Discussing the future of development – why economic inequality matters

The main drivers of contemporary development, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire in 2015. The past years have, as a consequence, seen a raised debate concerning the future...

The main drivers of contemporary development, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire in 2015. The past years have, as a consequence, seen a raised debate concerning the future of development. What were the shortcomings of the MDGs? What were the strengths? Is there a need to refocus our priorities, and if so, where?

The current MDGs have, similarly to most UN decisions, been both praised and critiqued. One of the biggest criticisms concerns the goals’ lack of focus on inequality. But even if tackling inequalities seems like a reasonable quest at first glance, it leads to the trickier part of defining inequality.
In light of Oxfam’s 2014 report ‘Working for the few – political capture and economic inequality,’ where it was revealed that the wealthiest 85 people in the world own the same as the bottom 3.5 billion, it is worth considering the wide consequences of economic inequality.

The ramifications of economic inequality reach far beyond those of income and wealth. Inequalities in wealth and income translate to both social and political disparities. Oxfam’s report focuses especially on the interrelation between wealth and political power: wealth gets captured in the hands of few who bend the rules to favor themselves. As a consequence the poor are left further and further behind. Not only does this hold value in itself, but equality of opportunity also vanishes as a result. Oxfam’s report states that a certain level of income inequality might be justified, but that “very few people would oppose equality of opportunity for everyone”.

A luxurious compound next to a Brazilian favela illustrating the harshness economic inequality.

A luxurious compound next to a Brazilian favela illustrating the harshness economic inequality.

Consequences of economic inequality manifest themselves early in a person’s life. In the report ‘A holistic and human rights-based approach for addressing inequalities in the post 2015 agenda,’  the CSO Beyond2015 describes the long-term consequences children suffer due to economic inequalities. The report says that “poor children are acutely aware of their status compared to their peers” and that “inequality early in life manifests in poor performance in school, the underdevelopment of capabilities and limited prospects in adult life”.

This argument is of course only one amongst many. It is worth asking what the core purpose of the post-2015 development goals should be. Intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations seem to agree on one point in this regard: that an objective of social justice should guide the post-2015 development efforts.

It is impossible to say that the extreme wealth inequality presented by Oxfam is socially just. Instead it has been easier to focus on extreme poverty as an isolated concept, meaning focusing on those living below $1.25 per day. Adopting economic growth and production as a mean to fight extreme poverty, overshadows the importance of tackling economic inequality. Using redistribution of wealth as a tool to fight extreme poverty would not only lift people from living below 1.25$ per day, but would also narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Mahatma Ghandi once wrote, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” The extent of economic growth in the past decades has made this quote ever more relevant. If incomes and wealth were distributed more equally around the world, everyone would have incomes well above World Bank’s threshold.

Should this not be enough to refocus our development priorities, from looking at poverty as an isolated concept and to start looking at economic inequality?


Links to the reports mentioned in the article:

Beyond2015 report

Julia Myska

Julia Myska newly graduated from University College London, where she did a MSc in Development Administration and Planning. Prior to this, she studied human rights with journalism at Kingston University London. She is interested in Latin America, and in particular Colombia – where she has been working voluntarily on three occasions.

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