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Global inequalities and the debate behind “leaving no one behind”

Leaving no one behind – the notion that humanity as a whole cannot advance unless every human being is sharing in the progress – is the central premise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But when it comes to delivering the Agenda’s 17 goals and 169 targets, it is not always easy to define who is at risk of being left behind or what should be done to prevent it.

At an open session during its recently concluded 20th plenary, the UN’s Committee for Development Policy discussed the concept of leaving no one behind, presented trends in outcomes, discussed the current situation and challenges, and made policy recommendations.

Marc Fleurbaey, Professor of Economics, Humanistic Studies and Public Affairs at Princeton University noted that often targeted interventions are not enough, and that the concept must be embedded in broader development strategies. “There are,” he stated, “challenges to leaving no one behind in both developed and developing countries.”

There is an ongoing debate whether it is people, groups or entire countries that risk being left behind, but in reality the concept is relevant for all. According to Stephan Klasen, Professor of Economics at the University of Göttingen, disparities between countries remain large, but inequality within countries is also increasing, adding to the overall global inequality.

The Committee’s work shows that if the world continues along its current trajectory, not all countries will be able to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2030 and that many people are at risk of being pushed further behind by numerous forces.

“No one should be pushed behind under the 2030 Agenda,” said Diane Elson, Professor Emeritus of University of Essex. “Our policies need to be re-oriented, so that they are driven from the bottom up by the needs of those who are deprived and disadvantaged and that countries need a human rights-based approach to economic policies to safeguard the deprived from being pushed behind.”

Leticia Moreno, Professor at the Institute of Social Research, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, highlighted the link between economic inequality and procedural inequality as key reason for groups and countries being left behind. With the marginalized excluded from decision-making processes, she stressed that “local and global elites tend to maximize their short-term benefits by overexploiting people, natural resources and ecosystems.”

The Committee’s experts suggested specific policies, which would allow for the left-behind to catch up and for the world to be a more equal place by the year 2030. Giovanni Andrea Cornia, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Florence, noted that to end poverty worldwide, market and redistributive policies should be reshaped to make income distribution fair, and population policies and food prices also need to be addressed.

Jose Antonio Alonso, Professor of Applied Economics at the Complutense University of Madrid, pointed out that under the 2030 Agenda, the world should move on to a new financing framework and towards sound and equitable tax systems and efficient mechanisms to resolve sovereign debt crises.

“We are here to discuss developing strong policy frameworks at national level and increase the well-being of people,” said Daniela Bas, Director of UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, stressing that “if we don’t have strong policy frameworks, no rights can be claimed.” Sanjay Reddy, Professor of Economics at the New School, highlighted that the concept of leaving no one behind matters significantly for policy, but can be understood in many different ways.

A subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Committee for Development Policy meets once a year to discuss current development issues and draft its report based on inputs from its members. The 24 members of the Committee were appointed with consideration of geographical diversity and gender balance.

Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

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