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Defining ‘leave no one behind’

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Elizabeth Stuart, Emma Samman

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been designed to be both genuinely transformational, while at the same time allowing each country scope to implement them as most relevant to their domestic context.

In this spirit, this briefing note does not seek to pin down a prescriptive definition of ‘leave no one behind’, a commitment central to the SDGs. Instead, it sets out broad parameters to offer governments and other implementers some concrete suggestions for approaches to take, and aims to help build greater understanding among donors as to what the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda entails.

Key messages

  • 'Leaving no one behind' means ending extreme poverty in all its forms, and reducing inequalities among both individuals (vertical) and groups (horizontal).
  • Key to ‘leave no one behind’ is the prioritisation and fast-tracking of actions for the poorest and most marginalised people – known as progressive universalism. If instead, policy is implemented among better-off groups first and worst-off groups later, the existing gap between them is likely to increase.
  • ‘Leave no one behind’ goes well beyond being just an anti-discrimination agenda; it is a recognition that expectations of trickle-down progress are naïve, and that explicit and pro-active attempts are needed to ensure populations at risk of being left behind are included from the start.
  • For countries where high levels of absolute deprivations persist, an appropriate emphasis is likely to be ensuring that people living below the poverty line – in income terms or other dimensions of wellbeing – can attain minimum living standards.
  • For countries where most people have attained minimum living standards, relative considerations will become more important, and a focus on closing gaps.
Elizabeth Stuart and Emma Samman