Why listen to and support the most vulnerable?

(Article originally published here)

Four reasons why the voices of the most vulnerable must be heard and prioritised if we are to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals leave no one behind.


The declaration for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pledges that no one will be left behind on the collective journey to end poverty, eradicate hunger and combat inequalities.

As such, it demands that special attention is paid to the world’s most vulnerable communities, to those who are most at risk from changes to the climate and wider environment. But it is not enough to just focus on the needs of the vulnerable.

This blog argues that there are logical, practical, economic and moral reasons why the poorest and most vulnerable must be actively involved and their needs must be prioritised.

Four reasons

  1. It is, first and foremost, logical to involve the people affected in decisions about their lives. Working with the most vulnerable and supporting their proposed solutions can increase the effectiveness of initiatives by ensuring interventions are appropriate for the local context and needs.

    Adapting agricultural production to climate change, for example, involves helping farmers to find appropriate local solutions that allow each farmer to increase productivity using less water. This ensures that the solutions meet farmers’ needs.

    And this logic should extend to include children and young people, who have the most at stake in a changed climate: it’s their future and they are tomorrow’s leaders. Involving children and young people at an early stage will help to internalise actions, which means less investment to engage with them as adults.

  2. Supporting locally-conceived solutions is also a practical approach. It will improve buy-in for actions, meaning that solutions are more likely to last. Such approaches capitalise on the energy, skills, knowledge and enthusiasm of those at risk.

    As the IPCC has recognised, indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices can be a major resource when it comes to adapting to climate change. Integrating this knowledge into approaches to adaptation canincrease capacity and reduce vulnerability.

    Indigenous peoples have developed thousands of robust crop varieties and livestock breeds which communities around the world are now turning to in order to cope with climate change (as shown in Kenya, China, Peru andIndia).

  3. There is also an economic reason. Research by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) shows that a more equal world is better for all its inhabitants.

    NEF argues that rising inequality is not even making the ‘haves’ happier, and that “a more equal world by 2030 would dramatically reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty, and better brace us to mitigate and adapt to environmental shocks“.

    Solutions that address the needs of just one section of society are very likely to break down if other sections are excluded. Take the Kenyan economy for example – the entire country suffers due to persistent poverty and vulnerability to drought, particularly in the drylands. This slows economic growth by 2.8 per cent per year (PDF), and creates periodic economic shocks, contributing to ongoing national and international security issues.

    Failing to address the needs of the poorest will have increasing economic implications. Working with the poorest communities to find ways out of poverty (as for example with forest farmers in Vietnam) can provide a win-win solution.

  4. There is also a strong moral argument for supporting the poor. nThe United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states that “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is integral to the full enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food, water and sanitation“.

    Poor people have contributed least to the problem of climate change given their minimal greenhouse gas emissions, and yet they are shouldering the bulk of its negative impacts.

    So far the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations have largely focused on equity between countries, with the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the LDC Group particularly vocal on these issues, but equity within countries also needs to be addressed. This means prioritising support for vulnerable communities.

Put simply, poor people usually suffer the most from environmental change. They are frequently unable to cope with current climatic (and other) shocks, let alone any future risks, due to a lack of resources and appropriate support, and because of political and economic marginalisation.

Their perspectives must be listened to, properly understood and acted on. 

Written by: Dr. Hannah Reid, Research Associate, Climate Change and Biodiversity Group, IIED