31 Aug

Equifinality: Why leave no-one behind is not the same as equity

This blog is part of my ongoing series on the 1987 UN World Commission on Environment and Development and its relevance to sustainable development.

In March 2016, the UN Human Development Report Office published their annual report which reviews the relationship between inclusive development and human development. You can read my analysis of the report which was published on the UN Human Development Report site.

I have always been interested in the relationship between inclusive development, leave no-one behind and equity. While they lead to the same outcomes, their assumptions about development are different. To trace these different paths, it’s important to look first at the difference between equality and equity.

From equality to equity

The UN’s Declaration on the Right to Development, published in 1986, charted each Member State’s responsibility to protect the individual’s right to development, specifically their ‘civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.’

Article 8 of the Declaration mentions that the State has the responsibility to facilitate ‘equality of opportunity’ in ‘basic resources, education, health services, food, housing, employment and the fair distribution of income.’

From ‘Earth’ (physical matter) to ‘World’ (political matter)

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development report, released a year later in 1987, builds on the Declaration by emphasising the environmental aspect of development. Aptly titled, ‘From One Earth to One World’, the overview of the report specifies that sustainable development is less about the environment and more to do with how our existing systems of social organisation affect the planet.

In the report, the key concepts used to define sustainable development are:

  • To meet ‘The essential ‘needs’ of the world’s poor and,
  • The idea of limitations… on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.’


Sustainable development is then about changing the rules of the game so that those with the least amount of control – ‘the world’s poor’ and the ‘future generations’ – can benefit from these resources. Building on the Declaration on the Right to Development, the Commission’s reframing of development as sustainable development shifted the focus from equality (equality of opportunity) to equity (equity of outcomes).

From equity to ‘leave-no-one-behind’

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, held in 2012, reaffirmed the global community’s priorities on sustainable development. This conference marked the beginning of the negotiations of the Sustainable Development Goals.  In the conference’s outcome report, Future We Want, equity is referred to three times, twice in relation to social equity, (Paragraphs 11 and 132) and once in relation to environmental equity:

 ‘We recall that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides that parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind on the basis of equity.’ (Paragraph 191).

In the Sustainable Development Agenda, however, there is no reference to equity. Instead the concept, Leave No-One Behind, is included. Leave No-One Behind is defined as the endeavour to reach ‘the furthest behind first’ and the assertion that the goals cannot be met unless every group in society is included. At the launch of the Leave No-One Behind Partnership, earlier this year, an audience member questioned how empowering the Leave No-One Behind narrative is to people who are ‘left behind’ because their voice and agency are not recognised in this narrative.

Equity and Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development.

Ahead of the 2016 UN High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), Christian Aid released a report on the relationship between the Leave No-One Behind principle and global equity. In the report, global equity is presented as a lens, an evaluative approach to measure each country’s progress and the contribution of this progress to overall global equity targets. The global equity lens is aimed at wealthier countries who are reminded of ‘social exclusion within their own borders, but also their global responsibility to ensure that the very poorest countries and populations are not left behind in efforts to achieve the new goals by 2030.’

The report provides an example of SDG target 10.7 on orderly migration and the sub-indicator, ‘number of countries that have implemented well-managed migration policies.’ According to Christian Aid, a global equity lens would provide the following assessments: ‘How is the country ensuring compliance with the UN Refugee Convention? What are wealthier countries doing to share in the hosting of refugees and ensure that poorer countries are receiving adequate financial support to receive refugees?’

Christian Aid’s integration of global equity in the SDG agenda is similar to the Policy Coherence for Sustainable Development target (17.14), which links national policy-making with international and intergenerational obligations.

As we can see, there are several distinctions of the term, equity which is integral to the concept of sustainable development. More importantly, the distinction between Leave No-One Behind and equity matters because it affects how we integrate power analysis in to the development equation. Leave No-One behind highlights the role of agency, assuming an imbalance of power which can only be rectified by the person who has the power. Equity, on the other hand, emphasises the structural nature of power relations, with the aim of changing the institutions and processes. Perhaps, this is just a change in lexicon but from the assumptions identified above, what are the implications of using these terms interchangeably?

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