“Leaving No One Behind” when fighting against extreme poverty

“I have been working since the age of six. I sometimes had to sleep rough. I don’t want to be poor anymore. I don’t want to be called poor anymore! Brothers from all over the world, let’s continue to work by fighting hard so that our children do not have to endure the wretched life that we have had for so long.”

These are the words of Juan Carlos Baltazar, from Bolivia, who was a delegate at a seminar organised by ATD Fourth World at the United Nations headquarters in New York in June 2013. Juan’s address, delivered with great emotion, prompted a standing ovation by everyone in the room, including ambassadors from four continents sitting on the platform, and was widely covered on social media.

Thirteen years prior to this, in September 2000, the United Nations (UN) had set out eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the period of 2001 to 2015. The first of these goals sought to reduce the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day by 50 per cent. When news of the new goal reached areas in deep poverty, the reaction was dramatic.

Residents told local ATD teams: “Only half? It will not concern people like us. No one here will be part of it”.

To their ears, they viewed this goal as a declaration of abandonment, since it encouraged public and private actors to give priority to those who are the easiest to reach and to exclude the others, those in the deepest poverty.

This was not the first time that ATD had learned from the experience and knowledge of people living in extreme poverty about the importance of leaving no one behind.

In fact, the very founding of ATD Fourth World was influenced by this concept when, in the emergency housing camp in Noisy-le-Grand on the outskirts of Paris in the 1960s, families that were offered the opportunity by local authorities to resettle, agreed amongst themselves that they would only move on condition that all the families would do so together.

In the 1970s, this learning proved essential in ATD Fourth World’s development of the concept of “creaming the poor” — where social programs fail to reach those in deepest poverty, but rather skim the easiest to reach off the top and to then claim success. Later in the 1980s, ATD brought this issue to the fore of UNICEF’s thinking in convincing it to abandon its goal of reaching 80 per cent of children globally, and instead reaching out to the 20 per cent hardest to reach.

From rejection to a real reduction in extreme poverty

With all this background, it came as no surprise to our teams involved in improving the MDGs that what was seen by much of the world as an ambitious goal of reducing poverty by 50 per cent was actually experienced as a rejection and abandonment by the very marginalised communities the UN thought it would be helping through the MDGs.

In 2011 the UN General Assembly commissioned an assessment of the MDGs from the perspective of populations in extreme poverty, and ATD Fourth World was entrusted with leading this evaluation, which was carried out in collaboration with other actors such as Social Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

ATD Fourth World presented a set of proposals and recommendations based on this research at the UN in New York in June 2013, and, in April 2015 published the report Towards a Sustainable Development that Leaves No One Behind: Challenge 2015.

In September 2015, the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ was officially recognised in the formulation of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), replacing the discredited MDG goal of a 50 per cent reduction in poverty.

Reducing extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030 is now a universal commitment linked to the implementation of social protection floors at national level (target 1.3) and to full employment and decent work for all (target 8.5).

This was a victory achieved with, and for, people living in extreme poverty and their partners. Now is the time for governments to walk the talk and fully implement the 2030 Agenda to stop poverty and to leave no one behind.

Reflecting their shared collaborative work on leaving no one behind, this blog is co-signed by the following organisations: Alison Tate, Director of External Relations for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC); Roberto Bissio, Coordinator International Secretariat for Social Watch; and Isabelle Pypaert Perrin, Director General for ATD Fourth World International.