“We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”

These words are in the preamble of the Sustainable Development Goals, a global to-do list that 193 world leaders adopted at the United Nations in 2015 to end extreme poverty, reduce inequalities, and protect the environment.

The phrase, “no one left behind,” appears throughout the text and is the theme of the first-annual High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which is the UN’s central platform for follow-up and review of the global goals.

So what does “no one left behind” mean, and why is it important? We talked to Mara van Loggerenberg, the UN Foundation’s Senior Manager of Policy Initiatives, for answers.

What does “no one left behind” mean in context of the Sustainable Development Goals?

The pledge to leave no one behind is embedded at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals. It means that the international community has agreed to make a concerted effort to identify and lift up those who are furthest behind first. This means targeting the most vulnerable people who societies so often miss: from youth, and especially girls; to refugees and migrants; to rural farmers and indigenous populations – and so many others living on the margins of society.

It’s about giving voice to those who are furthest behind, but who stand to gain the most as we embark on implementing this ambitious agenda over the next 15 years.

Why is the emphasis on leaving no one behind significant?

It’s significant because it means we have learned a key lesson from the Millennium Development Goals. While they were successful in many ways, it turned out that most countries measured progress in averages – which means that we were leaving out core segments of society. For example, while the world made important progress in reducing poverty overall, often the poorest and most disadvantaged populations, such as adolescent girls in rural communities who face gender discrimination and geographic barriers, did not share in that progress.

This time around, governments have pledged to leave no one behind, which means working toward shared progress – so that progress does not only benefit those near the top of society, but also those who are so often on the margins. It’s taking a bottom up approach to development, which has not been the norm.

Making sure everyone has opportunity and dignity is the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do if we really want to create a more peaceful, prosperous, secure world for all.

What does success look like?

There is a quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that says: “ A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” I think that is how we measure success: How are we treating those furthest behind?

Success means better, more prosperous, and more sustainable livelihoods for all segments of society. It means ensuring quality access to education and health care – including for girls. It means accounting for those who live in rural areas when designing plans for community services. It means investing in sustainable cities and sustainable agriculture.

At the core, it is about shared prosperity for all – not just those who are the most visible in society. And if we are to be truly successful in achieving the scale and ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals, then we need to ensure we’re leaving no one behind when it comes to creating solutions too. Everyone has a role to play in implementing the global goals; it is not only an agenda for the UN or for governments, but for us all.

What are some steps that international community needs to take to make sure no one is left behind?

To leave no one behind, we’ll need to start with more and better data. Because to even know who the most vulnerable are, we first need to know where they live and what their needs are. This means investing early in countries’ data and statistical capacities, as well as finding more innovative ways to draw on non-traditional sources of data. After all, how can we expect governments to come and report on progress on the global stage if they don’t have the systems in place that enable them to report meaningfully?

The data revolution that so many different stakeholders are working toward – from non-governmental organizations to think tanks to governments and businesses – is a promising opportunity for getting us there. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, hosted at the UN Foundation, is working to harness the data revolution for sustainable development.

We also need policies and programs that focus on reaching vulnerable populations. For example, populations in fragile states and areas affected by conflict and disaster need special attention to make sure their needs, from health care to food to education, are met.

And we need more innovative ways of reaching people than before. Millions more people know about the Sustainable Development Goals than the previous set of goals – so we already have a head start. Now we must find more innovative ways to harness this awareness so that people can become part of the solutions. There is a critical role, not just for governments, but for advocates to help create positive pressure, for think tanks to provide good policy solutions, and for the private sector to bring creativity and assets – both financial and non-financial. We all have a role to play.

How can individuals get involved in creating a world where no one is left behind?

There are a number of ways individuals can help achieve the global goals: Raise awareness by talking to your friends and family. Get involved in an issue you care about. Make sure your leaders know that the goals matter to you. And check out MYWorld 2030.

When the Sustainable Development Goals were being developed, the UN asked citizens around the world to vote for the top priorities that would make a difference in their lives. With the goals now agreed, the next phase is for citizens to monitor and share perspectives on whether they are seeing progress in their local communities. Understanding, of course, that transformation takes time and these changes won’t happen overnight, MyWorld 2030 is about continuing the spirit of citizen engagement that shaped the global goals and allowing people to report on whether they see their circumstances improving, for example, in terms of access to health care or education, or their perceptions of safety and justice.

The goal is to help provide insight into the key question: Are we moving in the right direction? And if not, what needs to change now so that we are on a better path as we head to 2030?

The good news is that we’re already asking these questions today, in 2016, and not waiting until 2029 to find out whether our approaches are working. It’s about taking risks, daring to ask the question of whether or not a particular policy solution is working, and learning from that experience.

[Photo: UN Photo/S. Santimano]