In the context of global development, ‘no one is left behind’ brings with it a powerful message. It emphasises progress – one that is inclusive, fair, integrated and empowering. The phrase ‘no one is left behind’ is mentioned some five times in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was adopted by all governments at the UN in 2015. The agenda is a plan of action for people, the planet, peace and prosperity. It has globally agreed 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 ambitious targets, and should be achieved within the next decade “to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.”
To keep these commitments and uphold the values that underpin them, a necessary corollary is that ‘everyone’, irrespective of geography and circumstances, participates in this collective journey. Is that the case? Consider women and girls for instance. Although they are 51% of the world, women and girls continue to lag behind on most counts. Women are often patronised or objectified and have far fewer possibilities for accessing and climbing the economic, professional or political ladder. Despite years of dedicated programmes by governments, the UN and civil societies, gender inequality is acute in rural settings, although their pivotal contribution to farming and the rural economy is widely acknowledged. The agenda recognises this, goal 5 is to ‘Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls’. Furthermore, goals 2, 3 and 4 also have specific targets with indicators to measure progress on women’s participation, income and education. However, almost 80% of the indicators for gender equality across the goals lack data – a severe limitation – that policy and governance has to overcome to create bottom-up solutions. Another necessary step has to be a better and greater convergence of all the big and small efforts being undertaken to tackle gender inequality in development.
Another important group that must not be left behind are the teenagers. Currently, there are some 1.2 billion young people, of which 88% live in developing countries. Should the goals be achieved by 2030, the youth of today could be the biggest beneficiaries. Much will depend on policy environment in a country, but in my view, the academic community can play a critical role. Science, technology, analytical data and multidisciplinary approaches are required for almost all the goals. Therefore, teachers – as the custodians of future generations – could lead by promoting a systems-based approach, revising outdated curricula, applying the indicators in their own settings as well as participating in monitoring progress at the national level. Creating awareness among the students can encourage their buy-in early on, which in turn can lead to quicker solutions and new possibilities. In fact, goal 4, ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’ focuses on the youth; this focus is also in goals 8 and 13. There needs to be a strategy in place to mobilise academia to support the implementation of these goals. Strengthening education quality and increasing investment in universities today, particularly in developing countries, can position the youth to cope with the challenges of tomorrow.
Women and youth may not be the only groups falling behind when one considers the status of migrants. As the agenda was being adopted in 2015, a number of countries were dealing with an unprecedented migration including in Europe, the Near East and Sub-Sahara Africa. Immediate attention had to be given to the availability of food, shelter and safety of the new refugees. It is estimated that there are some 244 million international migrants today, of which a third are young adults leaving their countries due to conflicts, climate change and political instability. Their education, aspirations, prospects are being left behind. For the first time, the issues of migration are recognised with goal 10, calling for ‘well-managed migration policies’, and goal 8, focusing on the situation of migrant workers.
Looking ahead, there is a lot to do. What will it take for each of us to step up, to achieve gender equality in our own sphere? How can young adults benefit from the goals? How to promote integration of diverse communities in a sustainable way? It is not possible to do it alone. Perhaps it is time to revive ‘partnerships’ as a fundamental tool for delivery. Partnerships not as an association for the few but as a mechanism for collective achievements. As Swami Vivekananda said, “There cannot be any progress without the whole world following in the wake and it is becoming every day clearer that the solution of any problem can never be attained on racial, or national, or narrow grounds. Every idea has to become broad till it covers the whole of this world, every aspiration must go on increasing till it has engulfed the whole of humans, nay the whole of life within its scope.”