Helen Clark: Speech on ‘A Commitment to Leave No One Behind: Equity in the SDGs’

Jun 4, 2016


Thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight about the importance of the principle of leaving no one behind as the world strives to implement the new Sustainable Development Goals.  I know that this is a matter of the very highest priority to the membership of Save the Children around the world.  Throughout your history, you have been dedicated to seeing that every child can look forward to a life with dignity.

The new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development embraces that aspiration. It’s about making our world a more peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable one – for this generation and for those to come.  Its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out the agreed global priorities for people and planet.  

At the heart of this new agenda is a simple principle: leave no one behind.  Civil society and social justice movements around the world pushed for this, and Save the Children itself was one of the loudest advocates for placing inequality front and centre in the 2030 Agenda.

The reasons for prioritizing tackling inequality are obvious. It’s a global problem. It shows up in badly skewed income distribution; in gender and other discrimination; and in unequal access to the most basic goods and services like food, water, education, and health.  It extends to access to land and natural resources, and to political participation and decision-making.

A UNDP study from 2014 showed that more than seventy per cent of people in developing countries are living in societies which are less equal now than they were in 1990 in terms of income, even though many of those countries are now richer.   Progress has not been well distributed.

Save The Children’s own report, Every Last Child, shows that recent progress in ­reducing extreme poverty is often not reaching needy children because of where they live, or because of their gender, ethnicity, or a disability, or because they are victims of conflict.  And on a daily basis we see in the news media the faces and the stories of those children – they are heart-wrenching.

Exclusion and marginalization continue to exist even in the wealthiest countries. For example, a joint study undertaken by UNDP, the World Bank, and the European Commission in a number of European countries revealed that ninety per cent of Roma are living in extreme poverty.  Significant inequalities between indigenous people and/or ethnic minorities and majority communities can be observed across developed countries. The prospects of children and adults alike are affected by these inequalities.

So: what to do.

The new Sustainable Development Goal 10 targets reducing inequality within and between countries.  It focuses not only on income inequality, but also on discrimination and disadvantage generally.  It calls for the "social, economic, and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status."

Making progress on this Goal will be important for achieving other SDGs too. For example:

To achieve SDG 1 and end poverty in all its forms means reaching the very last-mile of exclusion, and confronting the often painful and entrenched biases which have left people behind;

To achieve SDG 5 on gender equality and empowering women and girls, the economic, social, legal, and customary barriers holding back women and girls will have to be removed.

To achieve the peaceful and inclusive societies envisaged in SDG 16, countries will need to ensure equal access to justice for all.  

There are also the issues of intergenerational equity: the way economies and societies have traditionally developed has severely compromised the health of our planet.  The true costs of human activity on the environment now need to be accounted for. We must act to ensure that we can meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. 

The 2030 Agenda is very much an agenda for people and planet.  When we speak of equity and justice we are asked to think not only of the present, but also about the future – the world we will leave to our children. 

Sustainable development requires us to think in different ways.  Can we achieve inclusive growth for all without trashing the environment?  Can we make this possible in the most fragile contexts on earth where people enjoy neither peace nor security?

Implementation of the new global agenda

Of course agendas remain mere words on paper unless they are implemented. So what will it take to achieve the SDGs and to reduce inequalities?

The role of governments in advancing the new global agenda and reducing inequalities is obvious. Yet the evidence suggests that where economic power is heavily concentrated in the hands of a few, so may political power be concentrated in the hands of elites.  This then distorts political processes, and can leave significant sections of populations voiceless.  In this negative cycle, the things which need to be done to address reduce inequalities – like investing enough in health, education, social protection, and inclusive growth, and in infrastructure which reaches the last mile – are less likely to happen.

Here’s where active civil society voices, like that of Save the Children are vital.  You speak for the voiceless. You demand action. You work for the children caught up in the world’s vicious conflicts.  You demand attention to dignity and opportunity for every child and family. The world is a better place for your efforts, and, together we can make it a much better place for all than it is today.

UNDP is hosting a new SDG Action Campaign building on the experience of the former Millennium Campaign for the MDGs.  It’s an advocacy campaign which aims to give voice to citizens and civil society and to encourage them to engage in and monitor implementation of the 2030 Agenda at local and national levels. 

Our online platform, My World 2030, will also keep working to build profile for the SDGs and engage the widest possible cross-section of global society with them.  This platform did a wonderful job in getting many millions of citizens around the world engaged with the design of the SDGs. A big message from that outreach was that people want to stay engaged – the My World platform can facilitate that.

I am under no illusion about the scale of the challenge of achieving the new global goal on reducing inequality – nor of achieving the SDGs as a whole.  But with the strong engagement and advocacy of civil society, of which Save the Children is such an important part, and by building broad coalitions of action across society – with parliaments, philanthropy, and the private sector, I believe it is possible to move mountains, move governments, and bring about change.  We owe it to every child and family living without peace, security, opportunity, and basic rights to do whatever we can, and I know that your great organisation is committed to doing just that.

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