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Beyond the margins: understanding inequalities in human development

Inequality is one of the defining themes of our age. It is at the heart of debates over the future of globalisation, the rise of populism and the idea of social justice. And it’s the central theme of this year’s Human Development Report, published yesterday by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP): Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today.

The report covers a wide range of issues. As its title suggests, it looks:

  • beyond income – at profound inequalities in human development
  • beyond averages – to paint a more nuanced view of inequality
  • beyond tomorrow – at the potential effects on inequality of climate change and technology.

Stuck on a long flight yesterday, I had the perfect opportunity to read large chunks of the 300-page report. It’s a rich and enlightening read that left me with three over-riding thoughts – which I share here. Though I should add, this blog post isn’t a full assessment nor a summary of what the report says about inequality plays in the 21st century.

1. Basic capabilities and enhanced capabilities

In looking beyond income, and in keeping with UNDP tradition, this year’s Human Development Reports focuses on human capabilities – especially health and education – as fundamental concepts.

It distinguishes between:

  • basic capabilities – mainly elementary education and basic health, which are closely linked to extreme deprivation and poverty


  • enhanced capabilities, which capture dimensions of capabilities that go beyond immediate survival and basic education, and that evolve with circumstances, values and aspirations.

Enhanced capabilities – for instance, tertiary education or life expectancy in older ages – are generally more empowering and likely to become more important in the next decades. Most are already included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

I found the distinction helpful in analysing inequalities; it reveals a mixed picture. Gaps in basic capabilities – such as child mortality and primary education – are narrowing, albeit slowly. However, the world is not on track to reach its SDG targets for these capabilities by 2030. The report cites evidence on child survival from Save the Children – based on our Child Inequality Tracker, GRID – that illustrates both the scale of the challenge of convergence and its potential benefits of the furthest-behind children (see graph).

Graph based on a sample of 64 countries

In contrast, the report shows divergence in enhanced capabilities. In other words, in areas such as tertiary education, life expectancy at higher age or broadband connection, gaps between the most advantaged groups and those at the bottom of the distribution are actually increasing.

A separate chapter on gender equality shows a similar pattern in this most persistent form of inequality. While significant progress has been made to reduce gender inequality in the 20th century, this progress has been concentrated on basic capabilities (such as access to health and education, or the right to participate in the political system). By comparison, with enhanced capabilities – for instance, leadership roles in politics and business – gender inequality seems to be much stickier due to deeply entrenched gender norms and power imbalances.

We have advocated for some time for the concept of convergence and divergence to be used to analyse whether governments are actually putting the furthest behind children first – as the SDGs call for. Our recent Tipping the Balance report, for example, features the concept of convergence in child survival, looking at both child outcomes and access to health. It’s encouraging and exciting to see this concept feature so prominently in the Human Development Report’s analysis of human capabilities.

2. A data and measurement revolution

Good measurement and data clearly influence policies. The Human Development Report calls for no less than a revolution in metrics in order to assess inequalities in human development properly. Despite the entrenched role of inequality and the sometimes deliberate, sometimes unintended exclusion of certain groups of children and adults (due to their gender, ethnicity, wealth, location, etc), information on group inequalities are often ignored and sometimes simply not available. I back UNDP’s call for clearer concepts, broader combinations of data sources and sharper analytical tools to address the shortcomings in effective measurements. While the report provides an interesting insight into the role – and the widespread lack – of transparency for income and wealth, it would have been great to see the issue of inadequate inequality data expanded to other areas of human development as well.

3. Policy choices to reduce inequalities

What can we do to move towards convergence and expansion of capabilities, leaving income beside for now?

The Human Development Report suggests enhanced universalism, combining universal policies with a focus on addressing multidimensional forms of inequality. While universal policies are important to significantly expand services, they are not genuinely universal without adequate quality and equity – and therefore, without adequate funding. Enhanced universal systems ensure equal access to good-quality services, focusing not only on providing services, but also taking into account entrenched systemic inequalities. For example, health outcomes depend not only on access to services, but are also determined by families’ level of education and social norms.

In addition, the report suggests complementing those universal systems with special policies for excluded groups. While the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities would certainly benefit from universal policies, these alone are not enough to overcome group-based discrimination or overlapping deprivations.

Beyond today

Inequalities are the main roadblock to reaching the SDGs. I’ve touched here on a few of the report’s main findings on inequalities in the 21st century, but there’s much more. The report has chapters exploring the consequences for inequalities in human development and income of new technologies and industries and of climate change. And there are fascinating sections on the effects of inequality on political and economic power and the repercussions. I’d recommend you take a look.



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