Our Perspective

January 2014

A joint endeavor: Reflections on the political feasibility of inequality reduction | Selim Jahan

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A Somali woman draws water from a man-made pond dug through a UNDP-supported initiative to bring water to drought-affected communities. (Photo: UNDP Somalia)

Inequalities have come to occupy center stage in many discussions on development in general and the Post-2015 Agenda in particular. This is not surprising. Deprivation in the midst of plenty remains the daily reality for hundreds of millions of households around the world. And at the same time, a host of economic, social and cultural factors perpetuate the disadvantage experienced by a range of discriminated-against groups – from women to people with disabilities, and from ethnic minorities to people living in rural communities, just to mention some. Despite impressive economic progress, humanity remains deeply divided.   To advance the debate on the causes and effects of inequality as well as ways in which it could be reduced, the UNDP Poverty Practice has produced a report addressing a number of these issues. Among them is the question of the political feasibility of inequality reduction, on which I will focus here. A global survey of 375 policy-makers from 15 countries conducted for the report shows that policy-makers all over the world see the reduction of inequality as a major policy priority. However, as a result of deeply entrenched vested interests, policy-makers are also faced with significant constraints on their ability to address inequality... Read more

Saving the imperiled Hamouns of Eastern Iran | Gary Lewis

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The UNDP-supported Conservation of Iranian Wetlands Project aims to enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of Iran’s system of wetland protected areas as a tool for conserving globally significant biodiversity. Photo: UNDP/Iran

“Angels will kiss the hands of those who help us,” the man said. The face behind the handshake was grizzled and weathered with  leathery skin that bespoke years of harshness. The fisherman’s eyes welled with suppressed tears. He yearned for a time when his life was one of plenty.  Lakes brimmed with water and fish, his children were happy, and life was good. He wanted me to tell the world about the desperate conditions in Iran’s harshest, poorest region: the Hamoun wetlands of Sistan. “Wetlands” is really not the right word for these parched lands. There is little gainful employment, and more than half the residents get by on welfare delivered through the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (IKRF), a parastatal organization.   They were mainly fisher folk, though almost all are now unemployed, living amid the decayed ruins of ghost-like villages built alongside once-thriving lakes. Hamouns comprise three large wetland areas covering 5,660 square kilometers.  Two-thirds of these wetlands are located in Iran, linked and fed by water from Afghanistan’s Helmand River. Twenty years ago, most of this area was green, and the lake teemed with fish. The wetlands also supported agriculture and water buffalo herds, providing a livelihood for thousands... Read more

What can the US learn from Latin America’s declining inequality? | Heraldo Muñoz

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An artisan from the northern province of Salta using locally produced materials. Photo: UNDP Argentina

As the debate about inequality grows in the U.S., what lessons can be drawn from Latin America, which — although still highly unequal — is the only region that managed to reduce income inequality in the last decade? Despite being the world’s largest economy, the U.S. is the most unequal among the industrialized countries. In 1979, the top 20 percent of Americans received 43 percent of income, while the top 1 percent got 9 percent. Today, however, the top 20 percent of the population captures over 50 percent of pre-tax income, while the top 1 percent receives nearly 15 percent. Meanwhile, Latin America has steadily become more middle-income while reducing poverty.In16 of 17 countries there has been a significant decline in income inequality over the past 10 years. How did they do it? First, nearly half of the decline in inequality can be explained by improvements in household labour income. Economic growth created greater demand for domestic goods, moving more people into the labor force, driving wage increases. This helped reduce the wage gap between college-educated workers and those without a degree. In the U.S., this education gap has increased in recent years. Second, Latin America leads the world in social... Read more

To tackle AIDS and poverty, empower women and girls | David Wilson & Jeni Klugman

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A woman being tested for HIV/AIDS at a Prevention care and treatment center in Burkina Faso. Photo: Giacomo Pirozzi and UNDP Burkina Faso

"You cannot eat a sweet with the wrapping," young men from South Africa told researchers as part of a recent World Bank study, explaining why they refuse to wear condoms despite a high and well-known risk of HIV. Men often don’t see condoms as manly, and women feel unable to insist. What does this mean? A 2011 Gallup poll of 19 sub-Saharan African countries, home to more than two-thirds of the world's HIV-infected population, found most adults know how to prevent the spread of HIV. But while 72 percent agreed people should use condoms every time they have sex, only 40 percent said they ever had. Social norms such as these help explain why AIDS disproportionately affects women in many countries. Empowering women and challenging these norms is vital to tackling the epidemic, with broader dividends in the fight to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. AIDS, like poverty, demands action and innovation on multiple fronts with women and girls in mind, from public transport to policing: During the ‘World We Want’ global conversation on post-2015 development goals, a young mother from Papua New Guinea described sometimes skipping HIV treatment because she fears being raped or attacked during her long... Read more

The 'foreign-aid-doesn’t-work' argument | Jérome Sauvage

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A Hmong woman and her baby in the village of Sin Chai. Vietnam is an example of how successful foreign aid interventions can transform a country. Photo: Kibae Park/UN

Since my arrival in the United States one year ago, I have come across authors such as Roger Riddell who ask pointed questions to those responsible for aid programs. There is an energetic and well-established body of literature that is skeptical of bilateral and multilateral aid. Here in Washington, I appreciate how USAID focused more on evidence-based reporting whilst we at UNDP are sharing our results much better (as our top IATI rating demonstrates), one person and one country at a time. Yet a significant piece of evidence is often missing in our demonstrations: the very countries that successfully emerged out of poverty. I just returned to Vietnam over the New Year holidays. Hanoi was my first post with UNDP. Then, in 1985, the country’s devastation from the war was everywhere. UNDP joined a small group of donors supporting various rehabilitation projects, notably in the coffee and rubber sectors. Today, Vietnam is the second-largest coffee producer after Brazil (OK, mainly Robusta) and is likely to become the world’s third-biggest rubber producer.  Although our presence needed much justifying internationally, we stayed, were able to support the reform process the moment it began, and later on advised the country’s leadership in its negotiations... Read more

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