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A year of protests, with inequality at their root

Guest content
07 January 2020

The UN's 2019 report on human development is timely in view of the widespread social unrest in many countries that derives, to a large extent, from the inequalities this report analyses. By Yossi Mekelberg.

The UN is often accused of being detached from reality and irrelevant to most people’s lives — especially those who need it most, including victims of war, conflict, poverty and all kinds of daily strife. There is much truth in this claim, but one of the exceptions is the annual UN-commissioned Human Development Report, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Since the report was launched in 1990 by Mahbub ul Haq, the celebrated Pakistani economist, and Amartya Sen, India’s Nobel laureate in economics, it has become seminal in changing the approach to development, placing individual human beings at its heart instead of concentrating on macro-statistics. The Human Development Index (HDI) puts people and their capabilities at the center of assessing the progress their countries are making, rather than basing calculations exclusively on economic growth. Year after year, these reports raised development discourse issues such as gender inequality and women’s empowerment, schooling, environmental sustainability, and life expectancy.

The 2019 report, on inequalities in human development, is timely, indeed prophetic, in view of the widespread social unrest in many countries that derives to a large extent from the inequalities this report analyses. That the report was launched in Colombia’s capital, Bogota, where hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets calling for a national dialogue on issues from pensions to the rights of indigenous people, was no coincidence, and most definitely symbolic of what those behind the report wanted to highlight.

As Robin Wright wrote recently, of all the things that happened in 2019 the year will be remembered for “the tsunami of protests that swept across six continents and engulfed both liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies.” There was no obvious common trigger —whether all those who took to the streets protested against constant increases in the cost of leaving, or against corruption, or demanded political independence or job creation — but as the UN report says: “A connecting thread … is deep and rising frustration with inequalities.”

More importantly, economic inequalities are only one aspect of the growing unrest in many societies, caused by an intrinsic misperception by the capitalist system that earning money is the panacea for shortcomings in human development. The worldwide outbursts of frustration continue despite considerable strides forward in many countries in terms of basic needs such as access to food, sanitation and education. The uneven nature of these improvements means that they are not enjoyed by some of the most vulnerable and deprived in the global society.

Exactly 10 years before the UN’s Sustainable Development goals are supposed to be achieved, there is less certainty that this objective is in any way realistic. Instead, we can expect that some parts of the world will outperform others. For those who live in the luxury of the high-development or even medium-development countries, it is virtually incomprehensible that there are still 836 million people who live on less than $1.25 a day, which is the international poverty line. Though there has been a great improvement in access to education, 57 million children are still not attending school, and in many places where they do, they accumulate massive debts without adequately paid jobs to repay them.

At both ends of this education scale the aspirations of youth are being hindered, resulting in growing social malaise and the distortion of economies. Add to this that income inequality is rising to the extent that the richest 10 percent receive 40 percent of global income; the poorest 10 percent earn only between 2 and 7 percent; and women earn 24 percent less than men — and the picture of an aggrieved global society becomes clear. Those protesters have come to realize that working harder or for longer hours is not helping them, and what is badly needed instead is a systemic, structural change, which they can bring about only by taking to the streets.

But while many of these deprivations and equalities are not that different from those of the last century, and there have been improvements in areas such as life expectancy at birth and access to food or shelter, inequalities are increasing in what the Human Development Report calls enhanced capabilities, such as high access to health and education at all levels, effective access to advanced and relevant technologies, and participation in the political process.

Between countries with very high human development compared to those low on the HDI, there is a gap of nearly 25 years in life expectancy; while in the more developed countries twice as many receive primary education and seven times as many progress to tertiary education. In a knowledge-based society there is a clear correlation between length and quality of life, and education and access to mobile phones and the internet.

Bravely, the report does not refrain from touching on political disparities, a topic that international organisations usually avoid because of its its sensitive nature and far-reaching implications. There is a significant correlation between access to political participation and income and wealth; those with such access influence decisions in their favor and thereby perpetuate inequalities.

There is no silver bullet that will resolve all of these inequalities and disparities, but if world leaders carefully read the evidence and recommendations in this year’s Human Development Report, and at the same time paid serious attention to worldwide unrest, that could be a good start to the new year.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

Further resources:

Human Development Report 2019

To answer global protests, tackle new inequalities: 2019 Human Development Report - UNDP 

The sustainable development index: Measuring the ecological efficiency of human development in the anthropocene - Jason Hickel, Ecological Economics, Volume 167, January 2020

Original source: Arab News

Image credit: Public Health Update