Leave No One Behind: Positive Universalism

Leave No One Behind: Positive Universalism

Leave no one behind (LNOB) is the central, transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A major cause of people being left behind is persistent forms of discrimination, including gender discrimination, which leaves individuals, families and whole communities marginalised and excluded. LNOB has become one of the UN’s normative standards and a foundational principle of the Charter of the United Nations, international human rights law and national legal systems across the world.

All UN Member States have pledged to Leave No One Behind, which encompasses the commitment to end discrimination, exclusion and poverty and to reduce inequalities and vulnerabilities that leave people behind. LNOB focuses on ending extreme poverty and on reducing inequalities among both individuals (vertical) and groups (horizontal). The solution chosen to attain these goals lies in the prioritisation and fast-tracking of actions aimed to help the poorest and most marginalised people and groups. This approach is known as progressive universalism. If policies only target the most affluent groups at the detriment of the less affluent, the gap between these groups may increase.


The LNOB pledge runs across all of the 17 SDGs established by the UN in 2015. For example, Sustainable Development Goal 1 calls for “no poverty. Combining this goal with the LNOB principle means countries should aim both to attain minimum living standards for all as well as to close gaps between groups.

SDG 3 calls for healthy lives for all at all ages, positioning equity as a core cross-cutting theme, while SDG 10 calls for the reduction of inequality within and between countries. Health equity is also a key consideration with regards to universal health coverage, which is both central to the health goal and founded on the principle of equal access to health services without risk of financial hardship.


A movement towards health equity depends, at least in part, on strong health information systems that collect, analyse and report disaggregated data covering all health areas. This is recognised in SDG Target 17.18, which calls for efforts to build capacity to enable data disaggregation by a number of stratifying factors, including income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts. The proposed indicator for tracking progress towards this target is the proportion of sustainable development indicators with full disaggregation produced at the national level.

However, data is an important element to many SDG Targets. The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) assesses half of the targets to yield data directly relevant for monitoring specific human rights instruments, notably health equity. A general challenge, according to DIHR, is the limited data availability and low capacity for data collection in many countries. Data disaggregation is the main approach suggested to monitor the situation of different population groups in the context of the SDGs. By building a pluralistic ecosystem of data, it is possible to close some of the data gaps, suggests DIHR.  Such systems integrate a diversity of complementary data sources. Open data, which is freely available online for anyone to use and republish to any purpose, is also critically important to achieving the SDGs and to track progress towards achieving them.

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