It’s Time to Resolve the Contradiction Undermining “Leave No One Behind”
NEW YORK—The intention to “leave no one behind” is one of the moral strengths of the international community, seeking to right instances of indifference and exclusion, past and present. The majority of those who invoke it do so with sincerity. Yet even the best-intentioned actors are constrained by contradictions inherent in the international order today—perhaps none more consequential than assumptions about the role of self-interest and competition in shaping policy and action.
Take a recent United Nations conference on digital technologies. Repeated calls for universal connectivity and access to beneficial technologies were a testament to widespread concern for the public good. At the same time, common sense in that space spoke primarily in the voice of strategic advantage—of out-producing, out-innovating, and out-competing others. The paradigm, in short, was one of competition between rivals. Playing out in the global arena, such a worldview gives rise to an ethic of competitive nationalism that seeks, by definition, not just to prosper or succeed, but to win.
The problem, of course, is that the framework of winning requires others to lose. And this orientation towards victory is fundamentally inconsistent with the goal of leaving no one behind.
Herein lies the contradiction that must be resolved. If the gulf between the high aspirations of the international community and the operating assumptions it embraces is to be bridged, leaders and policymakers will need to identify and apply foundational principles that are consistent with articulated rhetoric, thereby shaping policy and action.
In many cases, such principles are already present in the public narrative. The environmental discourse, for example, is characterized by wide agreement around ideals of sustainability, interdependence, and justice. Installing those values as the default, common-sense foundation for justifiable action, however, remains a formidable task.
Consider the national emissions pledges of the Paris climate agreement going unfulfilled or the coal-fired power plants continuing to be financed and constructed. The gap between rhetoric and action is problematic, of course. But the gap is itself a manifestation of a deeper reality: that the principles related to sustainability are not settled securely enough in the collective consciousness of the international community that they—and not other priorities—are what shape the choices and behaviors of nations.
Conceptual agreement around norms must today be parlayed into operational agreement. The aim is not complete unanimity of thought, but a working framework sufficient to advance the betterment of all.
How does such a framework arise? In part by recognizing the need for it and consulting on steps that might allow it to flourish. Raising principled action to a basic norm and expectation, creating institutional structures that foster constructive qualities and dampen corrosive ones, recognizing setbacks as an essential part of learning—the elements needed at any given point are numerous, and the task of translating them into action is not simple. But neither is it beyond the bounds of capable and determined statecraft. And leaders that commit themselves to such an effort will contribute much to making the goal of leaving no one behind a reality.
-- Daniel Perell, Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations
Originally published on the Baha'i International Community Site.