Unfair and Unequal
New UNDP report sheds light on discontent across the globe
The demonstrations sweeping across many cities in the world signal that, despite decades of economic growth and prosperity, perceptions of unfairness and loss of dignity persist, particularly among the middle class and historically marginalized populations.
So argues the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its 2019 Human Development Report, entitled “Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: inequalities in human development in the 21st century.”
The Human Development Report (HDR), which pioneers a more holistic way to measure countries’ progress beyond economic growth alone, says that just as the gap in basic living standards is narrowing, with an unprecedented number of people escaping poverty, hunger, and disease, the necessities to thrive have evolved. The next generation of inequalities is manifesting around issues of technology, education, and the climate crisis.
“Different triggers are bringing people onto the streets -- the cost of a train ticket, the price of petrol, demands for political freedoms, the pursuit of fairness and justice. This is the new face of inequality, and as this Human Development Report sets out, inequality is not beyond solutions,” says UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner.
The report notes that in Latin America and the Caribbean, the perception of unfairness in the distribution of wealth has increased since 2012, returning to levels of the late 1990s. Inequality in self-reported happiness (or subjective well-being as it is also called), which had remained steady in the region until 2014, has risen since.
The report analyzes inequality in three steps: beyond income, beyond averages, and beyond today, proposing a battery of policy options to tackle it.
A history of exclusion and the search for dignity
The report shows that while women have higher life expectancy at birth and more years of schooling – for example, in Barbados female mean years of schooling is 10.9 years and males’ is 8.2 years – they have lower labour force participation rates than men. When they do participate, females still earn less than their male counterparts, generating the well-known gender pay gap.
“We are riding the crest of the inequality wave”, says Magdy Martinez Soliman, UNDP’s Resident Representative for Barbados and the OECS. “…inequalities linked to climate change, gender and violence among other factors, and the old sources of inequality (ethnicity and parents’ wealth) determine a person’s place in society no matter how hard they work and how smart they are.”
According to the HDR, many group-based inequalities in Latin America and the Caribbean have roots in colonial times.
“Inequality is typically associated with patterns of economic, social, and political exclusion. As such, independently of its normative importance, it leads to significant social and economic costs for society,” says UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Luis Felipe López Calva.
However, action is not politically easy. The report presents evidence that throughout the region, the middle class pays more than it receives in social services. That, coupled with perceptions of low-quality education and health services, can feed resistance to further expanding social policies. One consequence is the preference for private providers: The share of students going to private schools for primary education in the region rose from 12 percent in 1990 to 19 percent in 2014. The larger the unbalance of the shares of the public and private sectors, the larger the segmentation in social services for different groups.
New drivers of development outcomes
The report identifies technology and climate change as two forces that seem set to shape human development outcomes into the next century. Here again, the region shows both progress and enduring challenges. As the report makes clear, the Caribbean remains exceptionally vulnerable to climate change. In the Bahamas in 2019, Hurricane Dorian was the strongest to strike the country since recordkeeping began in 1851. The communities hardest hit included towns populated mostly by poor Haitian immigrants, some of whom had fled the devastating 2010 earthquake in their home country. Dangerous climate hazards add to social inequality.
Of the Caribbean Nations, Barbados ranks first of the region, occupying the 56th place, Bahamas is second in the 60th, Trinidad and Tobago third and 63rd while Dominica, hurt by successive waves of catastrophic floods and hurricanes, closes the Eastern Caribbean group still making it into the top 100 of the world, in 98th place. Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda sit in 73rd and 74th rows respectively. Saint Lucia is 89th while Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is 94th of the planet. All inscribe their societies into the High Human Development group.
Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today
The report recommends policies that look at but also go beyond income, anchored in lifespan interventions starting even before birth, including through pre-labor market investments in young children’s learning, health, and nutrition. Such investments must continue through a person’s life when they are earning in the labour market and after.
And it argues that progressive taxation, while necessary to finance equality, cannot be looked at on its own, but must be part of a system of policies, including for public spending on health, education, and alternatives to a carbon-intensive lifestyle. Averages hide what is really going on in society, says the HDR, and while they can be helpful in telling a larger story, much more detailed information is needed to create policies to tackle inequality effectively.
Looking beyond today, the report asks how inequality may change in the future, particularly through the lens of climate change and technological transformation.