‘Leave No One Behind’: Who’s being left out?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of the most ambitious development agendas in recent times, is in the first 1000 days of implementation. The SDGs commit to achieving sustainable development in three dimensions: economic, social and environmental spheres through 17 goals. The final objectives of the SDGs are to: end poverty and hunger, combat inequalities within and among countries, protect human rights and promote gender equality.

The High Level Political Forum (HLPF) which was established to provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations on the implementation and follow up of the SDGs, articulated the principle of ‘‘leave no one behind’ (LNOB) as targeting the ‘furthest behind first’ as a key component of tackling poverty. LNOB as a principle and its link to poverty reduction was discussed in a previous article in this series. In this article we attempt to discuss its conceptualisation and what that means for poverty reduction more generally and for meeting the SDG goals more specifically.

The principle of LNOB recognises that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is an important requirement for sustainable development and is thus premised on the idea that sustainability should be at the heart of all policy. Its inclusion in the SDG agenda was to overcome a problem in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which only reached the poorest - those easily identifiable and targetable groups at the expense of ignoring those who are much harder to reach. The SDGs in contrast attempt to capture those ‘harder to reach’ groups. The shift from the MDGs to the SDGs have seen a change in perspective from a direct focus on poverty to a more holistic, inclusive view of achieving sustainable development.

Implementing the principle, however, rests on key assumptions. First that there is accurate, up-to-date and disaggregated data which would enable governments to target the ‘furthest behind’, and tailor programmes and implement them to meet the needs of the ‘hard to reach’ groups. Secondly, that poverty definitions and measurements, at the national level, will capture these hard to find categories of the poor that were missed out by the MDGs, and; finally that governments will be able to integrate implementation interventions both vertically and horizontally and thereby ensure that policies and strategies are relevant to all vulnerable groups.

Essentially, LNOB is a recognition that poverty must be ended in all its manifestation, and ‘all people everywhere, including the poorest and most vulnerable, should enjoy a basic standard of living and social protection benefits.’ A laudable commitment indeed and one which is in line with the Presidential Declaration of 2017 as the year of poverty alleviation.

However, in practice translating LNOB from an abstract principle to a functioning practice that will achieve its objective is much more challenging. For example, how will these hard to find groups be identified and targeted? Recent studies conducted by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) reinforce that some groups of the poor remain at the margins of society; female headed households in the North, Street Cleaners in Colombo and some groups of the elderly who are not captured by state programmes such as Samurdhi that aim to target the most vulnerable in society. Furthermore, fighting poverty must mean going beyond safety nets programmes to address the structural issues which perpetuate poverty. This must mean addressing; the existence of customs and norms that perpetuate patriarchy, practices which perpetuate informal labour and precarious work, and strengthening policies and laws around the care economy.

Undoubtedly LNOB needs to be adapted to suit specific context and if the government is serious about adopting the principle and reducing poverty, radical changes need to be made in the laws, policies and practices which must be based on shared collective interests that go beyond the interests of the wealthy minority.

This is the 2nd article of a series of four articles by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) on ‘Leave No One Behind (LNOB)’.

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