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SDGs: Leaving No One Behind?

SDGs: Leaving No One Behind?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set out a bold new agenda: leave no one behind. Much has been written about how donor priorities and development practice needs to significantly shift to meet the ambitious goals. In a recent article, Alec Thornton and I inquired into the extent to which development studies research, and the community of researchers contributing to it, are also shifting to leave no one behind.

Many have shown that development activity and development research is not done equally, nor is it done based on greatest need. We focused on geography and found that inequality continues. Some nations receive far more research attention than others. Sometimes there are good reasons for this – such as security and large population, for example. In other cases, there are less than ideal reasons (colonial history, political ties, business linkages, language). The problem is that in this process, some nations are being left behind. And, it is concerning that many of these nations are those most in need of development research to support evidence-based development activity, such as in Yemen.

Rather than focus on the negative, however, we view the SDGs as an opportunity. A time for critical self-reflection. We know that inequalities exist, but what ought the development studies research community do? Simply pointing inequalities out does not address the problem – inequalities of development funding and activity were highlighted by Alesina and Dollar nearly two decades ago. Yet, these continue. Criticism is good, but it is time for action.

First and foremost, we need to view ourselves as part of the system that requires transformation. Our own choices and biases contribute to prioritization and marginalization. Understanding why geographic trends occur is important, but we feel what is more important is creativity and innovation are finding ways to proactively change the way we conduct research. We, as researchers, have the opportunity to support the SDGs and the ‘leave no one behind’ agenda, if we heed the call to ensure our research contributes to inclusion and equity.

We do not have all the answers. But, we present some ideas. Universities, departments, supervisors, and mentors could view the knowledge gaps as potential areas to become, or encourage new, thought leaders. Contributions to these neglected areas may have a significant impact, much greater than in those heavily covered terrains. Emerging scholars and graduate students may be directed into these spaces. Journals and editors may view this as an opportunity as well: special issues or re-visiting scope, which may break conceptual constraints about what should, or should not, be included in development studies publications. Attention might be paid to what we need to know, in addition to systematically reviewing what we do know. Conferences may host special sessions on neglected geographic regions or topics.

The conversation about geographic priorities and marginalization in development research is about introspection and encouraging new ways of working. Like development activity, research requires transformation, lest we further entrench inequalities. In order to leave no one behind, a foundation of knowledge is needed to support evidence-based decision making. The SDGs challenge researchers to experiment with and explore diverse ways of meeting the demands of this bold new global agenda. We look forward to seeing how your ideas help us do just that.

Featured image: From the European Development Days (EDD) highlighting how to achieve Sustainable Development Goals in 2030 by young people (credit:

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