Tackling Inequality in Human Development

by Walid Badawi and Rogers Dhliwayo

In 2005, Nelson Mandela gave his famous speech at the Make Poverty History rally in London’s Trafalgar Square, and called on world leaders to make poverty history. Mandela laid out some powerful points that still ring true today.
“Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breath-taking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”
“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

These two powerful points support the analysis of UNDP’s latest Human Development Report 2019, titled “Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: inequalities in human development in the 21st century.” which looks at inequalities in human development with a new lens. As its title suggest, it looks at:
Beyond income – at profound inequalities in human development – human capabilities especially health and education.
Beyond averages – to paint a more nuanced view of inequality as averages hide what is really going on in society.
Beyond today – at the potential effects on inequality of climate change and technology.

The report distinguishes between:
Basic capabilities – mainly elementary education and basic health, which are closely linked to extreme deprivation and poverty; and Enhanced capabilities, which capture dimensions of capabilities that go beyond immediate survival and basic education, and they evolve with circumstances, values and aspirations.

Enhanced capabilities – for instance tertiary education or life expectancy in older age – are generally more empowering and likely to be more important in the next decades.

The report points out that gaps in basic capabilities – such as child mortality and primary education are narrowing albeit slowly. In contrast, the report shows divergence in enhanced capabilities. In areas such as tertiary education, life expectancy at higher age or broadband connection, gaps between the most advantaged groups and those at the bottom of the distribution are increasing.

The odds are clearly stacked, in a wide range of ways, along gender, ethnic, linguistic, class and sexual orientation lines – to name but a few. Women represent the largest systematically disadvantaged group worldwide and are facing a serious headwind in preserving the hard-won gains to their empowerment. While significant progress has been made to reduce gender inequality in the 20th century, this progress has concentrated on basic capabilities (such as access to health and education, or the right to participate in the political system). By comparison, with enhanced capabilities – for instance leadership roles in politics and business – gender inequality seems to be much sticker due to deeply entrenched gender norms and power imbalances. A new “social norms index” in the report shows that in half of the countries assessed, gender bias has grown in recent years. About fifty per cent of people across 77 countries, said they thought men make better political leaders than women, while more than 40 per cent felt that men made better business executives.

Inequality is not inevitable, but it will only get harder to correct humanity’s current self-destructive trajectory. Climate change is an exemplary illustration of inequality in the twenty-first century. The United States is responsible for 26% of global cumulative greenhouse gases, and Europe is responsible for an additional 22%. In contrast, the entire continent of Africa contributes just 3.8% of greenhouse gas emissions. While high-income countries are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions, the climate crisis is already hitting the poorest communities in low-income countries the hardest and earliest. These are the same people that are also missing out on the opportunities needed to get ahead, like a university education. Even the most basic human needs are still not being met for many.

These statistics speak to just one of many pervasive and pernicious inequalities that exist in the world and are driving frustration and resentment. But with the scale and scope of the challenges mapped out, how do we respond?

For starters, a relatively low national income is no excuse for inaction. Countries with fewer resources at their disposal might take inspiration from Ethiopia, which has rolled out pre-primary education across the country, securing a double win through facilitating early childhood development and freeing up mothers’ time, so they can join the workforce if they choose. A wide range of countries with a broad assortment of health systems and incomes –ranging from Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Thailand, Vietnam and indeed here Kenya, have all worked to either create or expand their universal health coverage programmes.

Looking to expand opportunity and fight poverty, we are proud to say that UNDP interventions in Kenya help to address poverty, inequality and exclusion by supporting communities and government through innovative sustainable interventions for inclusive human development and economic growth through the Country Programme Document (CPD 2018-22) under three main priorities: (i) Governance, Peace and Security; (ii) Inclusive Growth and Structural Transformation; and (iii) Environmental Sustainability, Climate Change and Resilience. We are also excited to announce that we will leverage our SDGs integrator role to bring together other UN agencies – including UNICEF and FAO to design and facilitate relevant opportunities and platforms accessible to young people as key drivers for infusing innovative approaches and thinking in development through our Accelerator Lab which will focus on youth employment and empowerment.

Countries will not be able to beat inequality on their own. As with the climate crisis, collective action is an essential part of the solution. For example, international collaboration will be required to tackle tax evasion and prevent a race to the bottom on corporate taxes and environmental standards. Moreover, new standards need to be developed to make sure that new generations of digital firms make markets more efficient, satisfy labour regulations and pay their fair share of taxes.

On gender, policies should seek to change social norms and eliminate discrimination through education, awareness and changing incentives. And to ensure that everyone benefits from the latest technologies, UNDP hopes to see more measures like free broadband and electronic medical records to micro-target those left furthest behind.

Addressing the multiple dimensions of inequality must involve universal provisions of quality health services, access to tertiary education, well-paid work and retirement to look forward to. This should be supported by integrated, equalizing solutions that start early and span what one could argue are three key stages of a person’s life.

Walid Badawi is the UNDP Resident Representative to Kenya and Rogers Dhliwayo is the UNDP Economics Adviser to Kenya.

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