Tackling inequality in the 21st century – the challenges and potential solutions
Kanni Wignaraja (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2019 - 12:00am

Waves of protests have exploded around the world with people demonstrating against a range of problems, demanding an end to corruption, pushing for action on climate change, and pressing for personal freedom.

The anger of the demonstrators has caught governments off guard. Asia and the Pacific, the world’s most dynamic and diverse region, has reflected those protests.

The events of this year – and how they came to pass – are a distillation of the intertwined challenges that will come to define the 21st century: climate crisis, automation, and inequality.

People are increasingly taking to the streets because they feel that economic and political structures are rigged against them, and that their voices are not being heard.

These grievances underpin the core analysis of UNDP’s new Human Development Report, which presents decision makers with the choice to overturn deep-rooted systemic drivers of inequality.  In doing so, there is the opportunity to simultaneously eliminate extreme deprivation, while equipping people to live with dignity, manage the risks of global warming, and benefit from artificial intelligence and robotics. 

Inequality is not inevitable, but it will get harder to correct humanity’s current self-destructive trajectory if we go about business as usual.

People in low human development countries are missing out on opportunities needed to get ahead, such as a university education, and even the most basic human needs are still not being met for many. About 58 percent of people in low human development countries do not have even a primary education, and as high as about 97 percent do not have tertiary education.

The odds are stacked, in a range of ways, along the lines of gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation – to name but a few. Women represent the largest systematically disadvantaged group worldwide and are facing a backlash to empowerment. The 2019 Human Development Report shows 90 percent of men and 86 percent of women worldwide hold some form of bias against a gender-equal world. Additionally, the more power is at stake, the higher the resistance, with a woman facing more intense opposition in running for office than voting.

These statistics speak to just one of many pervasive and pernicious inequalities that exist in the world and are driving frustration and resentment. But with the scale and scope of the challenges mapped out, how do we respond?

For starters, a relatively low national income is no excuse for inaction. Countries with fewer resources at their disposal might take inspiration from Ethiopia, which has rolled out pre-primary education across the country, securing a double win by facilitating early childhood development and freeing up mothers’ time, so they can join the workforce if they choose.

In Asia and the Pacific, a wide range of countries with a broad assortment of health systems and incomes – ranging from Bangladesh, to Indonesia, to Thailand and Vietnam – have worked to either create or expand universal health coverage programmes. Thailand’s universal health coverage scheme, implemented in 2001, spread to all provinces the following year, and reached 98 percent of the population a decade later.

China is leading progress in digital connectivity in the region, followed by big countries like India and Indonesia. In the Philippines, a Free Public Access Program is expanding connectivity through the country, and in Thailand the government is extending connectivity to 4,000 villages.

Looking to expand opportunity and fight poverty, I am proud to say that UNDP will continue its work in the areas of climate change, governance, and poverty and inequality. For instance, in Nepal, a micro-enterprise development programme has created over 140,000 micro-entrepreneurs, of which 70 percent are women. The programme has also contributed to providing direct and indirect employment to over half a million people. 

UNDP has also set up 60 Accelerator Labs, 10 in the Asia Pacific region, that will help governments in the region meet development priorities faster, with the aim of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The 2019 HDR is bold in saying that redressing inequalities in human development in the 21st century is possible – provided we act now, before imbalances in economic power translate into entrenched political dominance. As the drivers of inequality are deeply embedded in societies, economies, and political structures, we require solutions that go beyond the market.

Countries will not be able to beat inequality on their own, however. As with the climate crisis, collective action is an essential part of the solution. For example, international collaboration will be required to tackle tax evasion and prevent a race to the bottom on corporate taxes and environmental standards. Moreover, new standards need to be developed to ensure that new generations of digital firms make markets more efficient, satisfy labour regulations, and pay their fair share of taxes. 

On gender, policies should seek to change social norms and eliminate discrimination through education, awareness and changing incentives, so that everyone benefits from the latest technologies. UNDP hopes to see more measures like free broadband and electronic medical records, to micro-target those left furthest behind.

 We in UNDP stand ready to support governments across the Asia Pacific region to make the difficult choices needed to provide all citizens – now and in the future – with a fair and dignified life, powered by technology, shielded from prejudice, and protected from an increasingly unforgiving climate.

*      *      *

(Kanni Wignaraja is the Assistant Secretary General and Assistant Administrator of the UNDP, and Director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific)

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