Inequality is not beyond solutions. Policies matter.

Reflections on the 2019 UNDP Human Development Report

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) flagship Human Development Report 2019 entitled “Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century” was launched on 12th December in Bhutan. 

I cannot think of a better place than Bhutan to launch this report as the country has been leading global thinking on a human-centred development pathway, underpinned by the values of equity, fairness and harmony. Inequalities are impediments to these values that people of Bhutan hold dear. 

Bhutan, the birthplace of the Gross National Happiness, has enjoyed impressive economic development over the past decades and made steady improvements on its Human Development Index, placing the country in the middle human development category. While the country has long recognized the damages that inequalities bring to the society, the benefits of such growth have not been felt equally across the nation. Poverty in Bhutan has a rural face. Rapid rural-urban migration is creating disruptions to the traditionally interdependent society. Despite being the only carbon-negative country, Bhutan is feeling the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis. The fact that the Government of Bhutan has identified, with courage, sincerity and honesty, “narrowing the gap” as its key policy reform agenda suggests that inequalities exist in society.  

Around the world, the environment, rising fuel costs and a lack of jobs are just some of the issues driving mass protests. People are increasingly feeling that economic and political structures are rigged against them. These are the same people that are also missing out on the opportunities needed to get ahead, like a university education. Even the most basic human needs are still not being met for many. 

These emerging feelings amongst the people support the core analysis of the new 2019 UNDP’s Human Development Report, which presents decision makers with the choice to overturn deep-rooted systemic drivers of inequality.  

The 2019 report describes the cycle of inequalities that starts even before birth. The odds are clearly stacked, in a wide range of ways, along gender, ethnic, linguistic, class and sexual orientation lines – to name but a few. Women represent the largest systematically disadvantaged group worldwide and are facing continued challenges to their empowerment. The proportion of people biased against at least one form of gender equality has grown over the decade 2005 to 2014 in half of the 77 countries assessed, now rising to 90% of men and 86% of women. Additionally, the more power is at stake, the higher the resistance, with women facing more intense opposition in running for office than voting.

These global statistics speak to just one of many pervasive and pernicious inequalities that exist in the world. Given the scale and scope of the challenges mapped out, how do we respond? Are we doing enough? 

For starters, a relatively low national income is no excuse for inaction. Countries with fewer resources at their disposal might take inspiration from Bhutan, which has rolled out pre-primary education across the country, securing a double win through facilitating early childhood development and freeing up mothers’ time, so they can join the workforce if they choose. A wide range of countries with a broad assortment of health systems and incomes –including Bhutan – have all worked to either create or expand their universal health coverage programmes. But the Human Development Report says that meeting basic capabilities will not be enough. Under the shadow of the climate crisis and sweeping technological change, inequalities in human development are taking new forms in the 21st century. 

Looking to expand opportunity and eradicate poverty, I am proud to say that UNDP will continue its work in Bhutan by looking at systemic issues undermining gender inequalities and service delivery and building resilience of communities against the climate crisis. We are also excited to embark on the system mapping for youth unemployment and experimentation of a portfolio of solutions. Building on the recent innovation for accelerating SDGs workshop with the Royal Government of Bhutan, we also look forward to supporting a network of social innovators in the areas of waste management, entrepreneurship, and service delivery in the justice sector and local governance. 

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

Considering the sense of disenchantment and dispossession underpinning many of the year’s protests around the world, leaders must redouble their efforts to remove the alienating, insurmountable and unfair obstacles their citizens face in achieving the life they want to pursue. Governments must drive decisive reforms to enable their citizens to thrive rather than just survive in an era of climate crisis and technological transformation. We in Bhutan are well positioned to drive this agenda as addressing inequalities is at the heart of the policy reform. 

The future is in our hands. We in UNDP stand ready to support the Royal Government of Bhutan to make the difficult choices needed to provide all citizens – now and in the future – with a fair and dignified lot in life, powered by technology, shielded from prejudice and protected from an increasingly perilous climate. 

Contribution by Azusa Kubota 

UNDP Bhutan

Resident Representative

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