Leave no one behind: assessing policy choices

At the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals lies a promise to ‘leave no one behind’. IIED worked with partners in Asia and Africa to ask what the phrase means to different groups and what action is needed to turn it from rhetoric to reality.

April 2016 - December 2016

A group of fishermen on a boat in Bangladesh

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN member states pledged to achieve sustainable development by 2030 worldwide, ensuring that no one is left behind. This means that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets need to be met for all countries and all parts of society. 

How can this ambition be turned into tangible action?


This project aimed to discover what it would take turn the promise of ‘leave no one behind’ from an aspiration into action in three specific policy sectors: fisheries, energy access and urban development.

We set out to address the following questions:  

  • What does ‘leave no one behind’ mean in practice? 
  • How will those furthest behind be reached first? 
  • What will it take for this aspiration to be embedded in institutions and processes at every level, from local to global?

What IIED did

Our research explored how the SDGs can address the causes of social exclusion and marginalisation at the same time as reducing environmental stress. 

Inclusive urban development

We examined what organised low-income community networks are doing to ensure no one is left behind in urban development. We studied examples from Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand, where community organisations have sought to include all community members in upgrading activities – including people who are disabled, elderly or extremely poor. 

Our case studies showed that low-income urban groups in Southeast Asia already recognise the need to be inclusive and use different tools and approaches to make sure no one in their community is left out. We found community-led approaches offer considerable potential as a means to ensure inclusive action. 

We held a two-day workshop in Thailand in November 2016 for participants to learn from initiatives in different communities. 

Energy access in Tanzania

The government of Tanzania has ambitious plans to increase energy access and boost power generation. But how much attention is being given to decentralised energy for people living in poverty? 

Our research examined finance flows for decentralised energy in Tanzania, and to what extent these finances target the poor. Our analysis showed that the vast majority of funding for energy projects from both international and national sources is channelled to large grid and utility-scale energy projects. We found that Tanzania needs to develop robust policies and enablers for decentralised energy.

Power and profits in Bangladesh’s fisheries

IIED has worked in the Lower Meghna Basin in Bangladesh to improve the sustainability of hilsa fisheries and the livelihoods that depend on them. We found that the supply chain for hilsa fish is commercially viable but also very unfair. Some businesses are making a lot of money, but very little of this gets back to the fishers. 

For many fishers, the money they get from selling fish does not cover the cost of catching them – so they are perpetually in debt. More than half of fishers need loans to operate, but they have no access to suitable and affordable financial products. They resort to borrowing from moneylenders, and are obliged to hand over their entire catch in return for credit. 

Drastic reforms to the financial sector are needed to ensure fishers have access to appropriate finance. IIED fed these findings into other work with partners to share how local power structures enhance or impede inclusion.

Looking ahead

Knowledge generated from these case studies will help researchers, development practitioners and policymakers understand, beyond a mere aspiration, what leave no one behind means in practice.

Additional resources

Money is power: tracking finance flows for decentralised energy access in Tanzania, Erneus Kaijage, Shukuru Nyagawa, Sarah Best, et al (2017), IIED Working Paper

Blog: Bringing solar out of the shadows, by Sarah Best (2017)

Leave no one behind: what is the role of community-led urban development?, Sarah Colenbrander, Diane Archer (2016), IIED Working Paper

Leave no one behind: community-led mechanisms in Cambodia, Ariel Shepherd, Somsak Phonpakdee, Chou Lennylen (2016), IIED Working Paper

Leave no one behind: Community-driven urban development in Thailand, Nausica Castanas, Ploy Kasama Yamtree, Yoswadee Batan Sonthichai, Quentin Batreau (2016), IIED Working Paper

Leave no one behind: power and profits in hilsa fishery in Bangladesh: a value chain analysis, Ina Porras, Essam Yassin Mohammed, Liaquat Ali, et al. (2016), IIED Working Paper

Article: Unpacking what we mean by 'leave no one behind' (2016)

Blog: An urban approach to 'leave no one behind, by David Dodman (2016)

Blog: Untangling the net: what does leave no one behind mean for fishers?, by Essam Yassin Mohammed (2016)


Bangladesh: Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) 

Thailand: Tar-Saeng Studio  

Cambodia: National Community Development Foundation 

Tanzania: Eco Associates (T) Ltd