Who is missing?

With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 193 nations, all members of the United Nations, pledged to leave no one behind.

But it isn’t easy to “leave no one behind.”  People in poverty, for example, are almost always left behind in most global economic and social policy-making.  They have no place at the table and although others may speak for them to some degree, those trapped in poverty have little opportunity to use their own voice to shape the future.

The design of the 2030 Agenda is built around 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint touching many critical issues confronting humankind today.  Wonderful ideals like No Poverty (#1) and Zero Hunger (#2).  But the vast array of issues and goals is not complete.  Several important issues are not mentioned, at least not directly or explicitly.  Perhaps to ask for completeness in the face of so much that needs attention is to ask too much.

In any case, it is worth reflecting on four population groups that do not figure prominently in the Agenda.

THE HOMELESS: This population clearly needs attention.  Homelessness is on the rise, and will only increase due to glaring economic inequalities and increased migration.  SDG11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities mentions the homeless in its target “to ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services.”

Formerly seen only as a manifestation of poverty, homelessness is now a stand-alone issue at the UN thanks to the efforts of the Working Group to End Homelessness, founded by the Vincentian Family NGOs.  The WGEH worked tirelessly over three years to achieve a General Assembly Resolution that calls for direct attention to the issue as well as regular reports from the Secretary-General and from the General Assembly on its work to provide safe and sustainable housing for all.  Homelessness is not easy to erase, but promising strategies exist and must be pursued.  The FamVin Homeless Alliance and its “13 Houses Campaign” across 156 countries has already housed 10,000 formerly homeless.  In the US the Institute on Global Homelessness and Community Solutions, among others, are tackling the problem with notable success.

MIGRANTS, REFUGEES AND ASYLUM-SEEKERS: The global movement of peoples is an especially thorny problem.  Although freedom of movement is a recognized right the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 13 and 14), masses of people on the move, whether forced migration due to war and persecution or climate-induced migration, pose a serious problem for transit and destination countries at their borders and in settlement areas.  Often receiving countries simply do not have the resources to accommodate the arriving numbers, unable to provide jobs, healthcare and education to enable a decent life for so many sudden arrivals.

To be fair, migration does surface in SDG #10 Reduced Inequalities under its target 10.7 “responsible and well managed migration policies” and also under climate-related SDG references.  Migrants are also mentioned in SDG 8 on Decent Work and Economic Growth, recognizing that the denial of employment to migrants forces them into the informal economy and robs the receiving country of the skills and labor that newcomers can provide.

But in fact the world is very far from uniform and fair migration policy, and in too many place internationally accepted norms such as the global right to seek asylum are routinely ignored.  One horrific consequence, among others, is that the lack of good policy implementation allows the spread of human trafficking.  The rise of xenophobia and racism has led to harsh government policy and the inability to honor agreements like the Global Compact on Migration.

PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.3 billion people (16% of the population) experience significant disability. Despite the immense prevalence of disability globally, it remains an immensely marginalized and under-discussed community. To the credit of the United Nations, several SDGs specifically mention disability within their indicators.

Disability is not a simple issue, nor could it be contained to a single SDG, as it can impact every facet of life from healthcare to housing to education. Empowering those living with a disability and fully including them in society requires a multi-faceted response, and no one program or organization alone can dismantle the barriers those living with a disability face in society today. To adequately address disability in sustainable development, the United Nations and fellow NGOs across all sectors must integrate disability within their current programming.

Most importantly, people with disabilities need a seat at the table and a platform to express their experiences and needs. No organization or entity can provide the same level of insight as someone with lived experience. As we look towards 2030, the United Nations must commit to more explicitly outlining the needs of the disability community within sustainable development indicators, uplifting the voices of people with lived experience, and de-stigmatizing disability.

THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY: Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is illegal in over 60 countries and over 10 have laws authorizing the death penalty to be used against the queer community in certain instances. Despite the rejection, danger, and stigma the LGBTQ+ community faces, even in nations where same sex marriage is legal, this community is not explicitly protected in the SDGs.

Anti-LGBTQ laws that violate basic human dignities continue to be passed and enforced worldwide. The UN, NGOs, and individuals must unite to confront homophobia and the detrimental consequences it can have on society. As the UN looks to 2030 and beyond, the human rights of the queer community must be explicitly highlighted and protected through policy and action.

Even with the queer community being a divisive issue in many nations, everyone is entitled to live a happy, healthy, and safe life. As Pope Francis has stated, it is essential that the dignity of everyone is recognized and honored, regardless of their sexuality.  This will not be easy, but a difference in beliefs does not warrant the right to violate someone’s dignity and human rights.

In closing, the UN’s 2030 Agenda is a remarkable set of goals capable of ushering in a vastly improved world for people and the planet, our common home.  No one should be left behind, and some especially vulnerable communities need explicit attention.


Grace D. Bagdon
Assistant UN NGO Representative of the CM

Jim Claffey
Main UN NGO Representative of the CM