Inequality is a choice not an inevitability – Op.Ed by UNDP Resident Representative with Insights from UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report

December 9, 2019

--- Image caption ---

Inequality is becoming one of the defining features of the 21st century. It is also one that is triggering growing economic and social tensions around the world. We see this almost daily on our television screens and mobile phones in the demonstrations that are taking place in major capitals around the world, in the protracted episodes of social unrest afflicting many developing countries, and, in the extreme, in the growing number of incidences of political violence and terrorism. These events are often driven by a deep sense of grievance and unfairness by those people who are being left behind by the turn that the global economy has taken in recent decades. Yet, this is not an inevitable feature of today’s world. Inequality is, to a large extent, a choice. Action is therefore possible to address these trends.

The first two decades of the century have indeed seen remarkable progress in reducing extreme deprivations. Today, a child born in country with low human development can expect to live up to the age of 59, up from only 50 years of age twenty years ago, in 1998. Moreover, inequalities in basic capabilities are narrowing across most countries, even if much remains to be done. For instance, gains in life expectancy between 2005 and 2015 for low human development countries was almost three times that for very high human development countries, driven by a reduction in child mortality in developing countries. And countries with lower human development are also catching up in primary education levels.

Yet, despite progress in advancing basic human development, the world is not on track to eradicate extreme deprivations in health and education by 2030, when 3 million children under the age 5 are still expected to die every year, and 225 million children are expected to be out of school. Moreover, inequalities in enhanced capabilities, the type of capabilities that will drive success in the 21st century, remain very high and in some cases are widening. For instance, only 3% of adults have a tertiary education in low human development countries, compared with 29% in developed countries. In access to technology, there are 67 mobile-cellular subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in developing countries, half the amount in very high human development countries (132 per 100 inhabitants). And on more advanced technologies, such as access to fixed broadband, there is less than one subscription per 100 inhabitants, compared with 28 in very high human development countries.

It is against this background that UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report is being launched this morning in Bogotá, Colombia. The report seeks to reshape current debates on inequality by presenting new sets of data and analyses on emerging inequality trends, trends which the report shows are making the world more unequal and in a more engrained way. It does so by taking a multidimensional approach to this topic, examining inequalities in both income and capabilities, including in areas such as health, education and access to technology. It also examines deeply entrenched inequalities, focusing on gender, as well as the impact of climate change and the 4th industrial revolution on global inequality trends.

As with previous human development reports, this year’s report has a strong policy focus. It presents decisionmakers with policy options to overturn the often deeply rooted systemic drivers of inequality, while at the same time eliminating extreme deprivation, equipping everyone to live with dignity, manage the fallout of our planet heating up and benefit from modern breakthroughs in advanced technologies. To this end, the report presents a highly innovative policy taxonomy to tackle the “inequality crisis”, with interventions that can be pursued throughout people’s life-cycle, and in all domains of the economy and society.

The central tenet of this year’s Human Development Report is that inequality is not inevitable and can therefore be addressed – yet it will only get harder to correct and address humanity’s current self-destructive trajectory if action is not urgently taken to address its root causes. This is evident when looking at the looming climate crisis, which is already hitting the poorest communities the hardest and earliest, increasing their deprivation and vulnerability. These are the same people that are already missing out on the opportunities needed to get ahead and move out of poverty, like access to basic health and education – or to a university education and modern technologies. Even the most basic human needs are, in this sense, still not being met for many in developing countries around the world, with these climatic impacts making it increasingly harder for these people to come out of poverty and lead healthy, productive and personally fulfilling lives.

In Mozambique, this year’s Human Development Report arrives at an opportune time, as the country enters a new policy cycle after the recent Presidential elections of October 15th, cycle which will be articulated around the next Five-Year Government Plan,  I believe, in this regard, that the report provides a unique opportunity to reflect on issues of inequality – issues that are not foreign to the country.

Hence, despite experiencing one of the longest periods of accelerated economic growth lived by any country in the continent in recent decades, poverty still afflicts a disproportionate share of the Mozambican population, 46.1% as of the 2014/15 household survey by INE, indicating that the gains from this long wave of accelerated economic growth have not been evenly shared by all.

Inequality in Mozambique has strong spatial and gender components. Poverty incidence, for instance, is five times higher in Niassa, 60.6%, than in Maputo city, 11.6%, while illiteracy rates, are seven times higher in Cabo Delgado, 60.7%, than in the capital of the country, 9.5%. Women, on the other hand, are less likely than men to be literate, with illiteracy rates for women reaching 49.4%, according to the 2017 census, as opposed to 27.2% for men, own a phone (22.4% vs. 30.8%), have access to the internet (5.3% vs. 8.1%) or hold a bank account (6.6% vs. 12.2%), among others. Moreover, in income terms, inequality in Mozambique has worsened over time, with the national Gini coefficient increasing from 0.4 in 1996/7 to 0.47, in the latest household survey of 2014/15.

In this context, it is imperative that development actors in Mozambique come together to devise ways of addressing the scourge of inequality in the country in all its forms and dimensions, in order to prevent these inequalities from fuelling grievances and social tensions, put the country on a more inclusive path of economic growth and sustainable development and ensure that no one is left behind. Mozambique’s enhanced exposure to climate change impacts, and the potential that these have in widening living standards between those at the top and those most deprived makes this call particularly pressing. Its rich natural resource wealth, on the other hand, including its natural gas resources, provide a unique opportunity to address these concerns once and for all. As a trusted partner of many decades, UNDP stands ready to support the efforts reduce inequality for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.