Flames of Inequality – Human Development Report by UNDP Rep Magdy Martinez Soliman

Magdy Martinez Soliman – UNDP Resident Rep Barbados and the OECS

For all our progress, our science and our technology – for all the advancement made in combatting diseases and poverty, hunger and conflict – something is not working. And people are taking it to the streets. One of the common sources of discontent is a deep frustration with gross inequalities. Of course it is about income, the money some have and some don’t. But it’s more than that: a new suite of inequalities linked to climate change, gender and violence among other factors, and the old sources of inequality (ethnicity and parents’ wealth) determine a person’s place in society no matter how hard they work and how smart they are.

We are riding the crest of the inequality wave. And yet we have choices and tools to ride the wave and combat its pernicious effects. Before the market, in the market and after the market, policy decisions matter and define a better or not so good society to live in. UNDP’s development thinking goes well beyond growth and understands why a malaise has settled in. It also suggests how it can be replaced by hope, wellbeing, fairness and social cohesion. All too often, inequality is oversimplified, as if it were a legacy we are born with. It is true that mobility has decreased – the American dream turned the social stagnation nightmare. But inequalities are not static: they accumulate through life. They get worse.

Two major transformations have impacted our lives at an unprecedented speed: climate change and technology change. The climate crisis is hitting the poorest hardest. We need bold climate action. Technology progress can become a luxury for two tiers of society, leaving a good third behind the digital divide. We need bold technology access and transparency. If we don’t muster both, climate inaction will deteriorate our habitat at levels we can’t even start fearing. And technology manipulation will turn us into mindless consumers and our democracy into a meaningless farce.

The 21st Century has witnessed the greatest progress in human history’s living standards. The unprecedented great escape from hunger, poverty and disease, epitomized by the surge of China and India, contrasts with the discrimination and neglect that still remains: 600 million people living in extreme poverty remain the furthest behind – 1.3 billion if one counts them with the multi-dimensional poverty index, which goes beyond dollars and income to measure human deprivations. Three million of these poor families’ children are still expected to die from preventable causes every year, next year. The poorest children in the poorest countries.

Nothing is inevitable about this. Every society has choices before it about the levels of inequality it is ready to tolerate. These are not easy choices: the choice of generosity requires selflessness and partial renunciation of privilege. Tax transfers and higher minimum wages, unemployment subsidies, public healthcare of quality or access to education by merit demand solidarity and contribution of those who have more to those who have less.

The Eastern Caribbean societies have a proud recent history of human development to show – ascending since independence the ladders that have placed them in the High Human Development category. It didn’t come for free. Barbados is 56th of 189 surveyed countries of the world, in steady progress since the 90’s, thanks in great measure to the gender equality bonus (55th rank) that makes it a less unequal society for Bajan women than other islands in the region. The Bahamas are second, in 60th place, a country that loses 16 positions to gender inequality. Trinidad and Tobago comes in third in 63rd place. Saint Kitts and Nevis has taken over Antigua and Barbuda, being 73rd and 74th of the world, respectively. Grenada is 78th and then com Saint Lucia (89th) and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (94th). The last of the Eastern Caribbean States analysed, still in the top 100 and High Human Development group, is Dominica, whose vitals have suffered from the accumulation of loss and damage over a series of natural disasters since year 2000.

One of the recommendations UNDP makes, that could seem relevant in the region even if with varying intensity, is to accelerate convergence in basic capabilities while eliminating gender and other group-based inequalities. Not all has to be done by the State or the Government: the most effective tool is to increase productivity and turn it into shared growth. What remains to be seen is if the greed and Hobbesian unrestrained, selfish, and uncivilized competition, which has allowed many more than ever to enjoy superlative privileges, will be tempered by a new social contract that would reduce tensions and distribute opportunity with fairness. There have been times in human history when the arch of history has bent towards justice. The clock is ticking and time is right for such a bend.