling ministerial statements and all sorts of things. So, this is not something that we have briefed,” she says.

“With every multilateral we work with, we want them to perform, we want them to do really well. But we’ve not made any announcements about Unesco funding.”

Given the volatile nature of global politics, how challenging has it been for Curtis to cut through the noise? “You’re always seeking your moments and seeking your opportunities because it is not something you can focus on 365 days a year. Even so, obviously there are many activists who do,” he says. “I’ve got my mind set on 2019 which is when the UN is reviewing the goals and then 2020 is going to be a crucial campaigning year. What we’ve done is slowly but surely increase people’s awareness.”

With Curtis and Mordaunt due for an event on the other side of the Palace of Westminster, I ask how optimistic they are that the SDGs will be met by 2030.

Mordaunt replies: “I am optimistic. I think we have to be realistic. We have to a, look at what has worked and carry on doing that, but also recognise that most of the things that would push us, of course, are manmade things, conflict being top of the list. So, as well as the things that we’ve done well in the past, we need to do new things. This week we’ve announced more investment going into peacebuilding to prevent conflict. Other organisations we’ve worked with are moving from working in peaceful areas… into going into conflict areas.

“If we do that and we stay focused and we let other people help – there’s still too much dogma around ‘you can help, and you can’t’. We need the private sector to achieve the goals and we’ve got to help create the ways that whether you’re in a class at school, whether you’re a young person who wants to set up their first savings account, or whether you’re a British pensioner, you can help.”

Curtis concludes: “One of the things that makes me most optimistic is the activist, younger generation. When you look at the girls who were campaigning against FGM; the people who are talking about period poverty, the Americans talking about guns, young people talking about climate, I do think that there is a very vibrant community. One of our jobs as people who are fighting for the goals is to allow them to identify with the goals and think that the goals give them as it were extra authority when talking to their governments, to say these are the things you promised us, rather than just these are the things that we want.

“It’s always a battle and it’s always a fight. But the fact that the goals remain vibrant and alive and interesting in such complicated times makes me optimistic enough.”  

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