Let’s Talk About Inequality – Open Letter to Young People (and their parents) in the Maldives

By Akiko Fujii, UNDP Resident Representative for Maldives

Posted December 9, 2019

My grandmother’s education ended before she could complete elementary school when she became a maid in a rich family’s home. My mother completed her high school education by going to night classes every day after finishing her day-time job keeping records in an office. I studied at university and graduate schools and now represent the UN Development Programme in the Maldives. Meanwhile, my daughter has just entered university and I can’t even begin to imagine what opportunities the future holds for her.

I’m not trying to boast of my education or professional achievement, but simply seek to illustrate how much your life’s path depends on when and where you are born. When my grandmother was a child in Japan, universal education and health services were not available. My mother grew up during a time of national reconstruction after a catastrophic war, when struggling families concentrated their limited resources on sons rather than daughters—two of her brothers went to university, one gaining a PhD! It could have been my mother – a young aspirational girl! On the other hand, I was born during a period of peace and prosperity, and was able to progress all the way from primary to graduate school entirely within the public education system and luckily with a generous scholarship to study abroad.

In my family’s case, four generations of women will have had totally different life paths. What about you? Do you feel you have more opportunities in life than your parents and grandparents had? Do you expect your children to have more opportunities in life than you have had?

The On 9 December, UNDP launched its 2019 Human Development Report on Inequality. This year's theme is 'Beyond Income, Beyond Averages and Beyond Today.' The title says it all. The report not only indicates that inequality is growing globally, but that ‘inequalities in human development are taking new forms in the 21st century’. In particular, while restrictions on life chances resulting from extreme deprivation associated with poverty, hunger, disease and war remain decisive for many, enhanced opportunities enjoyed in places with universal access to high-quality education and health services and easily affordable advanced technologies are making the inequality gap not only quantitatively greater but qualitatively more diverse.     

Where does the Maldives stand? The Report assigns a ‘Human Development Index (HDI)’ value to each country based on average levels of life expectancy, access to education and per capita income across the whole population. Between 1995 and 2018, the Maldives’ HDI value increased by nearly 32%. Reflecting this improvement, in this year’s Report the Maldives is placed in the second highest group of countries, labelled the ‘High Human Development’ group of countries, and is ranked 104 out of a total of 189 countries.

However, the Report also looks at how life expectancy, access to education and per capita income vary within countries, and assigns an adjusted HDI value to each country depending on the degree of inequality across the population. Adjusted for inequality, the HDI value for the Maldives falls by 21%. In other words, while many Maldivians are living much longer, are much better educated, and earn much more than was the case in the past, many of their fellow Maldivians are not enjoying such high levels of improvement. Further, this HDI reduction is worse than the average reduction of 17.9% for all the countries in the ‘High Human Development’ group, and is considerably worse than the 12.1% reduction calculated for our geographically nearest neighbour, Sri Lanka. Clearly, something is not quite right.

This subject is particularly timely as the people of the Maldives are undertaking, as we speak, a new journey of political, economic and social change. It seems to me that one major reason why we are embarking on this new journey is because the Maldivian people are particularly aware of the degree of inequality evident across the nation, and that this inequality, rooted deep in social, economic and political structures, which has accumulated through individual lives and across generations, needs to be addressed.

Progress on gender equality in the Maldives, in particular, has been very uneven. While women live longer (80.5 years vs 77.2 years for men) and educational attainments of girls and boys are almost equal, women’s political and economic empowerment seem to be lagging behind. Women’s labour participation is just under half that of men, average incomes for women are less than half that of men, and women occupy only 4.5% of the seats in Parliament. However, the recent passing of the Decentralisation Act with its provision for 33% reserved seats for women at local government level is an historic milestone on the road to achieving gender equality in Maldives. A most exciting, timely and encouraging new law.

Like many Maldivian people, I am very optimistic about future progress in addressing inequality. Why? First of all, we are actively and seriously talking about reducing inequality. And participation in such discussions is not being left only to the pressure groups and activists, the lobbyists and politicians; these are matters which affect everyone, and so everyone should have an opportunity to have their voice heard. I have seen an increasing number of e-governance platforms where public institutions actively seek citizens’ feedback to policy making. Mass media and social media provide forums in which many kinds of inequality are frequently the subject of impassioned debate. Secondly, our elected representatives are responding to this public expression of concern and are developing new policies and legislating new laws which shift the locus of power closer to the people. The Decentralisation Act, for example, allows for a devolution of power which, with effective monitoring systems in place, will enable island communities to provide relevant solutions to their own needs and ambitions.

Inequality is complex, but can be addressed with the right policies, if implemented effectively. We are all in it. We have talked enough. Let's move to the next level. Now let’s demand, participate, and act.

[1] 2019 UNDP Human Development Report, UNDP.