This post, written by Jan Vandemoortele, co-architect of the Millennium Development Goals and a “critical friend” of the Sustainable Development Goals, is the tenth in our blog series which aims to explore how the Sustainable Development Goals can be drafted to include all social and economic groups.
The MDGs report card contains two salient features. First, it shows progress for people but regress for the planet—hence the focus on sustainability. Second, progress for people has seen a systemic bias against the least well-off—hence the mantra ‘Leave No One Behind’ (LNOB). The response to the second feature is less than adequate.
Despite the considerable progress achieved across the world—in terms of monetary and non-monetary indicators—the evidence reveals that people at the bottom of the social ladder have seen little of it. In 2003, two UNICEF colleagues examined in detail data on infant mortality in 24 developing countries. They concluded that, during the 1980s and 1990s, progress for the bottom quintile (i.e. the poorest 20 per cent of the population) was “modest, and in most countries it was not statistically significant”. Several other studies have since confirmed similar findings. The emergence of solid evidence regarding growing gaps in human development has led to the LNOB-slogan. Given the evidence, the motto may look as a no-brainer. But appearances can be deceiving. Although LNOB can hardly been seen as objectionable, the attention being paid to it is not really justified.
While apparently innocuous, LNOB is potentially harmful because it shifts the focus away from the real issue. It focuses the attention on the symptom rather than on the cause. The LNOB-mantra is based on the old worldview that extreme poverty constitutes the biggest global challenge today. In the first paragraph, the preamble to the proposed SDG-text says, “we pledge that no one will be left behind”. The second paragraph goes on by stating the basic premise that, “Eradication of poverty […] remains the greatest challenge facing our world today”. Then, the very first of the 169 targets is to “eradicate, by 2030, extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day”.
This train of thought is internally coherent and sounds quite convincing. But is it correct? Several scholars and stakeholders think it is not. Robert Shiller, Nobel laureate in economics, puts it quite categorically: “The most important problem we are facing now, today, is rising inequality.” Another Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, argues, “We need to begin thinking of inequality not just as a moral issue—which it is—but also as a fundamental economic concern”. The Economist says, “Growing inequality is one of the biggest social, economic and political challenges of our time.” Many other voices could be added to the refrain, including those of Robert Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Thomas Piketty, Danny Dorling, Tony Atkinson, James Galbraith, Branko Milanovic, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Economic Forum.
LNOB is potentially harmful because it diverts the attention away from extreme inequality, which actually is the greatest challenge the world is facing today. Although the SDGs pay attention to inequality, they do so superfluously and in name only. While goal 10 deals with inequality, target 10.1 is not about inequality but about poverty. It says, “by 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average”. One cannot claim to deal with inequality when the target covers only the bottom 40 per cent of the population. To be genuine about inequality, the target must cover the entire spectrum; not just the poorest one. It is perfectly possible, for instance, for the bottom 40 per cent to see faster income growth than the national average, and yet to witness growing inequality within the country—i.e. through the hollowing out of the middle class.
In short, the attention paid to LNOB is misplaced because it evades the real challenge of our times. The SDGs should focus on the elimination of extreme inequality, which would resolve extreme poverty.
The fact that the SDGs fail to focus on extreme inequality is not a simple oversight. Extreme poverty offer a more convenient scenario for all member states, than to zero in on extreme inequality. For the rich countries, concentrating on poverty and hunger is in line with the still prevailing worldview based on a North/South divide; while developing countries prefer to talk about inequality between countries. Hence, LNOB is little more than a diplomatic construct to hide the fact that member states have succumbed to political expediency, and have failed to lead and act with courage. While not total unwelcome, any irrational exuberance about LNOB is therefore out of place.