September 2020

Correcting inequalities in human development: an urgent policy challenge

We live in a highly unequal world, and the traces of these inequalities can be found everywhere. The last United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report Human Development Report 2019 highlights that, nowadays, the place of a person in the society is mostly determined by his ethnic group, gender or family wealth, more than for his abilities, efforts or talent. Think, for example, that a child born 20 years ago in a developed country has a probability of more than a 50% of being currently a university student; a probability that decreases to only 3% if that child had been born in an less-developed country. Moreover, about 17% of the children born in less-developed countries would have died before reaching 20 years of age; being this percentage of only 1% in highly-developed countries.

All these alarming inequalities also emerge when we analyze each country individually. According to UNDP, there are countries where the difference in life expectancy at 40 years of age between the richest 1% and the poorest 1% reaches 15 years for men and 10 years for women. How is this possible? How did we get here and why these inequalities have been absent from national and international political priorities? How long will it take us to assume the urgency of working to correct the existing inequalities in human development?

Inequality harms societies by weakening social cohesion and by reducing people’s trust in their institutions. Much scientific research has demonstrated that social contexts characterized by high rates of inequality contribute to increase people’s anxiety and degrade social capital, favoring the appearance of envious and antisocial behaviors. Further, there is growing evidence that certain inequalities also damage economies by preventing people to develop their full potential, in both their personal and professional life.

Equality is one of the foundations of any democratic system. If, as many studies highlight, promoting socioeconomic equality improves quality of life, it is reasonable to think that wealth redistribution should be a priority for any government that cares about the well-being of citizens. Egalitarian societies usually generate social contexts that are more appropriate to stimulate the free personal flourishing of their citizens. Thus, a person with basic needs already satisfied will tend to live better in a society where the basic needs of other people are also satisfied. Nowadays, defending a world with higher global levels of human well-being implies working for a world that is less unequal, where the monetary gaps, both inside nations and among nations, should be reduced.

However, focusing the fight against inequality only in monetary aspects is not enough. We need to address inequalities in human development from a multidimensional perspective. The United Nations acknowledge that the indicators currently used to measure inequality are not perfect at all and even that they are sometimes deceptive, mostly because they narrowly focus on income and are opaque to the underlying mechanisms that generate inequalities, according again to the 2019 UNDP Report. Other types of inequality should also be evaluated, such as inequality of opportunities (e.g., in education), of freedom, or in health (e.g., access to sanitary services). Further, an increase in the average income of a country does not necessarily improve average well-being of citizens, as inefficient or corrupt governments could waste this economic growth, or it could be hogged only by the wealthiest sectors of society. Thus, averages tend to hide internal disparities that could mask situations of severe social inequality and injustice. Changing the way we measure and evaluate inequality by incorporating more holistic non-monetary indicators is another priority that needs to be addressed in the short term.

Finally, it is necessary to highlight the existing links between inequality and power relations. In general, inequality tends to be strongly determined by the degree of political influence of the capitalist classes on the States. For this reason, political decisions do not always reflect the aspirations of the whole society (and, of course, do not prioritize the conservation of the planet), but they reflect the interests of a small group of individuals that possess the wealth and hold the power, using this power to influence public decisions for their own benefit. Thus, the ultimate causes of inequality are political and, thus, solutions should also be political.

Fortunately, a growing number of people have become conscious that inequality constitutes a huge challenge that should be urgently addressed. Correcting inequalities in human development in the 21st century is possible. However, to successfully address this challenge, we must act now, before the enormous disequilibria in economic power becomes deeply embedded in the system, making those necessary transformations impossible.


José A. González and Mateo Aguado are researchers at the Social-ecological Systems Laboratory of the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain). Several scientific papers and reports on the topic of inequalities and power relations can be found in the web page of the research group. The document refers in their contribution is UNDP (2019). Human Development Report 2019. United Nations Development Programed, New York, USA. Both researchers have contribute to the Virtual Museum if Human Ecology with de September 2019’s Work of the month Global environmental change: Towards a world of winners and losers. The Canadian photographer Mike Beedell provides the image that illustrates this Work of the month.