A 'new generation of inequalities' requires sharper measurement, UNDP chief says

United Nations Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner. Photo by: Sirak Gebrehiwot / UNRCO / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — Many countries have made headway on income, health, and livelihood since 1990, but these averages offer only a fragmented picture of development. The causes of inequality have evolved, and the way development progress is measured must follow suit, a new United Nations Development Programme report says.

Measures of inequality must go beyond income and country averages, the "2019 Human Development Report" findings say. Climate change, technology, and other factors will continue to drive the biggest divisions across society, in what UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner described during a media briefing as a “seismic shift” in how development should be measured.

“We need some time in UNDP to internalize what that means. And that conversation has already started.”

— Achim Steiner, administrator, UNDP

“What is becoming very evident is that the inequalities of the 20th century are giving way to a new generation of inequalities in the 21st century,” Steiner said recently in New York.

“What people perhaps 30 or 40 years ago were led to believe is that if you worked hard, you could escape poverty. And yet in many countries today, the … reality is that that story of development, that escape from poverty into a next-generation income bracket is simply not occurring like that anymore,” he continued.

UNDP and the independent Human Development Report Office released the new findings on Monday in Bogotá, while the capital city — and several others, from Paris to Tehran — faced widespread protests over proposed pension cuts, rising gasoline prices, and other economic and political concerns.

Steiner noted the connection between the report’s timing and the recent rise in public unrest.

“The increasingly violent reactions that we have witnessed, and these responses on the streets, have a lot to do with development outcomes and development choices of the past,” he said. “Inequality means many things to many people. And part of what this report tries to address is: What is it actually that we associate with inequality?”

The number of countries and territories classified as having very high human development rose from 12 to 62 between 1990 and 2018, while those categorized as having low human development fell from 62 to 36, according to the report, which uses a summary measure of human development known as the human development index. The places with the highest HDI rankings are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, and Hong Kong, while the bottom five are Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Niger.

But Steiner and Pedro Conceição, director of the Human Development Report Office, stressed the need to look beyond averages and reported incomes.

Education and life expectancy are among the key human development indicators measured by the HDI. The present methods of HDI assessment do not include gender, participation, or equality.

Twenty percent of human development progress was lost through inequalities in 2018, according to the report, which recommends policies on new principles for international taxation and early childhood funding — two areas of investment that help offset the inequality that often begins for children at birth.

The report recommends that new policy responses to climate change, such as carbon pricing, be devised so revenues can be recycled back to taxpayers, potentially lessening the divide between the rich and the poor, who are more likely to feel the impacts of climate change.

The report also shows that, based on current trends, it will take 202 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity, and that gender bias has grown in half of the 154 countries and territories surveyed in recent years.

Meanwhile, broadband connections around the world are growing 15 times faster in high human development countries than in low human development countries, according to Steiner. And six times more people have access to higher education in high human development countries than in low human development ones, he said.

“It's not the economy anymore, stupid. It is much more complex,” said Steiner, referring to the public unrest displayed in worldwide protests. “It is also beyond averages, because averages do not capture the distributional reality. A country may have a very high per-capita GDP. When you adjusted for inequality, countries drop significantly in the [HDI] rankings.”

Conceição said that there is also a need to reconsider how UNDP and the Human Development Report Office measure inequality. When the HDI started in 1990, education was measured by literacy rates, for example. Now, as more countries approach 100% literacy, it makes sense to find another “discriminatory” indicator, like expected years of schooling.

The findings on this “new generation of inequalities” and the impact they will likely have on future development prospects are surprising, Conceição said.

“We need some time in UNDP to internalize what that means. And that conversation has already started. I think it bears some reflection on the kinds of indicators we choose, because we have to reflect having indicators that reflect these aspirations,” he said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.