Clark: Equity: narrowing the gaps to push for achievement of the MDGs

04 Feb 2011

Remarks for Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator,
Opening the First Session of the Joint Meeting of the Executive Boards of UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UN Women and WFP

“Equity: narrowing the gaps to push for achievement of the MDGs”

I am pleased to speak at this important session of the Joint Executive Boards’ meeting on the importance of incorporating equity considerations into the drive to achieve the MDGs.

The history of MDG progress presented to delegates at last year’s Summit had a clear and familiar story line. The world has made considerable progress on many of the Goals. Many countries have success stories which illustrate well what works. Yet, progress on many Goals and targets in many countries has been slow and uneven.

In our increasingly globalised world, too many people are left behind – unable to benefit from economic growth, or to access the services they need to improve their lives. Too often the gains of growth do not reach ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous people, women, the disabled, the rural poor, or others who literally or metaphorically are at the end of the road.

Last year’s Human Development Report contained two new indices which measure how inequality and gender inequality impact on countries’ human development status.

The Inequality Adjusted HDI shows that countries’ relative progress in human development is influenced by both income inequality and disparities in health and education. On average, inequality is shown to reduce countries’ scores on the HDI by 22 per cent. It is countries with lower human development which tend to be the most unequal.

Studies , including those conducted by UNDP, suggest that countries with high income polarization and inequality may be:

  • more likely to have social conflict;  
  • less competitive; and
  • have less effective fiscal policy.

Highly unequal societies may be more likely to adopt unsustainable economic policies due to the influence and preferences of certain groups, and less likely to invest in policies which are in the wider public interest .

The global recession has left a number of countries facing greater challenges in reaching the MDGs, and more vulnerable to future shocks because of the weakening of both economies and societies.  

An explicit focus on inequality and inequity is now required, to make progress on the MDGs. Greater attention must be given to those excluded from development gains to date.

It must also be acknowledged that apart from the small number of MDG targets which strive for universal outcomes, like those on basic education and sexual and reproductive health, many of the MDG targets themselves fall short of aiming for equitable outcomes. For example, even if by 2015 the world succeeds in meeting the targets to reduce the numbers living in extreme poverty and facing chronic hunger by half, there will still be hundreds of millions of extremely poor and chronically hungry people. That leaves much gross inequity in place.

I hope that in the discussion about what should follow the MDGs, our world can focus on the imperative of eliminating extreme poverty and chronic hunger. That in itself would not eliminate inequity, but it would put in place a minimum living standard floor below which no human being should be able to fall.

In this respect, I want to emphasise the importance of social protection systems, the design of which a number of UN organizations have considerable experience with.

While sustainable and inclusive growth should be seen as the key means of lifting living standards across the board, there will always be a need to direct extra support to those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder if societies want to achieve more equitable outcomes.

I applaud the efforts of the many governments across the developing world which have introduced social protection schemes, aimed at ensuring that everybody gets a chance to have enough food and income, go to school, and access basic health services.

Within the UN system we can facilitate knowledge exchange about these systems so that others can explore adapting them to their own circumstances.

The quality of economic growth and its distributional impact will matter a great deal in achieving the MDGs. High GDP per capita growth rates do not automatically translate into poverty reduction and investment in more and better education and health services and housing. Last year’s Human Development Report’s review of the past forty years concluded that there was often a disconnect between economic growth and human development progress. It will take clear strategies and public policies to design growth strategies which are more consistently positive for human development and tackling inequities.    

UNDP’s International Assessment of what it will take to achieve the MDGs looked at the underlying drivers of MDG progress. In brief, and relevant to today’s discussion on tackling inequities, it is important to emphasise the critical role of investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure, in production generally which offers decent work, in job creation, in education & health to build human capital, in energy access, and, as I emphasized before, in social protection in order to advance equity and make MDG and other gains more resilient to shocks.

UNDP’s assessment also emphasized the importance of domestic resource mobilisation from growing economies to fund the ongoing increases in expenditure which are needed to maintain MDG and broader development momentum.

The UN development system can help countries advance towards the MDGs with equity in many ways by drawing on the collective expertise of its funds, programmes, and specialized agencies. The background paper before you today sets out our system-wide approach and the specific contributions of the four funds and programmes represented at this meeting.

The MDG Acceleration Framework aims to support countries to accelerate progress on lagging MDG targets – by helping them identify bottlenecks to progress and the proven solutions which could overcome them.  Equity considerations need to be central to this process.

In the pilot phase of the Framework, the solutions agreed through multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder processes include those aimed at reducing disparities and inequalities. In Togo, for example, the Framework focused on how to lift the productivity of small land-holder farmers, many of whom are women, through extension services better tailored to their needs and expanded access to key inputs such as fertilizers, credit and seeds. Given that women and rural dwellers often face gross inequity, these solutions can help address that.

In Colombia, the Framework was applied at the local level to try to reduce sharp sub-national divergence in MDG achievement. Now all participating territories have adopted MDG action plans to that end, which could lead to more equitable outcomes across the country.

Following the pilot phase, the MDG Acceleration Framework has received endorsement as a living document by a technical committee of the UNDG. It has been anchored in Resident Co-ordinator units at the country level where it is being applied, and it works with the active involvement of the range of UN agencies. There is growing demand for the tool to be applied, with more than twenty countries requesting assistance to date.

In conclusion, equity promoting policies will advance MDG progress, and sustainable human development. Achieving the MDGs for all means a better life for billions of people. That is what achieving the MDGs with equity is about.