By Ashvin Ramasamy

With 17 SDGs along with 169 Targets, how does the principle of leaving no one behind distinguishes itself as a clear-cut objective?

On October 24, the United Nations celebrated an important milestone in its history: 73 years of existence marked by a unfettered commitment to repair the planet, reestablish trust and continue efforts to “leave no one behind.” As the original charter intended, the hopes and dreams of all peoples of the world make up the core mission of the organization. Poverty has gone down but other societal problems have grown to higher proportions. Abuse of human rights, continued conflict and a changing climate are among the most pressing issues facing the UN. In 2015, over 150 world leaders came together to set in motion one of the most ambitious plans to end poverty. The 2030 SDG agenda was drafted with the utmost attention to ending all forms of poverty, reduce inequalities and fight climate change within a framework of inclusion, thus ensuring that “no one is left behind.” However the question is, with 17 overarching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) along with 169 Targets, how does the principle of leaving no one behind distinguishes itself as a clear-cut objective? How can the SDGs help governments better measure progress for all members of society, particularly vulnerable groups?

The resolution, that called the world to leave no one behind, passed at the historic 2015 United Nations General Assembly emphasized intervention in groups and populations deemed furthest behind, either in relative or absolute terms. Traditionally, these segments of society have undergone endure widespread discrimination, deprivation and poverty while others progressed. This creates a golden opportunity for leaders to utilize the principle as policy instrument of anti-discrimination. Much media attention is put on blatant acts of discrimination against women in education or violence against women, both of which are serious problems across continental Africa. The other form could also benefit from that policy instrument; the type that is often the result of political neglect. Many examples of rural African communities lack basic social services — basic necessities of human life that governments have failed to provide. Case in point, Benin shows a gross enrolment rate in urban primary schools twice as high versus schools in rural areas. A major cause is the simple fact that schools have not been constructed. What is more troubling is the advantage wealthier groups inherently have. The highest income classes have a 50 percent enrollment rate compared to 36 percent for the poor in rural parts, and the divide between the classes in urban settings is far greater. Strikingly, the government allocates a larger budget for basic education services in urban areas yet the 60 percent of the population lives in rural areas but receive less than 50 percent of the overall basic education budget. In Northern Ghana, people are victims of poor health and low education levels due to lack of clinics and schools. If low-income countries, particularly least developed countries, genuinely wish to harness the potential of the SDG agenda with respect to inclusion, reform in policy-making is needed to ensure that resource allocation is done with those in need first at the start of action. Time is ticking, and world leaders have just a little over 12 years to achieve the 17 SDGs.

A common misinterpretation is that leave no one behind easily fits in multiple contexts without necessarily carving a distinction for itself or it has no point of reference to be measured. The confluence in poverty eradication, inequality reduction, human dignity and human rights and action to end discrimination is apparent. Many have argued that such a broad view is unworkable or offers too many perspectives or is too large to be measured. However, upon closer examination the principle adds distinct value in individual human and social development endeavours. It brings to light clear guidelines in Targets to end poverty (SDG 1), eliminate hunger (SDG 2), reduction in inequalities (SDG 10) and reductions in maternal and child mortality rates (SDG 3, with separate targets). In the African context, those policy arenas have largely produced unsatisfactory results, in particular nations fraught with ethnic conflict. The need to distinguish between tracking relative progress within society versus absolute measurement is important as ever before. Poverty levels and wealth disparity are among several factors deeply impacting the poorest of the poor, and the absolute data these domains generate guide decision-making tremendously. More so, the many Targets of the SDG indicators serve the purpose well. On the flip side, relative indicators serve the need for associating attributes to understand where groups, communities and ultimately individuals rank against one another.

As was described earlier, location plays a decisive role in service provision. However, when considering other societal barriers like ethnicity and gender a sort of multiplier effect is produced. The resulting deprivation puts the affected individuals at great odds of achieving prosperity. From this distinction, leave no behind has an even greater role to play in designing policies for inequality. For instance, women belonging to an ethnic minority living in conflict-ridden rural areas of Somalia may share similar characteristics with non-ethnic Somali women but because of their roots and location face greater disadvantages. Governments face the complex goal of providing to those groups versus at-risk groups (with decent social protection) that would likely suffer in times of crisis. The decision-making for the former is highly political and costly but must remain a priority even it if defies the laws of logic in resource allocation.

Leave no behind, the cross-cutting message of the 2030 SDG agenda, turns the page on the “average progress” tenet of the Millennium Development Goals and opens up a new chapter headlining the “furthest behind.” In a world where the divide between the poor and rich has grown tremendously in the past few decades, the emerging perspective of leave no behind hopes to stem that growth. Policy direction needs to be pulled towards the marginalized ones first, as the status quo of failed to achieve universal coverage more often than not. How Africa stands to gain from leave no behind is multidimensional, in which all segments of society have an equal chance at progress and move forward in unison.