Children crouch over a small fire in Kolakata, India

3 steps for ensuring no one is left behind

We’ve all heard the phrase “Leave no one behind” by now. The attention this core principle of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has attracted is significant: it means a focus on those who are most marginalised and vulnerable in society.

This should signal a departure from “business as usual” for the international development community and help make the SDGs truly transformational.

Even though the “leave no one behind” principle is increasingly visible, there is a risk that development actors are not paying sufficient attention to what is needed to put the principle into practice.

To take stock of how governments, multilateral agencies and civil society are responding to this challenge, Bond has produced a new report on how the development community is realising the pledge. Using Bond’s previously published 10 principles of “leave no one behind”, the report surveys the experience of the governments of Finland, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK, as well as several multilateral agencies.

As you would expect, no one has a comprehensive response. But there are three concrete steps that are being used by development actors to help make this principle a reality:

Identify who is left behind

“Data” has become another mantra of the SDGs, and with good reason. We need credible evidence to be effective with our development interventions. The focus on data is long overdue and has enabled the development community to begin recognising serious shortcomings, such as the lack of data on people over the age of 49.

The UK government’s commitment to strengthening the data disaggregation on the basis of gender, disability, location and age is warmly welcomed, but is only a starting point. Putting “leave no one behind” into practice means being sensitive to all groups in specific contexts and making visible those who are most affected.

While no single development actor can have all of the solutions, we must create an enabling environment that allows all marginalised groups to be reached in achieving the SDGs.

Understand the reasons why exclusion is happening

The reasons why people get marginalised and excluded from society are various, complex and defy simple solutions. This is why “intersectionality” is becoming so important – we need to move beyond thinking of people as over-simplified targets or objectives in a log-frame. All people carry multiple identities and layers of experience that both inform their lives and shape how society treats them.

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We also need to consider “leave no one behind” alongside the impact of inequality. This is in part economic, but can also have political, cultural and social drivers. Part of understanding “leave no one behind” is being aware that sometimes deliberate choices are made to exclude some groups from the benefits of society.

Take action to tackle the exclusion

This is the hard part. “Leave no one behind” challenges us to do development differently. Reaching those furthest behind requires us to rethink our understanding of value for money, to be more than an economic return on investment. It also means addressing the underlying causes of poverty and inequality.

There are many good examples of actions taking place by national governments, donors, multilaterals and NGOs and many of these are captured in Bond’s paper. The key question is how to transform the many individual actions into a comprehensive response that turns the tide on increasing inequality.

A good place to begin is with accountability. We need to ensure “leave no one behind” is more than a catch-phrase and is woven through the business model of how we do development. Specific “leave no one behind” markers in donors’ business plans, regular reporting in all HLPF Voluntary National Reports, community-driven data collection and analysis, and inclusion of marginalised groups in governance mechanisms at all levels are just some examples of measures that can begin to make a difference.

It is clear that “leave no one behind” has caught the attention of the development community. There are no easy answers, but it is a principle worth fighting for.

Read Bond’s report, Leave no one behind: how the development community is realising the pledge.

Find out different approaches to ensure the most marginalised are reached at our SDGs session at the Bond Conference, 26-27 February.