A New Generation of Inequalities Taking Shape

January 10, 2020 By Joan Steiger

Where you’re born is perhaps the largest factor that will influence your life – it determines who you are, what you do, and how you live. On this seemingly small detail hinges your access to nutritious meals, safe housing, and education. It greatly impacts the course of our development, yet it’s almost entirely out of our control. As we move into the 21st century, what are the prospects for a child born in a developing country versus a more affluent one like the United States? And how are they changing?

That’s what the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) seeks to explore in its annual Human Development Report. In an attempt to measure a country’s progress in a more holistic way beyond income, the report also examines life expectancy, education, and personal freedoms, paying close attention to trends, policies, and issues that emerge year after year.

While there have been significant gains in human development since the report launched in 1990, the latest report reveals some startling inequalities taking shape in the 21st century.

Emerging Inequalities

Inequality in human development is often framed around income, wealth, and other economic indicators, but social and cultural factors also play a substantial role. While the UNDP report finds that more people are escaping extreme poverty, disease, and hunger, they still lack the capabilities necessary to get ahead in the future.

In an increasingly competitive, information-driven world, access to high-speed internet, mobile phones, and college-level education can mean the difference between actively participating in society or watching from the sidelines. As people become more aware of these global inequalities, they grow frustrated, with many from the Middle East to Latin America taking to the streets to protest everything from high petrol prices to limited political freedoms.

We saw this in Sudan, where protests against rising costs in living conditions and poor economic conditions led to the ouster of their autocratic ruler, while in Chile unrest broke out after the government attempted to raise subway fares, revealing long-simmering feelings of inequality in the country’s middle class.

Widespread Disparities

This year’s report also finds that, even though human development has improved globally, disparities remain widespread. While average statistics are up around the world, there is still a huge gap between those at the bottom and top of the development spectrum.

For example, even though the average life expectancy at birth has improved dramatically around the world – thanks in part to declining infant mortality rates – the difference between life expectancy in low and high human development countries is still 19 years.

When it comes to education, 42% of adults in low human development countries have a primary education – a stark difference from the 94% of adults in high human development countries. And the numbers are even more noticeable when it comes to adults with a college-level education: 3.2% in low human development countries versus 29% in high human development countries.

We see these differences in play at the top and bottom of this year’s Human Development Index. Four European countries – Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, and Germany – rank the highest with their high standards of living and easy access to information through widespread internet availability and enrollment in higher education.

Countries at the bottom are Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad, and South Sudan – four Sub-Saharan African countries struggling to progress beyond basic levels of development in key areas of health, education, and technology access. Even though these countries have made notable progress in access to primary education, for example, they lag behind more developed countries in the number of students enrolled in higher levels of education. Without access to education, people are limited in their future work opportunities and earnings, driving down human development as a whole for entire countries.

Moving Forward

Though inequalities in human development remain widespread and tackling those inequalities won’t be easy, it’s possible. As part of the report’s recommendations, the UNDP encourages countries to focus on creating policies that address climate change and technology gaps – two global issues with the potential to cause greater disparities in the future and hinder a nation’s progress.

The UNDP also recommends an overhaul in how human development is measured, as existing statistics are not comprehensive enough and often lack even basic information on metrics like household income, education levels, and mortality rates. These measurements are critical to informing public debate and supporting decision-making on global inequalities.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to confronting global inequality, it’s important that countries devise policies that are suited to their citizens’ specific needs and circumstances. By focusing on the local level, countries can further their development progress on a global scale, moving toward a more equitable future for all.