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Sustainable development must live up to its promise to leave no one behind

26 June 2015 - Helen Dennis

When heads of state sign the new international agreement on global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) this September, the document is likely to include a promise to ‘leave no one behind’. That is, that none of the goals will be considered met unless they are met for everyone.

The principle will be one of the most important in the entire agreement. Implemented properly, it will take the world beyond ‘business as usual’ and mark an important difference between the existing Millennium Development Goals and the new SDGs.

But if countries make impressive overall progress towards the Goals while people suffering the worst poverty and discrimination see little or no change, then the whole project will arguably have failed.

So as this week’s talks on the SDGs conclude and attention shifts to the next round in July, negotiators should keep working to enshrine Leave No One Behind in the final Outcome Document.

Alhousseiny Dicko

It is a principle with obvious appeal. Not only is it a pre-requisite to ending extreme poverty by 2030, it can also be applied in every country, rich and poor alike.

But some are sceptical. Leaving no one behind does not address global wealth concentration and international inequality. It will however will mean hard work, because addressing entrenched poverty and discrimination requires financing, including international financing, and the political will to make difficult decisions.

Governments around the world will have to integrate Leave No One Behind into their own policy and planning and may have to contemplate economic and structural reforms, including fiscal reforms.

For the idea to succeed, it should be expected of all countries but with a focus on particular countries, such as Least Development Countries, which will need additional support. Without this, there is a high risk that many governments will want it kicked out of the final SDGs agreement altogether.

Once that final agreement is reached, the hard work will begin. Every country should be required to develop national SDG implementation plans, identifying those people and communities at risk of being left behind.

These groups may match up with some already listed in the post-2015 draft: women and girls, migrant workers and disabled people. But there may be other social groups who should be highlighted in national plans – particular minority groups, indigenous people and those affected by caste-based discrimination, for example.

Countries’ plans should also include interim or mid-term targets. A 15-year timeframe is important for achieving long-term change but stepping stones are also needed to ensure the hardest tasks are not put off.

Christian Aid’s new briefing on Leave No One Behind tries to bring the principle to life, illustrating why it is so urgently needed across the world – and how governments might start to implement it. ‘The Millennium Development Goals have not provided the necessary incentive for action and many communities and in some cases countries have indeed been left behind,’ it argues.

‘Too often, a focus on average progress has obscured a reality of entrenched poverty and exclusion. We should, of course, celebrate all progress but the harder work should not be left for another time.’

The briefing includes some deeply shocking examples of how many millions of people have been left far behind, from a wide range of countries across the world. Ghana for instance reduced its income-poverty level from 52 per cent in 1992 to 28.5 per cent in 2006. Yet in the south of the country the reduction was 58.66 per cent, while in the north it was just 8.87 per cent. Maternal mortality is similarly uneven.

Brazil meanwhile, despite laudable progress towards reducing income inequality, still has one of the world’s most unequal patterns of land ownership, with three per cent of the population owning two-thirds of all arable land. Quilombola people, who are descended from slaves, are at the other end of the spectrum from the big landowners. Only eight per cent of their more than 3,000 communities in Brazil own the land on which they live, which leaves them vulnerable to harm by both private interests such as mining companies as well as government authorities.

In South Asia, the briefing notes, ‘poverty is overwhelmingly concentrated among those groups who face discrimination because of who they are and the work they do. Discrimination based on work and descent, associated with the practice of caste, is a root cause of inequality and persistently high levels of poverty – worldwide, it is estimated that 260 million people are affected.’ It notes that Dalit women are particularly vulnerable.

The Sustainable Development Goals hold the potential to focus policymakers’ attention on the people who are left behind in their societies. With so many women, men and children so profoundly affected and with less than 100 days until heads of state meet to finalise the new Goals, the challenge to embed and strengthen Leave No One Behind in this new development agenda, could not be more important or urgent.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian

Image: Christian Aid / Antoinette Powell

 About the author

Helen Dennis, senior adviser, poverty and inequality

Helen Dennis is Christian Aid's senior adviser on poverty and inequality.

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