Unpacking what we mean by 'leave no one behind'

'Leave no one behind' is emerging as a central principle of the Sustainable Development Goals. In practice it will be interpreted in a number of ways.

Article, 24 May 2016
An image of women selling produce in an internally displaced persons camp, near Tawilla in North Darfur. The 'leave no one behind' agenda aims to ensure the poor are included in sustainable development (Photo: UNAMID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Internally displaced persons in Dali camp, near Tawilla in North Darfur, sell produce from land they have farmed. The 'leave no one behind' agenda aims to ensure the poor are included in sustainable development (Photo: UNAMID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

IIED believes understanding the different ways that 'leave no one behind' could be interpreted will make implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) more effective in practice. It recently convened a meeting to start sharing ideas.

The meeting brought together people involved in thinking about how the principle could play out in policy development, in new legal frameworks in different contexts, in understanding how it will stir up political positioning between sectors at the national level, and in working out how success in integrating the principle will be evaluated.

Representatives came from civil society organisations, research think tanks, the private sector and UK government. The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule to provide a space for informal debate. There were a number of lines of discussion.

A conceptual shift 

An early fault line emerged between those who favoured making the conceptual shift away from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs and those who wanted to 'work with the grain'. The shift would come from putting greater emphasis on the principles of inequality and sustainability.

Those in favour of 'working with the grain' would use momentum gathered by the 'leave no one behind' narrative to focus attention on the needs and rights of excluded groups. 'Leave no one behind', it was argued, provides vital framing for the SDGs, for analysing the connections between individual goals and inequality and for driving change.

The accumulation of inequalities in particular groups – among women, young people, migrants or people with disabilities, for example — compounded discrimination, exclusion and 'being left behind'.

Change catalyst or empty signifier?

Some questioned whether there was enough buy-in to the SDG framework for a 'working with the grain' approach to make a difference, saying that excitement and accompanying debate across all sectors, including the private sector, is needed to trigger structural change.

Others felt that the 'leave no one behind' framing has the potential to generate momentum and excitement among a range of actors, but without measures to realise the principle (changes to data systems, budgets, legal frameworks and policies), the phrase risks becoming an 'empty signifier' – a cover for inaction rather than a call for transformative change.

Responding to today's world

If 'leave no one behind' is interpreted only as a linear trajectory towards greater income and resource use for all, with no alternative models considered, it could undermine sustainable development.

It was agreed the environment must be a key part of any change agenda. But if that agenda was underpinned by the 'leave no one behind' principle, it should speak to the realities of today's world: a world that is uncertain, increasingly fragile, and with communities already experiencing extremes of poverty and marginalisation now facing increasing challenges from resource degradation and the negative impacts of climate change.

Within the context of planetary boundaries, environment and social equity needed to be considered together in policymaking.

Are rich countries prepared?

There was discussion around whether rich countries are ready for the implications of 'leave no one behind', which, if planetary boundaries are taken into account, would require them to make room for others to take what they need.  

That might mean addressing issues of overconsumption and concentrations of power and wealth; of questioning why some communities are much 'further ahead' than others.

The very term 'leave no one behind' raises the question of who is 'leading' and suggests that those at risk of being 'left behind' don't have agency in shaping their own lives.

It also implies that we are all going in the same direction, and that fundamental differences and diversity in values, aspirations, directions of change can be minimised.

Within or between countries?

The meeting noted the distinction between those who considered the 'leave no one behind' principle as one that was comparing the position between different countries (a view possibly still persisting among many developing country governments) rather than between different sectors of society within a country (perhaps the position of bilateral donors, for instance).

Both views were acknowledged but participants agreed that the focus of the discussion should be on 'within countries' around issues such as governance, the application of human rights, and access to health and education.

The value of data

There was general optimism about the value of the disaggregated data that could be generated across all sectors and themes as the principle of 'leave no one behind' was implemented.

If this helped to understand the cost of excluding groups, such as those living with a disability, or working out who is most affected by environmental change, or the size of the gap between disabled and enabled people as growth is achieved, it could provide these often-excluded people a way into policy debates.

Further conversations

Participants found the wide-ranging conversation valuable and it was agreed to continue with a follow-up discussion in advance of the High Level Political Forum in July 2016.

IIED is carrying out a six-month research project exploring what 'leave no one behind' might mean in practical terms in relation to policy in three sectors/contexts: coastal fisheries, energy access, and disability in the urban context.