Exploring the Sustainable Development Goals
Reducing Inequality and Remembering the Forgotten
By Allison Kooser
Originally published in 2017. Updated in 2021.
“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
– Mother Teresa
Throughout the years, we have explored the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—a series of metrics designed to address and tackle some of the biggest global challenges related to economic poverty, hunger, education, justice, inequality, and more. (Just joining the conversation? Welcome! You can read our older pieces here.)
As of 2020, 9.2 percent of the world’s population—689 million people—lived on less than $1.90/day. We have learned that 10.7 percent of the world’s population—767 million people—live on less than $1.90 a day.1 That nearly 800 million people are undernourished.2 That millions of children die before their fifth birthdays from preventable conditions because they can’t access adequate health care,3 and that hundreds of millions of children that do survive early childhood face uncertain futures because they are unable to go to school.4
We have seen the world face immeasurable challenges, but we have also seen it make significant strides against poverty over the last few decades. While progress is slow, it is progress nonetheless.
We’ve talked about poverty alleviation on a global level, framing goals as international mileposts and working collectively to achieve them.
But there is another way to see poverty—less as an international standard and more as a national movement toward development. This lens—one that looks at inequalities not only on a global level, but on a local level as well—led the UN to add Sustainable Development Goal 10 to their list of indicators:
“Reduce inequality within and among countries.”5
Because it is not just the poorest countries that need to make progress, it is also the poorest within every country. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Within countries, there are significant discrepancies between the richest and poorest, and even between the poor and the ultra-poor.
As the UN describes it, “While income inequality between countries may have been reduced, inequality within countries has risen. There is growing consensus that economic growth is not sufficient to reduce poverty if it is not inclusive and if it does not involve the three dimensions of sustainable development—economic, social, and environmental. To reduce inequality, policies should be universal in principle paying attention to the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized populations.”6
The UN directs us to pay special attention to the bottom 40 percent of the population of any given country, with a particular goal to “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 percent of the population at a rate higher than the national average.”7
This 40 percent indicator is a significant one—even close to home. Researchers on wealth disparity in the United States calculate that “the bottom 40 percent [of Americans] actually has an overall negative net worth, which means that they owe more money than they own—and they probably owe that money to somebody in the top five or 10 percent.”8
But while the bottom 40 percent in the US may reach this status of negative net worth because of student loans or a brand-new mortgage, the bottom 40 percent in countries that are already underdeveloped are the most at-risk populations in the world.
This subset of people is even more isolated, impoverished, and in need. These people, often considered “destitute,” are the poorest of the poor—the ones who face the many facets of poverty, including lack of water and sanitation, discrimination, hunger and malnutrition, lack of education, and injustice—more often than anyone else.9
This bottom 40 percent are the marginalized, the ignored, the forgotten.
As we craft careful narratives about poverty alleviation and economic progress, we regularly leave people out of the story.
We, as a global community, forget that certain populations face increased risk, frequent abuse and neglect, and compounded pain and suffering. We forget to address the unique needs of certain groups of people. And too often, we forget these people altogether.
While income inequality between countries may have been reduced, inequality within countries has risen.The UN
Groups like those with disabilities, those with chronic illness, widows, and those who are geographically isolated not only face every challenge of poverty but also face these challenges through their unique position in society—a position that makes every hurdle even more severe.
They are left on the margins, outside of our poverty narrative, and underserved.
It is why the UN was careful to include the metric: “Empower and promote the social, economic, and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status”10 in their detailed framework of SDG 10.
Fighting for the inclusion of these groups means first recognizing that they are excluded. Fighting for equality means remembering that even poverty isn’t equal. Some people are not only marginalized, but more marginalized. Not only at risk, but at more risk.
They are forgotten.
Poverty and disability exist in a dangerous, cyclical relationship: poverty can increase the risk of disability “through malnutrition, inadequate access to education and health care, unsafe working conditions, a polluted environment, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation,” and disability can increase the risk of poverty “through lack of employment and education opportunities, lower wages, and increased cost of living with a disability.”11
Even here in the United States, people with disabilities “have among the highest poverty rates, lowest educational levels, lowest average incomes, and highest out-of-pocket expenses of all population groups.”12
And these risks are even more severe for those who are already marginalized. For example, "Worldwide, women with disabilities have a 19.6 percent employment rate, compared with 52.8 percent for men with disabilities."13
Globally, the World Bank estimates that 20 percent of the world’s poorest people have some kind of disability, compounding their disadvantaged position in their communities.
It is bad enough when people with disabilities are forgotten and ignored; it is even worse when they are taken advantage of and abused. For example, in 2018, the UNFPA reported that girls with disabilities face up to ten times more gender-based violence than girls without disabilities.14
They are at such high risk because they often cannot defend themselves fully—they depend on others for support. Too often, we in the development community remove them from our narrative, cutting them off from the healthy partnerships they need.
A Story of Response
While visiting clients in the Dominican Republic, our partners at Opportunity Canada noticed a troubling trend. While EduFinance programs were making education more accessible to students living in extreme poverty, these schools were not equipped to educate children with disabilities.
In response, Opportunity Canada developed a pilot program known as “The Least of These Pilot Project (LOT)” designed to provide “access and inclusion solutions for children and youth with disabilities, with a larger view to always consider and include the parents and caregivers.”15
Through the program, our partners come alongside families raising children with special needs, helping them send their children to school. For these families—many of whom have faced years of discrimination and abuse because of their children’s conditions—these partnerships are life-changing.
They are giving their children a newfound hope for the future.
Much like disability, chronic diseases and poverty are interconnected in a vicious cycle. According to the WHO, “It is the poorest people who are most at risk of developing chronic diseases and dying prematurely from them.”16 On the flip side, “Poverty and worsening of already existing poverty are also caused by chronic disease.”17
Those suffering from diseases that carry a social stigma like HIV/AIDS and leprosy are not only at increased risk of poverty, but can also be ostracized, discriminated against, and separated from any network of support.
They are often ignored and forgotten, left to handle not only their illnesses, but the many secondary consequences that arise when such ailments are left untreated.
Stories of Response
Jhunu and Minati live on the margins.
As residents of a leper colony in India, they were ostracized and forgotten, forced to beg on the streets in order to feed their families.
But when Opportunity International met them, we saw people instead of problems. We recognized Jhunu and Minati’s status and still chose to partner with them. These women received loans and financial training, and now operate a successful rope-making business. They are able to work with dignity, earn a living, and support their families. They still face countless challenges, but now they are not alone.
Meanwhile, in Uganda, Rosemary Namande experienced trauma first hand because of HIV/AIDS. Her daughter, two siblings, and nephew died from AIDS, leaving their collective 11 children without parents. Rosemary adopted these kids, and that was just the beginning.
With support from Opportunity, she began expanding her small school into a thriving educational complex. Now, she has multiple permanent buildings, an orphanage, an elementary school, and more than 900 children under her care and supervision.
Because of her personal experience with HIV/AIDS, she pays special attention to children with HIV and AIDS, welcoming them, including them, caring for them, and giving them hope for their futures. She makes it possible for students with HIV to receive treatment at the school, and provides them with the same education as their peers. Because of Rosemary, they aren’t ignored or excluded anymore.
In communities where women don’t have a voice, economic autonomy, or decision-making power, being a widow can be extremely difficult. Without a husband to advocate on her behalf, earn an income, or contribute to the family’s wellbeing; a widow is left to carve her own path in male-dominated societies. As we have seen around the world, women often remain excluded from education, the formal economy, and banking. They often stay at home raising children while their husbands work, meaning that they may have to find work for the first time if they become widowed.
Across a wide range of cultures, “widows are subject to patriarchal customary and religious laws and confront discrimination in inheritance rights. Many of these widows suffer abuse and exploitation…Few cases proceed successfully through the justice system, perpetrators go unpunished…Even in countries where legal protection is more inclusive, widows suffer from the loss of social status and marginalization.”18
In certain parts of the world, there are people who not only experience exclusion, but are defined by it.
Widowhood for women in the developing world is not a particularly unique experience. According to the World Bank, “One in 10 African women ages 15 and older are widows…72% [of these women] are heads of the family.”19 Yet despite this prevalence, widows fall squarely into our group of forgotten and ignored populations. The UN reports that “there is no group more affected by the sin of omission than widows. They are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries, and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women’s poverty, development, health, or human rights.”20
Stories of Response
When Beathe Iribagiza lost her husband, two children, and all of her siblings during the genocide in Rwanda, she thought her life was over. She was alone, disabled, and left with two surviving children to raise on her own. Because of her injuries, she was unable to stand for long periods of time, and she only had three years of technical education. She didn’t know what she could do to earn a living.
When Beathe met Opportunity, she found the partner she needed. Where others saw a widow struggling to survive, Opportunity saw possibility. We provided Beathe with a loan, and since then have watched her go from a grieving single mom to a thriving businesswoman. She built a small jewelry business; creating beads from recycled paper. And thanks to her talent and determination, Beathe has turned this small enterprise into a company that employs dozens of women in her community.
In certain parts of the world, there are people who not only experience exclusion, but are also defined by it.
In Colombia, those who have been forced out of their homes due to violence and instability caused by the decades-long civil war are similarly excluded—from the formal economy, from the jobs they once held, and from everything they’ve ever known. They are forced to build new lives in unfamiliar places, without the support of a family or personal network. They need network or support, but the internal violence has left them broken and alone.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines and all around the world, many women and men live in ultra-poverty—a condition defined as the bottom half of those living in extreme poverty. It is the most difficult form of poverty for families to overcome, and they are often referred to as the “invisible poor.” They are left behind—perhaps not physically, but systematically—without access to land, education, food, or healthcare. They cannot make progress because they cannot find work. Without work, they are unable to earn a living and support their families. They are left behind and cannot progress in life.
Around the world, many women and men live in ultra-poverty—a condition defined as the bottom half of those living in extreme poverty.
And in China, those who don’t make the migration to large urban centers are named by their excluded status—they are literally known as the “Left Behind.”
An estimated “61 million children are left behind in rural areas by their migrant worker parents,”19 and over 9 million children in rural China are not living with either parent.21 These children are left to be raised by grandparents or grow up in school dormitories. About “a third of the left-behind children—20 million—will get involved in crime, while another third will need time in mental health institutions, according to Christian Charity International.”20 They are at higher risk of abuse, suicide, and mental health issues, and they suffer from more behavioral challenges than their contemporaries.22 This group of people has physically been left in the margins—a perfect illustration of the discrepancies that exist within countries when we think about poverty and development.as physically been left in the margins—a perfect illustration of the discrepancies that exist within countries when we think about poverty and development.
When we look at the developmental success of China’s big cities, we forget to count the cost it has taken to achieve such remarkable growth. The adults who are building the impressive urban centers and earning their livings in these economic hubs have often left their families behind. The economic growth was made possible by the 340 million people who moved from rural to urban areas—arguably the greatest migration event in human history.23 But because of a household registration system known as the “hukou” system, children can only access health care, education, and other welfare in their home villages—so families leave them at home, often with a relative or grandparent, but sometimes all alone.24 Some 360,000 children in China are thought to be living by themselves without a caretaker.25
These children—and the grandparents that raise them—are literally left behind. For their parents, this leaving behind is done with heavy hearts and the best intentions, but for the rest of us, they are simply forgotten.
Stories of Response
In Colombia, Opportunity has worked tirelessly to support and encourage those displaced by violence, helping them rebuild, restart, and reconnect. By funding small and medium enterprises (SMEs), we are creating jobs for even the most remote and unconnected people. For those that aren’t natural born entrepreneurs, SMEs are a source of job creation and possibility. As they grow, they create more opportunities for more people, connecting excluded women and men to the economy, the future, and each other.
On the other side of the world, people who are living in ultra-poverty in the Philippines were falling through the cracks of poverty alleviation programs, including microfinance, without a safety net to catch them. They were left behind, excluded from the very systems that were designed to serve their needs and address their conditions.
In response, Opportunity has begun a pilot poverty graduation program called LIFE (Livelihoods for the Extreme Poor). Through this program, Opportunity is working with 600 ultra-poor households in the Philippines, providing them with hands-on support as they gradually improve their skills, incomes, and livelihoods, and build foundations to live healthier and more economically secure lives.
Opportunity China works in the northern part of Jiangsu province, a rural region that is remarkably different from the more affluent southern section. In this community full of left-behind children, women, and seniors, Opportunity is working to bring economic development to the Chinese countryside.
We are investing in small and medium-sized enterprises based in these rural communities so that parents can find work at home instead of migrating to the cities. In addition, we work with school proprietors to create safe, high-quality educational facilities for left-behind children. To date, Opportunity has impacted over 20,800 jobs in rural China.
Ge Fei is one of these entrepreneurs who is transforming rural China. When he returned to his home village to get married, he was shocked to see the huge numbers of left behind women and children. He decided to serve his neighbors by starting a slipper business in this rural community.
With support from Opportunity, he was able to purchase much-needed machinery and a workshop, and his small business began to grow. Now, he employs 30 left-behind women from the local community.
With a job, women can stay in their home villages and live with their children. And as these businesses continue to grow, it will be easier over time for families to remain intact—freeing millions of children from their status of “left behind.”
We at Opportunity are committed to paying attention, to seek out the forgotten and ensure that our products and services serve their needs as well.
Sometimes, that means developing unique and tailored tools, and sometimes it means simply willingly entering into a community that few others want to visit. It means a commitment to that bottom 40 percent that bears the brunt of unequal wealth distribution.
It means making friends, building relationships, and recognizing our shared humanity. It means working boldly, without fear. It means fighting for equality for all people.
Allison is a professional storyteller, freelance writer, and avid traveler. She spent the last year backpacking around the world meeting and interviewing incredible people with remarkable stories, eating amazing food, and climbing very scary mountains. Now, she lives in Chicago where she runs a small business helping nonprofit organizations identify, create, and share their stories, equipping them to better do the work they were born to do. When she's not working, you can usually find her reading a book, planning her next trip, or baking the best cookies on the planet.
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