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Back | Programme Area: Social Policy and Development

Income Inequality Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa: Explaining Divergence, Determinants and Consequences

Date: 30 Sep 2019


Income Inequality Trends in Sub-Saharan Africa: Explaining Divergence, Determinants and Consequences
This event is part of the UNRISD-FES Series Insights into Inequalities

The remarkable economic growth of sub-Saharan Africa in the first 15 years of the 21st century did not always go hand in hand with greater equality. While income inequality during the 2000s decreased in 17 countries, it went up in 12 countries. What were the determinants and consequences of these divergent trends?

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In this seminar, Professor Cornia provides insights into income inequality levels and trends in sub-Saharan Africa. He explains why these insights are essential to design better policy responses that would allow growth to be shared more equally in sub-Saharan Africa.

The presentation first reviews initial conditions: independence, for many African countries, meant the inheritance of a highly polarized income distribution, and this inequality was exacerbated by the free market policies pursued in the 1980s and 1990s. Professor Cornia then analyses the drivers of the bifurcation in inequality trends based on the results of a comprehensive, quantitative study that tested the relevance of a long list of inequality determinants (including indicators for global conditions, domestic policy, and exogenous shocks). He identifies a sub-optimal structural evolution of the economy as well as insufficient distribution of land and human capital as key determinants in countries where income inequality has increased.

The research provides important empirical evidence about the inequality impacts of a wide range of factors. It shows that policies that help reduce poverty are not necessarily the same as those that help reduce income inequality—and vice versa. Policies to enhance the quality of education and raise productivity are potent tools for poverty reduction, for example, yet if they are not accompanied by progressive taxation and well-targeted social protection, they could accelerate income disparities. Complementary policies to address both poverty and inequality must go hand in hand.

About the speaker


Giovanni Andrea Cornia is a development economist whose career spans more than four decades across academia and the UN system. An Honorary Professor of Economics in the Department of Economics and Management at the University of Florence, he was previously Director of the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER) in Helsinki, Director of the Economic and Social Policy Research Programme at the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti in Florence, and Chief Economist at UNICEF in New York. His main areas of professional interest are income and asset inequality, poverty, growth, child well-being, human development, transition economics, and institutional economics. He has authored/edited 18 books, and written 100 journal articles and working papers. His work has been published in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Polish and Chinese.

About the series


This event is part of the series "Insights into Inequalities", generously supported by the Geneva office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, which will invite top-level speakers to share their cutting-edge research on inequalities, elites and social mobilization in various contexts. The series picks up the conversation from UNRISD's international conference, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization.