These activists say the UN’s ‘Leave No One Behind’ pledge promotes colonialism — here’s why

As inequalities continue to rise in the last two years on a global scale, where does the UN’s commitment to uplifting marginalized communities fall short? And what needs to change?

Why It Matters

While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are seen as a guiding framework for civil society, businesses, and governments alike, the rigidity around the goals may pose a barrier to helping those most in need of equity, experts say. There’s a great need to engage in critical analysis of global frameworks to seek existing gaps.

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Stitched into the fabric of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the promise, and a pledge to ‘Leave No One Behind’ (LNOB) — to ensure that everyone everywhere benefits from the transformations the SDGs call for. 

But some global development professionals have criticized the language of the pledge, arguing it’s problematic that the pledge assumes some people are ahead of others. They say it assumes groups who are ‘ahead,’ socioeconomically speaking, can and should lead those ‘behind them.’ But who defines who’s ahead and who’s behind? Are those who are ‘ahead’ in the best position to build equitable societies?

These were the questions posed on a panel at the recent Together|Ensemble summit. Speakers acknowledged the pledge’s intentions may be noble, but the language is colonial; it frames marginalized people as helpless and in need of external guidance. Instead, they say, the focus needs to be on changing the structures which left them behind in the first place. 

Some also point out that the idea of people left behind also paints a picture that marginalized groups have accidentally been forgotten about, rather than structurally excluded. 


Building autonomy instead of imposing solutions

When Aniqah Zowmi was a young delegate attending international conferences, including UN summits, she found it frustrating to be in the international development space where the SDG framework and LNOB pledge were met with little critical analysis. 

“When you’re in a space where there’s so many people who believe wholeheartedly that [these frameworks], the way they are written, are the only way forward, it can be very frustrating to be in the more progressive, ‘let’s push this forward beyond what’s written here on paper,’ [group]” says Zowmi, who is now the community engagement and gender equality specialist at the Ontario Council for International Cooperation.

Though there were young voices like hers present at discussions about development work, she found they were often “sequestered in the back room,” not in the main conferences, and never funded to attend. As a result, the people who discuss and create solutions for communities who are seen as ‘left behind’ come from a background of privilege. Zowmi says these people usually have higher education, and can travel to attend international conferences in places like New York City and stay for a few nights — a barrier for those who don’t have the funds to participate. 

“There isn’t a recognition that maybe those ‘behind’ do not need those ahead to pull them [up]; maybe they need the opportunity to exercise their own autonomy,” says Zowmi. “It’s not about imposing solutions on communities that are marginalized or disadvantaged — it’s about providing the resources and the platforms and the space for those communities to govern their own access to solutions.”

Communities that govern based on their own teachings and their own context, are more successful, sustainable, and autonomous, says Zowmi. “It’s not about telling farmers in rural Mexico that they have to grow corn and wheat in order to alleviate food insecurity; it’s about creating the space and providing the resources for Indigenous Mexican farmers to grow their crops according to Indigenous teachings,” she says.

Still, Zowmi acknowledges the intentions of the pledge are to bring marginalized communities to the centre: “That’s not to say that [the pledge] is not helpful; I think it does provide at least some type of consensus where people can discuss and work towards things, but it doesn’t go far enough,” says Zowmi.  

Others see merit in the pledge, too. Julie Wright, the director of Partners For Action (P4A) at the University of Waterloo, says the pledge can serve as a helpful guidance for organizations to prioritize marginalized communities in development work (or any work using the SDG framework and LNOB pledge), instead of taking it at face value. 

For example, this could be through consulting communities on what issues they’re facing and having an open discussion on what solutions they need, rather than approaching them with preconceived notions of what will help. Wright also says, in the case of global development, that development actors should recognize local development efforts and find ways to meet communities in the middle. 

“We need to look at that work that is already being done, and acknowledge the fact that it’s already been done, and that there is local capacity; you can look within your community to find who to support,” says Wright. 


Struck between rigid pillars, the foundations need to shift   

Wright says instead of approaching the topic as who is being left behind, anyone using the LNOB pledge to guide their work needs to ask themselves how they are centering equity seeking populations. Organizations need to work with these communities to ask them to define what matters. 

But it’s not easy to change the narrative that some are ahead and some are behind.

“The legacy systems, they’re in a very deep equilibrium and budging those systems is really difficult. If you want to do that, you have to think about how to shift the foundations, and that means that you have to be thinking in a totally different way,” says Wright. 

Shifting the approach, however, will be different based on the local context, according to Wright. As an example, the City of Peterborough centered Indigenious leadership when building a strategy on tackling four SDG action areas: poverty reduction, education, climate action, and clean water. 

In addition to the four goals (organized into four teams), there was also a fifth team called Indigenous Leadership Action Team (ILAT) which informed the work of all four teams with Indigenous perspective on the issues. In addition to the ILAT, the project also had two Indigenous coordinators and an Elder who supported the SDG as a whole.

With this project, Peterborough’s approach to LNOB did not impose solutions on the local Indigenous community, but rather worked together in creating solutions. 

“You can do something in a way that centers perspective rather than marginalizes [people] or deepens the sort of categorization of vulnerability or marginalization,” says Wright. “If we start working with communities to figure out what matters to them and how they perceive closing that gap, we might actually get the answers that we need.”


Marginalized people need to see themselves reflected in global and local frameworks 

Jasveen Brar at Youth Climate Lab spent her early undergraduate years engaging quite regularly with the SDG frameworks, even hosting events on campus to discuss these topics. Particularly, she remembers conversations around how these frameworks rarely reflect everyday people, specifically within marginalized communities.

One of the big takeaways for Brar through these discussions was that local communities and people do not see themselves as a part of this massive global problem. “When frameworks are created such as this, they’re not really localized. My neighbors are not going to see themselves in the global context.” 

Zowmi agrees: “If these… fundamental taglines of ‘leave no one behind’ actually don’t mean anything to the communities that are ‘behind,’ then it’s not going to create impact,” says Zowmi, “If these communities don’t feel reflected in or involved in or engaged in the operations, in the way that these pledges are talked about, then it doesn’t matter how nice the words or how flowery the language is.”

Brar says, in the case of the global development sector, there’s a need to step out of the development space in which the language of the frameworks makes sense to only those inside it. Stepping outside means asking questions like: What aspects of the development sector excludes everyday people? How can organizations meaningfully follow the lead of marginalized communities? Should Western development institutions even be seen as the leaders of this work?

“I think if we want to engage with the ‘leave no one behind’ pledge, I think we need to really re-envision it. And I think we need to re-envision the way that we’re taking action, and not necessarily the spirit or the intention behind it,” says Zowmi.

Funded by the Government of Canada’s Sustainable Development Goals Program 

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