Our understanding of poverty has evolved over the years. We have tightened our grasp on its complexity and the numerous interconnected factors – big and small – that drive it. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the new development agenda agreed in 2030, with its ambitious and holistic goals which look at ‘traditional’ development challenges as well as those beyond, encompassing climate change, fragility and the societal and global enablers and disablers of development. The commitment to leave no one behind – the fundamental and important transformational shift in the SDGs – made this concrete. It has taken us years to start to get to grips with that pledge, to resolve what changes must be made to deliver it, to move beyond looking at national-level aggregates and really understand poverty from a people-centred perspective. What is more, we have still not made that shift in practice and changed the way we act, the priorities we focus on, or how we spend, target and use development finance.
Time is running out. We are already three years into the SDGs, and all the evidence points in one direction: we are currently seriously off track to meet the goals, and SDG 1 and 10 on poverty and inequality in particular. Focusing on people is critical – the gap between the poorest and the rest is continuing to grow, both within countries and globally, and this fact in itself implies that new approaches are required if we are to affect change. What we have done until now has clearly failed to reach the poorest people, so business as usual is not good enough.
Getting to grips with this challenge in a real and meaningful way will also mean getting to grips with the multidimensional nature of poverty. Poverty is absolutely about economic factors like income – which has a fundamental impact on what you can afford, and thus your standard of living. But it is also about the other factors that push people into and keep them in poverty, factors that are well beyond the control of any individual and impact at a much larger level – things like climate change, conflict and other drivers of fragility. Factors that affect different people differently based on their circumstances. To get the complete picture, and to ensure that we genuinely leave no one behind, we need to use an approach that considers poverty and vulnerability at the level of the country as well as the individual, and reflects the interaction between the two.
When we do that – evaluating countries at risk of being left behind not only based on poverty, but also human development and fragility – we can see just how common it is for countries to exhibit vulnerability in multiple areas. In a recent report, DI took just this approach and found a list of 30 countries being left behind; 27 of these are being left behind by two or more of the metrics above. What is more, the countries listed showed a number of common traits beyond their vulnerability: 21 are low-income countries, and 24 are in sub-Saharan Africa.
And there are other similarities. These are the same countries that often struggle to attract international financing, don’t receive as much ODA (directly and indirectly), don’t have the same levels of domestic public finance or the capacity to raise it, and need real investments in creating an enabling environment to make the most of private finance or attract businesses. These shared financing shortfalls stand in the way of poverty reduction and economic development; money alone will not solve the problem, but it will be a critical part of the solution.
While the challenge of reaching the people furthest behind appears at first to be a single one, therefore, it is at the same time a compound problem that must be approached at multiple levels. The reality is that some countries are simultaneously carrying the dual burden of internal and relative inequality – these are whole countries most likely to be left behind, where the achievement of the SDGs by 2030 is highly unlikely based on our current trajectory. There is cause to be hopeful, however, if we act now – research published in our report Investments to end Poverty 2018 shows how we need to change our approach to achieve that better and more optimistic future. Mobilising more and better finance targeted effectively at where it is needed most is vital to reach those people and places most a risk of being left behind but, perhaps most importantly, that will require us to mobilise political will and action.