Environment & Urbanization

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An urban approach to 'leaving no one behind'

David Dodman
02 Jun 2016

Taking an urban approach can help identify who is at risk of 'being left behind' and how this can be avoided.

An image of crouching community members in a village in Champasak province, Laos identify areas where open defecation is taking place ahead of implementing sanitation measures (Photo: Viengsompasong Inthavong/World Bank, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The commitment to 'leave no one behind' is one of the most memorable pledges from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, understanding its potential to generate transformative change and what it might achieve in practice remains difficult.

Taking a specifically urban approach can help to put a different perspective on identifying who is at risk of being left behind and the actions required to avoid this. 

Inadequate measures

Development approaches have often failed to adequately recognise the challenges facing low-income urban residents.

Monetary measures of deprivation routinely underestimate both the number of poor people living in cities, and the extent of their deprivations, and where attempts are made to include different dimensions of poverty, these tend to conflate proximity to services with the accessibility, affordability and adequacy of these services.

Global policy processes, such as the recently concluded World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III need to engage with the commitment to leaving no one behind in urban centres and how development actors can work with local organisations and municipal governments to address this.  

The Millennium Development Goals focused on average achievements at national and global level leaving poor and marginalised groups more likely to fall under the radar. The SDGs are more people-centric and inclusive; understanding locally specific factors shaping the wellbeing of individuals becomes particularly important. 

Overlooked, undercounted

Particular groups of low-income urban residents are routinely ignored or undercounted, and leaving no one behind will require particular efforts to incorporate the needs, priorities, and aspirations of these groups.

  • People with disabilities may not be able to participate in community activities and may face discrimination of various kinds. Even well-meaning provisions – such as disabled access toilets in community sanitation blocks – are of little value if people are unable to navigate their way through the neighbourhood to access the facilities. 

    An image of the front of disabled toilet, featuring a picture of a person washing their hands, in a community sanitation facility in Kallyanpur, Dhaka (Photo: David Dodman/IIED)Communities in Thailand have created Community Welfare Funds (PDF) to meet the needs of particular groups. This has included building 'central homes' as part of wider community upgrading activities for people who are elderly, ill or disabled and would otherwise be unable to participate.

  • Internally displaced people and refugees are another group routinely left behind in urban centres and were recognised in the 'core commitments' that shaped the recent World Humanitarian Summit. 

    In contrast to highly visible refugee camps, a growing number of refugees are living in towns and cities. Where this approach is formally adopted, as in Lebanon, it can offer huge potential for refugees to become self-reliant and participate in the economy of the host country – although this still requires appropriate engagement and support from governments, relief agencies and NGOs.

    But in other countries, including Tanzania and Kenya, refugees are not legally allowed to live in cities or to seek employment. They often find themselves trying to avoid contact with government officials and are frequently exploited. 

    New collaborative approaches bring together local organisations, governments, and humanitarian actors – not only to provide emergency assistance but also to ensure that longer-term development, meeting the needs of all, remains a priority. 

Nuanced politics

Decades of experience from low-income urban residents show that leaving no one behind will not be achieved by simply listing 'vulnerable' individuals or groups and applying 'appropriate' remedial measures.

Rather, it requires an inherently political process of building consensus, demonstrating capacity, and negotiation with powerful actors. This ought to incorporate:

  • The politics of representation – whose views and priorities are included or excluded
  • The politics of knowledge – how different types of data include or exclude particular groups and their needs, and
  • The politics of implementation – how decisions about priorities for investment in urban services and infrastructure are made. 

In rapidly growing urban centres, it is particularly important to guide and regulate private investment. Where US $10 trillion per annum is being invested in fixed assets, how should new infrastructure support inclusive growth and not simply leave more people behind?

Habitat III – a narrow approach?

How will Habitat III contribute to the goal to leave no one behind in urban areas? On first glance, the zero draft of the 'new urban agenda' shows positive engagement with the concept, identifying "Leave no one behind: urban equity and poverty eradication" as one of three 'transformative goals'. 

However, this potentially narrows the interpretation of leaving no one behind by linking it to poverty eradication but not to the other transformative commitments of "urban prosperity and opportunities for all" and "ecological and resilient cities and human settlements": the current debate appears to position leaving no one behind as an issue of addressing extreme deprivation rather than engaging with the drivers of exclusion and inequality. 

In the coming months, there is the potential for the new urban agenda to develop much more action-oriented commitments that will bring the SDGs to life, and more clearly link leaving no one behind to economic and environmental goals. 

Our work ahead

IIED has initiated a series of roundtable discussions to unpack 'leave no one behind', and launched a programme of work to investigate what a meaningful approach to this would look like in practice across a range of sectors and contexts, including coastal fisheries, energy, and urban areas. 

Our involvement in Policy Units and other preparatory activities for Habitat III seeks to ensure that the new urban agenda acknowledges the huge challenge and critical importance of leaving no urban residents behind. 

Thinking more deeply about the concept and the ways that low-income groups are already engaging with it will help us to make practical suggestions for how this ambitious principle can be embedded at local level. 

David Dodman (david.dodman@iied.org) is director of IIED's Human Settlements Group.

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