Human Development Report 2019

Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century

In every country many people have little prospect for a better future. They are without hope, purpose or dignity, watching from society’s sidelines as they see others pulling ahead to ever greater prosperity. Worldwide many have escaped extreme poverty. But even more have neither the opportunities nor the resources to control their lives. Far too often a person’s place in society is still determined by ethnicity, gender or his or her parents’ wealth.

Inequalities. The evidence is everywhere. Inequalities do not always reflect an unfair world, but when they have little to do with rewarding effort, talent or entrepreneurial risk- taking, they can be an affront to human dignity. Under the shadow of sweeping technological change and the climate crisis, such inequalities in human development hurt societies, weakening social cohesion and people’s trust in government, institutions and each other. Most hurt economies, wastefully preventing people from reaching their full potential at work and in life. They often make it harder for political decisions to reflect the aspirations of the whole of society and to protect the planet, if the few pulling ahead flex their power to shape decisions in their interests. In the extreme, people can take to the streets.

These inequalities in human development are a roadblock to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They are not just about disparities in income and wealth. They cannot be accounted for simply by using summary measures of inequality that focus on a single dimension. And they will shape the prospects of people that may live to see the 22nd century. This Report explores inequalities in human development by going beyond income, beyond averages and beyond today. It asks what forms of inequality matter and what drives them, recognizing that pernicious inequalities are generally better thought of as a symptom of broader problems in a society and economy. It also asks what policies can tackle those drivers—policies that can simultaneously help nations to grow their economies, improve human development and reduce inequality.

It is hard to get a clear picture of inequalities in human development and how they are changing. In part because they are as broad and multifaceted as life itself. In part because the measures we rely on, and the data that underpin them, are often inadequate. Yet important patterns repeat again and again.

In every country the goalposts are moving. Inequality in human development is high or increasing in the areas expected to become more important in the future. There has been some progress worldwide in fundamental areas, such as escaping from poverty and receiving a basic education, though important gaps remain. Yet at the same time, inequalities are widening higher up the ladder of progress.

A human development approach opens new windows on inequalities— why they matter, how they manifest themselves and what to do about them—that help create concrete action. The Report suggests the importance of realigning existing policy goals: emphasizing, for instance, the quality education at all ages—including at the preprimary level—in addition to focusing on primary and secondary enrolment rates. Many of these aspirations are already reflected in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It also means addressing power imbalances that are at the heart of many inequalities, such as leveling the economic playing field through antitrust measures. In some cases, addressing inequalities means tackling social norms embedded deep with a nation’s history and culture. Many policies comprise options that would enhance both equity and efficiency. The main reason why they often are not pursued may be linked with the power of entrenched interests who do not stand to gain from change.

The future of inequalities in human development in the 21st century is in our hands. But we cannot be complacent. The climate crisis shows that the price of inaction compounds over time, as it feeds further inequality, which can in turn make action on climate more difficult. Technology is already changing labour markets and lives, but not yet locked-in is the extent to which machines may replace people. We are, however, approaching a precipice beyond which it will be difficult to recover. We do have a choice, and we must exercise it now.

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Global Human Development Report