Despite global progress in tackling poverty, hunger and disease, a “new generation of inequalities” indicates that many societies are not working as they should, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) argues in its latest report released on Monday.
The 2019 Human Development Report (HDR) states that just as the gap in basic living standards is narrowing for millions of people, inequalities surrounding education, and around technology and climate change, have sparked demonstrations across the globe.
Left unchecked, they could trigger a ‘new great divergence’ in society of the kind not seen since the Industrial Revolution, according to the report.
“This Human Development Report sets out how systemic inequalities are deeply damaging our society and why,” said Achim Steiner, the UNDP Administrator.
“Inequality is not just about how much someone earns compared to their neighbour. It is about the unequal distribution of wealth and power: the entrenched social and political norms that are bringing people onto the streets today, and the triggers that will do so in the future unless something changes. Recognizing the real face of inequality is a first step; what happens next is a choice that each leader must make.”
‘Inequality not beyond solutions’
Mr. Steiner added crucially that “inequality is not beyond solutions”.
The human development approach views “richness” as going beyond the idea that economic growth will automatically lead to development and wellbeing.
It focuses on people, and their opportunities and choices.
UNDP research shows that in 2018, 20 per cent of human development progress was lost due to the unequal distribution of education, health and living standards.
“What used to be ‘nice-to-haves’, like going to university or access to broadband, are increasingly important for success, but left only with the basics, people find the rungs knocked out of their ladder to the future,” said Pedro Conceição, Director of the HDR Office at UNDP.
Invest in education, productivity, public spending
The report recommends revamped policies in the areas of education, productivity and public spending.
As inequality begins even before birth and can accumulate through adulthood, investing in young children’s learning, health and nutrition is key. These investments must continue throughout life as they have an impact on earnings and productivity in the labour market.
UNDP observed that countries with a more productive workforce generally have a lower concentration of wealth at the top, which is enabled by policies that support stronger unions, the right to a minimum wage, social protection and which bring more women into the workplace.
The report further highlights the role of taxation, which cannot be looked at on its own. Rather, fair taxation should lie behind policies that include greater public spending on health, education and greener energy alternatives.
As the UNDP chief noted, “Different triggers are bringing people onto the streets — the cost of a train ticket, the price of petrol, demands for political freedoms, the pursuit of fairness and justice. This is the new face of inequality”.
Looking to the future, the report asks how inequality might be viewed years down the line, especially in relation to “two seismic shifts” that will shape the next century.
Those are the climate crisis, and the progress of the technological transformation that includes renewables and energy efficiency, digital finance and digital health solutions.
The report calls for opportunities to be “seized quickly and shared broadly”.
65% of Adults Think Race, Ethnicity or National Origin Affects Job Opportunities
A recent Ipsos-World Economic Forum survey has found that 65% of all adults believe that, in their country, someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin influences their employment opportunities. When considering their own race, ethnicity, or national origin, more than one-third say it has impacted their personal employment opportunities.
The online survey was conducted between 22 January and 5 February 2021, among more than 20,000 adults in 27 countries. It also reveals that 60% of adults think that someone’s race, ethnicity, or national origin plays a role in education opportunities, access to housing, and access to social services.
As Black History Month in the United States draws to a close, awareness of the impacts of race, ethnicity and national origin on opportunities in life is exceptionally high. It follows a tumultuous year when the pandemic put inequality into the spotlight, and events in the US sparked international protests as long-simmering, systemic racial inequities came to the forefront.
Of those surveyed, 46% say the events of the past year have increased differences in opportunities as well as access to housing, education, employment and/or social services in their country. In comparison, 43% say the events have had no impact on differences and 12% say they have decreased differences.
About 60% of respondents in Latin America, Spain and South Africa, and nearly half in France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Sweden, Belgium and the US say recent events have increased race, ethnicity, or national origin-based differences in opportunities in their country, compared to only about one in three in Germany, Poland and Saudi Arabia, one in four in China, and one in seven in Russia.
Perceptions versus the reported personal experience of inequality also vary significantly in countries. Compared with the 27-country average for all four types of opportunities measured, several countries stand out.
- South Africa and India show high perception and high personal experience
- Japan, Belgium and France show high perception and low personal experience
- Malaysia shows low perception and high experience
- Russia, Poland, Sweden and Great Britain show low perception and low experience
- The employment opportunity gap and the private sector’s role in achieving a more equitable society is something businesses are increasingly keen to address. In 2020, between George Floyd’s death in May and the end of October, about one-third of Fortune 1000 companies made a public statement on, or a commitment to, racial equity. The private sector pledged a total of $66 billion towards racial justice initiatives.
- Yet, companies have repeatedly been reckoning with the gap between intentions and progress. There have been only 15 Black CEOs over the 62 years of Fortune 500’s existence. Currently, only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are black.
‘Industry 4.0’ tech for post-COVID world, is driving inequality
Developing countries must embrace ground-breaking technologies that have been a critical tool in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, or else face even greater inequalities than before, UN economic development experts at UNCTAD said on Thursday.
“Very few countries create the technologies that drive this revolution – most of them are created in China and the US – but all countries will be affected by it”, said UNCTAD’s Shamika Sirimanne, head of Division on Technology and Logistics. “Almost none of the developing countries we studied is prepared for the consequences.”
The appeal, which is highlighted in a new UNCTAD report, relates to all things digital and connective, so-called “Industry 4.0” or “frontier technologies”, that include artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain, 5G, 3D printing, robotics, drones, nanotechnology and solar energy.
Gene editing, another fast-evolving sector, has demonstrated its worth in the last year, with the accelerated development of new coronavirus vaccines.
In developing countries, digital tools can be used to monitor ground water contamination, deliver medical supplies to remote communities via drones, or track diseases using big data, said UNCTAD’s Sirimanne.
But “most of these examples remain at pilot level, without ever being scaled-up to reach those most in need: the poor. To be successful, technology deployment must fulfil the five As: availability, affordability, awareness, accessibility, and the ability for effective use.”
Income gap widening
With an estimated market value of $350 billion today, the array of emerging digital solutions for life after COVID is likely to be worth over $3 trillion by 2025 – hence the need for developing countries to invest in training and infrastructure to be part of it, Sirimanne maintained.
“Most Industry 4.0 technologies that are being deployed in developed countries save labour in routine tasks affecting mid-level skill jobs. They reward digital skills and capital”, she said, pointing to the significant increase in the market value of the world’s leading digital platforms during the pandemic.
“The largest gains have been made by Amazon, Apple and Tencent,” Sirimanne continued. “This is not surprising given that a very small number of very large firms provided most of the digital solutions that we have used to cope with various lockdowns and travel restrictions.”
Expressing optimism about the potential for developing countries to be carried along with the new wave of digitalisation rather than be swamped by it, the UNCTAD economist downplayed concerns that increasing workforce automation risked putting people in poorer countries out of a job.
This is because “not all tasks in a job are automated, and, most importantly, that new products, tasks, professions, and economic activities are created throughout the economy”, Sirimanne said.
“The low wages …for skills in developing countries plus the demographic trends will not create economic incentives to replace labour in manufacturing – not yet.”
According to UNCTAD, over the past two decades, the expansion in high and low-wage jobs – a phenomenon known as “job polarization” – has led to only a single-digit reduction in medium-skilled jobs in developed and developing countries (of four and six per cent respectively).
“So, it is expected that low and lower-middle income developing countries will be less exposed to potential negative effects of AI and robots on job polarization”, Sirimanne explained.
Nonetheless, the UN trade and development body cautioned that there appeared to be little sign of galloping inequality slowing down in the new digital age, pointing to data indicating that the income gap between developed and developing countries is $40,749 in real terms today, up from $17,000 in 1970.
Greater Innovation Critical to Driving Sustained Economic Recovery in East Asia
Innovation is critical to productivity growth and economic progress in developing East Asia in a rapidly changing world, according to a new World Bank report launched today.
Countries in developing East Asia have an impressive record of sustained growth and poverty reduction. But slowing productivity growth, uncertainties in global trade, and technological advances are increasing the need to transition to new and better modes of production to sustain economic performance.
To support policy makers in meeting this challenge, The Innovation Imperative for Developing East Asia examines the state of innovation in the region, analyzes the key constraints firms face in innovating, and lays out an agenda for action to spur innovation-led growth.
“A large body of evidence links innovation to higher productivity,” said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Vice President for East Asia and Pacific. “The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, along with the fast-evolving global environment, have raised urgency for governments in the region to promote greater innovation through better policies.”
While developing East Asia is home to several high-profile innovators, data presented in the report show that most countries in the region (except China) innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels. Most firms operate far from the technological frontier. And the region is falling behind the advanced economies in the breadth and intensity of new technology use.
“Aside from some noteworthy examples, the vast majority of firms in developing East Asia are currently not innovating,” said Xavier Cirera, a lead author of the report. “A broad-based model of innovation is thus needed – that supports a large mass of firms in adopting new technologies, while also enabling more-sophisticated firms to undertake projects at the cutting edge.”
The report identifies several factors that impede innovation in the region, including inadequate information on new technologies, uncertainty about returns to innovation projects, weak firm capabilities, insufficient staff skills, and limited financing options. Moreover, countries’ innovation policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.
To spur innovation, the report argues that countries need to reorient policy to promote diffusion of existing technologies, not just invention; support innovation in the services sectors, not just manufacturing; and strengthen firms’ innovation capabilities. Taking this broader view of innovation policy will be critical to enabling productivity gains among a broader swath of firms in the region.
“It is important for governments in the region to support innovation in services, given their rising importance in these economies – not only for better service quality but increasingly as key inputs for manufacturing,” said Andrew Mason, also a lead author of the report.
Countries also need to strengthen key complementary factors for innovation, including workers’ skills and instruments to finance innovation projects. Building stronger links between national research institutions and firms will also be critical to fostering innovation-led growth in the region.
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