Compared to 20 years ago, the world’s poorest are doing far better. But millions of people are still anxious about their present conditions and future prospects; and they’re taking to the streets in Hong Kong, Chile, Haiti and around the world to air their grievances. The problem? Inequality, according to the 2019 Human Development Report, published Monday by the UN Development Program (UNDP) – and not just income inequality.
“Different triggers are bringing people onto the streets – the cost of a train ticket, the price of fuel, demands for political freedoms, the pursuit of fairness and justice,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said in a press release. “This is the new face of inequality, and as this Human Development Report sets out, inequality is not beyond solutions.”
For decades, the global development community has worked tirelessly to reduce “extreme deprivations” in the world, according to the report. Things like the number of people living on less than $2 a day, life expectancy at birth and primary education enrollment have improved dramatically. Although these are noteworthy achievements, just making it to these minimum levels of human development is no longer enough, the report says.
Today, in order for people to “own the narrative of their lives,” the report says it is just as important for them to have access to quality health care at all levels, to have quality education at all levels, to be resilient against shocks – climate and otherwise – and to have reliable access to current technologies like the internet. Without these capabilities, too many people are unable to exercise their “freedoms to be and do what they aspire to in life” because of deep inequalities that begin at birth and accumulate throughout their lifetimes.
To demonstrate, the report outlines the vastly different outcomes of two children both born in 2000. One of the children “won the birth lottery” and was born in a very high human development country – like Norway, Germany or Iceland, for example. The other was born in a low human development country, like Sierra Leone, South Sudan or the Central African Republic. In 2020, the first child will have more than a 50 percent chance of being enrolled in a university, but there’s a 17 percent chance the second child won’t even be alive. If the second child does live to his 20th birthday, there’s only a 3 percent chance he’ll be in higher education.
In very high human development countries, the percentage of adults with a post-high school-level education is increasing six times faster than in low human development countries. Fixed broadband subscriptions for internet are also increasing 15 times faster in very high human development countries than in low human development countries.
Every year, the UNDP report includes the latest Human Development Index, which ranks countries based on their average life expectancy, education and per capita income.
This year, Norway topped the index, followed by Switzerland, Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong. At the bottom of the index is Niger.
But even the report says that these averages oversimplify the global picture. To account for inequalities that exist within countries, the UNDP has published an annual Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index since 2010. But to really assess and respond to inequalities, the report says we need more data and a “revolution” in how we measure inequality. That’s why this year’s report also includes a transparency index regarding inequality statistics.
“Even though everyone is concerned about inequality, not all governments are providing enough information about it,” says Thomas Piketty, the French economist famous for his work on inequality and co-director at the World Inequality Lab. “In fact, what this transparency index is showing is that we simply do not have enough data. We need relevant information for a meaningful debate.”
Complete and new data – beyond gross domestic product – is especially important as inequality continues to evolve with climate change and technological advancements. And there is no silver bullet solution, the report warns, though tackling the problem is possible. Depending on the country, solutions may include policies that reduce certain groups’ disproportionate influence in politics, antitrust measures that promote competition, addressing social norms that hinder equality, putting a price on carbon emissions and redistributive tax policies.
Although the political debates to determine which solutions are best for each country will no doubt be difficult, the report urges action now. Otherwise, inaction may quickly turn protests into economic, social and political turmoil.