September 9, 2015 / 12:10 AM / in 4 years

'Leave no one behind': U.N. ups ambition for new development goals

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cecylia, a Roma woman, left her home in southern Poland to escape the kind of racism that led to her being so badly beaten by communist police that she lost an unborn child.

She has lived in Britain since 2008, where life is tough but preferable. Like many Roma migrants in London, the cleaner in her mid-50s struggled with a new language to learn, officialdom and a spell of unemployment.

“A lot of Roma can’t speak English very well, and sometimes they can’t help themselves,” said Cecylia, who declined to give her full name, fearing recrimination for speaking out.

Moved by the hardships facing her fellow Roma - many of whom live in poor housing, doing low-paid menial jobs - Cecylia works with the Roma Support Group, which offers advice and lobbies the British government for better community services.

If fully implemented, a new set of U.N. development goals could end the social exclusion and poverty of marginalized groups like the Roma worldwide.

The 17 goals, ranging from ending extreme poverty and hunger to achieving gender equality and combating climate change, are due to be adopted by U.N. member states later this month.

At the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the mantra, “leave no one behind”.

The promise of inclusion marks a big shift from the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which targeted only parts of the population, and could be met “at the expense of some of the most vulnerable communities”, said Christian Aid poverty adviser Helen Dennis.

Under the new SDGs, governments will “endeavor to reach the furthest behind first”. Another major difference is that the SDGs will cover wealthy states too - unlike the earlier goals.


Campaigners hope the SDGs will encourage governments and donors to focus on the most vulnerable, hard-to-reach groups such as poor women in rural areas. But a lack of official data on these groups is a major stumbling block.

Today one in three births around the world are unregistered.

“This means millions of children don’t exist officially. That affects their access to legal rights, healthcare, even a vote,” said David McNair, director of transparency and accountability at the anti-poverty campaign group, ONE.

This may be due to weak government systems, or because individuals do not know how to register with the authorities. Others may choose not to out of fear of persecution.

ONE is throwing its weight behind an international push to build up data collection in poor countries, using technology such as mobile phones and satellite mapping.

Experts have welcomed the SDGs’ commitment to review progress based on data broken down by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migration status, disability and other factors.

In theory, disaggregated data should help governments design tailored policies to help the poorest of the poor.

But Carl Soderbergh, director of policy for Minority Rights Group International, warned that gathering more information could compromise the security of some indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities who may view official interest with suspicion.


In recent years, for example, far from reaping any benefits from the MDGs, a growing number of marginalized groups has come into conflict with governments over plans to extract natural resources from their lands, Soderbergh noted.

“It has been catastrophic in terms of communities having their lands taken from them ... ending up in urban areas without the skills they need to make a go of it, and the risk of losing their culture or religious practices as well,” he said.

Although indigenous peoples are clearly referenced in the SDGs as a section of society that should be assisted, several states opposed direct mention of other vulnerable groups, including LGBT people and castes, observers said.

One of the most persecuted groups are India’s 170 million Dalits, who suffer discrimination because of their traditional occupations such as street sweeping and grave digging.

Despite laws to prevent violence against the “untouchable” lowest Hindu caste, 13 Dalits are murdered and six abducted each week, while three women are raped each day, according to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Dalit women are especially vulnerable due to both their gender and caste, said N. Paul Divakar, the campaign’s general secretary.

“If the barriers these people face - in access to services, development and justice - are not addressed by this (SDGs) framework globally, regionally and nationally, we are not going to actualize this aspect of ‘leave no one behind’,” the long-time Dalit rights defender told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Since the SDGs will not be legally binding, states face no sanctions if they deliberately exclude unfavored groups.

India’s Divakar said the goals could be used to put pressure on countries, giving civil society and media the tools to hold governments to account, or even to argue against them in court.

But that may depend on the public knowing about the SDGs in the first place.

In northern Ghana, most rural people have not heard of the term, said Clara Osei-Boateng of SEND-Ghana, which works to boost incomes, education and health in the disadvantaged region.

Many here are disappointed with development efforts, after an authority set up in 2010 to channel funds to the agricultural area was crippled by corruption and mismanagement.

Ghana overall has managed to cut poverty by half since 1992, but in its Upper West Region, nine out of 10 people are still classed as poor, Osei-Boateng said.

They need “basic, basic things”, from clean drinking water to good roads and support for small farmers.

Leaving no one behind may be a core element of delivering the SDGs, but the test will be whether northern Ghanaians, Dalits and Roma see their lives improve as a result.

“We still need to give some proper meaning to it and that is where the challenge lies,” said Christian Aid’s Dennis.

Reporting by Megan Rowling; Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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