(Photo: UNDP-UNCDF / Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme)


Almost 30 years since its inception, UNDP’s flagship product – the Human Development Report remains a powerful voice. Matthew Johnson-Idan, Development Economist for UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji reflects on the report that would speak to the people, policy makers and experts in an effort to advance the cause of human development. This year’s report deals with inequalities in the 21st Century and how they weaken social cohesion and economic growth. It also looks at how the trend can be reversed in the face of technological change and the climate crisis. 

Let’s talk about inequality

Growing inequality is a threat to sustainable development the world over - in extremes causing people to take to the streets from Chile to Lebanon. Inequalities in human development damage social cohesion and trust, hurt economies by preventing individuals from reaching their potential, and undermine the collective action we need to tackle many of the most important challenges that we face. Better understanding and finding ways to address widening gaps between the haves and have-nots is one of our most pressing global development challenges, and one that resonates with challenges faced in the island countries of the Pacific.

The latest edition of UNDP’s flagship Human Development Report, launched today in Bogota - the capital Colombia, explores the drivers, implications and, challenges of inequality, as well as proposing ideas on how we might respond.

As successive Human Development Reports have narrated, the world has made unprecedented progress in creating more and better opportunities for ever greater numbers of people. Despite the global population reaching an estimated 7.7 billion this year, the fewest people live in extreme poverty since records began. Global life expectancy at birth is now 72 years.

Yet, amid this progress, widespread disparities have taken root and grown. As the world changes, we are seeing a new generation of severe inequalities emerging, with profound implications. Many well-established measures of progress in basic life chances, such as differences in life expectancy, or access to education, have shown convergence at the global level. But at the same time, in the ‘enhanced’ capabilities that are becoming ever more important in the 21st century, such as access to modern technologies, or high-quality education at all levels necessary to be competitive in modern economies - we see widespread divergence.

The differences in people’s opportunities that drive these inequalities often begin early in life. For example, children’s educational attainment can depend on parents’ socioeconomic status, which also affects health- beginning from the womb. Inequalities can then grow and compound over the course of people’s lives, affecting opportunities for higher education, entering the labour market, and ultimately the prospects of following generations.

These new inequalities make critical differences at crucial moments. And because these new inequalities have not historically been the focus of equality policy efforts, they often fall in blind spots for existing metrics.

UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said, “Going beyond income will require tackling entrenched interests – the social and political norms embedded deep within a nation’s or a group’s history and culture.”  

Inequality in the Pacific

Despite the development challenges that they face, the Pacific island countries have made much progress that they can be proud of. Next year, Vanuatu is set to become only the sixth country to graduate from Least Developed Country Status. The Solomon Islands is on track to graduate in 2024.

With the addition of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in 2018, the Human Development Index (HDI) now tracks development progress on health, education, and income across 10 Pacific island countries.[1] This year, Palau became the first country in the Pacific to move up into the ‘Very High’ human development category. The Solomon Islands moved out of the ‘Low’ human development category, leaving only Papua New Guinea from the Pacific. None of those 10 countries’ HDI scores fell back in the most recent data, the majority continuing to record small, steady progress.

At 8.9 years, the average years of schooling across the Pacific is higher than for the average for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) globally. In fact, the Pacific’s mean years of schooling not only surpasses the average for the world’s SIDS, but is higher than the average for East Asia and the Pacific as a region despite it being home to many much wealthier countries.

Yet, realising the Pacific’s commitment to sustainable development requires us to ensure that we deliver progress for everybody, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable. Data limitations in the region make it difficult to assess precisely how well this is being achieved - for example, insufficient data is available to calculate the inequality-adjusted Human Development Index for any of the 10 countries.

There are good examples of initiatives working to reduce inequality of opportunity in the region, which has been an important area of focus for UNDP’s efforts. For instance, the Rights Empowerment and Cohesion (REACH) project in partnership with the Government of Fiji has since 2015 worked to increase access to crucial government services for people in rural areas that might otherwise fall through the net- and is now being scaled up to other countries in the region. The Markets for Change project in partnership with UN Women is working in Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu to make urban and rural marketplaces safer and more inclusive, promoting improved livelihood opportunities for marginalized groups.

And yet, the first Quadrennial Pacific Sustainable Development report, published in 2018, raised clear concerns growing inequalities amongst marginalized population groups and for people living in remote communities. The elderly are more likely to fall into hardship, and the young are less likely to secure formal employment.

Inequality between genders

Affecting half the world, gender disparities are amongst the most entrenched forms of inequality.  And despite all the commitments, the world is well off-track to achieve gender equality by 2030. On current trends, it will take another 202 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity.

The Pacific has made progress in closing some measured gender gaps. For instance, in four of the six Pacific countries for which the data are reported in the Human Development Report, young women entering the school system are now expected to receive more years of education than young men.

Yet, there are still sharp inequalities in the power men and women exercise at home, in the workplace, and in politics. The report also noted that countries in the Pacific have some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world, with an estimated 63 percent of women in Melanesia having experienced sexual violence by their intimate partner, 44 percent in Micronesia, and 43 percent in Polynesia.

Many countries also have amongst the lowest levels of female political participation, with an average of just 6.8 percent of parliamentary seats held by women across the 10 Pacific countries included in the Report. Formal sector labour force participation is on average nearly 20 percentage points higher for males than for females in the Pacific.

Of all the countries for which the Gender Inequality Index was calculated, Papua New Guinea had the lowest score in Asia Pacific. Fiji, the best scoring Pacific island country, was ranked only 78th globally.

Inequality and climate change

For good reasons, the threats from climate change are high on Pacific policymakers’ agendas. The impacts of climate change will be felt first and hardest in tropical island countries like those of the Pacific. Yet these countries have much less capacity than their wealthier counterparts to adapt to and cope with climate change and severe weather events. So, at the international level, the accelerating process of climate change will further entrench inequalities.

Moreover, inequalities within more developed economies weakens social cohesion, in turn making it harder to achieve the collective action necessary to curb the causes of climate change.

So, the people of the Pacific have a clear interest in action to tackle global inequalities. But there are also important ways that inequalities within the Pacific affect ability to cope with the consequences of climate change. The credibility and quality of regional, national, and sub-national institutions is crucial to adapting and coping. Yet, growing perceptions of inequality - for example, in seemingly greater attention paid to urban areas - risks compromising effectiveness.

Grasping the nettle

The 2019 Human Development Report provides fresh analysis of how a new generation of inequalities is developing, often out of sight of the most-watched measures of equality and development progress. These inequalities have profound implications for some of the most important challenges and opportunities facing Pacific island countries: from coping with the effects of climate change to allowing citizens to take part in the globalized knowledge economy they are increasingly integrated into.

These inequalities will determine Pacific people’s ability to seize the opportunities of the 21st century as once-isolated islands become ever more connected, and to function in the knowledge economies that Pacific countries seek to build.

But the Report also stresses that is not too late to act, before imbalances in economic power translate into political dominance. Of course, there are no silver bullets, and the right mix of policy responses will depend on each country’s context. In the Pacific, there are many good initiatives already underway working to reduce inequalities along many dimensions that reflect each county and community’s context. If we are to realize the ambitions set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, which every country in the Pacific has signed up to, these efforts need to be strengthened, scaled up, and take aim at the new generation of inequalities that are emerging.

In the first instance, this would likely require better data and analysis, not just looking at past trends, but considering how they could shape the future development of inequality.

More than that, tackling inequality so that all Pacific islanders are able to reach their potential and the region has the best chance of achieving its sustainable development ambitions will require a bold willingness to act on the basis of evidence. The warning bells have been rung, what we do about it, is up to us. Action is possible.

The 2019 Human Development Report, including background data, is available for download online - http://report.hdr.undp.org/

[1] The Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

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