Leaving no one behind – it won’t be easy

This post is written by Kevin Watkins, ODI’s executive director, and is the second in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be drafted to include all social and economic groups.

‘Leave no one behind’ is the rallying call of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As good causes go, this one is hard to trump. Advocating for a development pathway that leads to inclusive growth, less inequality and expanded opportunities for the marginalised, is like endorsing motherhood and apple pie. So how do we convert the leaving no one behind discourse from an SDG comfort blanket into hard-edged policies?

Answering that question is not easy. To the best of my knowledge, no government is heading for the September UN General Assembly summit that will adopt the SDGs demanding a ‘leave some behind’ amendment. On the other hand, many of the signatories have what might politely be described as mixed records in tackling inequality. The reason so many countries have fallen so far short of the Millennium Development Goal targets is precisely because of a systemic failure to narrow extreme inequalities in income and opportunity.

Basic SDG arithmetic provides a useful starting point for taking seriously the commitment to leave no one behind. Included in the new goals are pledges to eradicate poverty, eliminate avoidable child and maternal death, and get every child into secondary education. It’s an impressive menu. The bad news is that the world is way off-track for delivery.

Consider child mortality. On a business-as-usual trajectory, there will be 3-4 million child deaths in 2030, with a growing concentration in the neo-natal period (the first month). While every child death is a tragedy, there is a steep gradient in the risk of fatality. In much of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, children in the poorest households have death rates two-to-three times higher than in the richest households – so deeper cuts in death rates for the poor could act as a powerful catalyst for SDG delivery.

Achieving that outcome will require fundamental shifts in policy at three levels. First, governments need to close the glaring disparities in access to ante-natal care and skilled birth attendance that contribute to neo-natal mortality. Second, they need to address the wider inequalities in health and nutrition systems that expose marginalised children to elevated risk of killer diseases like pneumonia. Third, they have to tackle the gender inequalities that force so many girls into early marriage and early pregnancy, and deprive women of the right to manage their reproductive health.

While the context is different, many of the same challenges arise in education. Setting the ambition of universal secondary schooling by 2030 is laudable. Sadly, laudable targets don’t deliver decent education. There are currently 57 million primary-school age children denied a primary education with another 67 million adolescents out of school. Neither number is falling. Meanwhile, the abysmal quality of education in many countries ensures countless millions of children now in school will emerge lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Changing this picture will require more than earnest recitation of ‘leave no one behind’ mantras. Governments need to back the SDG commitment with public spending and wider policies that lower the barriers facing the most disadvantaged kids – the very poor, ethnic minorities, disadvantaged girls, the disabled and those living in rural areas and urban informal settlements. That means reversing the current practice of skewing finance towards the most advantaged, while at the same time tackling endemic child labour. Fixing education systems to recruit, train and deploy teachers equipped to deliver decent and quality education is another priority.

The view that ‘leaving no one behind’ is about tackling disparities in the distribution of opportunity rather than wealth should be swiftly despatched to the dustbin of bad ideas. Widening disparities in wealth evident in countries such as China, India, the United States and the United Kingdom are intimately connected to disparities in opportunity for education and health. High and rising inequality also acts as a brake on economic growth and poverty reduction. One of the reasons that sub-Saharan Africa has such a weak record in converting growth into poverty reduction is that high levels of initial inequality are concentrating the benefits of rising prosperity in the pockets of the rich, creating a weak trickle-down effect.

We urgently need an agenda that saves the ‘no one left behind’ narrative from descending into the policy discourse quicksand that has swallowed the World Bank’s shared prosperity framework. That agenda should be built on five pillars:

A data revolution for the poor: If the aim is to leave no-one behind, a useful starting point is to identify the most marginalised groups, track their progress, and measure the gaps that separate them from the rest of society. As my colleague Liz Stuart has shown we urgently need to start generating real-time data in these areas, supplementing the large-scale surveys now on offer.

Stepping-stone equity targets: The SDGs set some ambitious absolute goals for 2030, but lack near-term equity targets. For example, governments could set the target of halving the wealth gap in child survival, the gender gap in school attendance, or the rural-urban divide in ante-natal care coverage, as a stepping-stone on the route to the 2030 goals. These equity targets would help to turn the policy spotlight on the most disadvantaged, generating public debate on strategies for delivering the high quality services and jobs needed to advance equity.

Progressive universalism: Current approaches to education and health financing, and to the distribution of wealth, are typically guided by the Matthew principle: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Financing and service delivery patterns should be inverted to ensure that budgets are used to counteract disadvantage through progressive spending, backed by progressive taxation. Social protection has a vital role to play in this area, as highlighted in an excellent recent paper by Francesca Bastagli.

Universal commitments: One of the strengths of the SDGs is that they cut across the increasingly anachronistic ‘North-South’ fault line. Rich countries as well as poor should adopt equity targets and apply the principle of progressive universalism – and they should be held to account for delivery. For example, the European Central Bank, Germany and other creditors are creating the conditions for poverty and rising inequality in Greece. And through their migration policies, the countries of the European Union are reinforcing vulnerability, restricting opportunity, and reinforcing inequality.

A global compact: The SDGs will not be delivered through more aid – but aid is a vital part of the financing architecture. As an ODI report has shown , delivering a ‘social floor’ in the form of cash transfers to lift people above the poverty line and universal health care and education, will require around US$84bn annually targeted at the poorest countries.The global compact also has to incorporate delivery mechanisms for reaching children affected by conflict, not just in low-income countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo but also Syria and the neighbouring states.

None of the above will be easy. ‘Leaving no-one behind’ is not about identifying technical fixes and pitching up at UN meetings to endorse the virtues of greater equality. It is about confronting the power relationships and vested interests that keep the poor where they area – and it is about forming the national and international coalitions needed to deliver change.

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