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Inequality and the SDGs: Not Only a Developing Country’s Burden

24 Mar 2016

Inequality and the SDGs: Not Only a Developing Country’s Burden
On March 30 in New York, ECOSOC will host a Special Meeting on Inequality, bringing together high-level representatives from Member States, the UN system, academia and civil society to discuss unequal distribution of wealth, its implications for the Sustainable Development Agenda and what can be done about it. However, despite SDG 10’s clear objective of reducing inequality within and among countries everywhere, too much of the focus on inequality centres on developing countries, ignoring serious economic, social and cultural divides in many of the world’s advanced nations, which contribute to rising global inequality levels.

Kelly Stetter is Research Analyst with the Social Policy and Development Programme at UNRISD. She holds Master's degrees in Development Studies (Graduate Institute, Geneva, 2016) and Latin American and Caribbean Studies (New York University, 2013) and has previously researched linkages between education and industrial policy, and NGO-led service provision.

Whose Inequality?

As ECOSOC rightly points out, rising inequality is a burden for all countries, rich and poor, that has serious implications for ensuring secure, sustainable lives and livelihoods for all. Yet, despite Goal 10’s inclusive language and imperative to reduce inequality globally, a recent Stakeholder Forum report on the implications of the SDGs for developed countries focused primarily on the goals of developing sustainable energy systems (SDG 7), promoting sustainable consumption and production (SDG 12) and combating climate change (SDG 13), which were identified as the three most transformational challenges facing developed countries.

These are indeed pressing concerns for all nations, but we must not lose sight of the challenges and obstacles created by inequality and discrimination in developed countries in the process. In a recent UNRISD side event to the 31st session of the Human Rights Council, Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky argued that “when inequality creates discriminatory outcomes, it becomes a human rights issue.” One need look no farther than one of the world’s largest economies, the United States, and the wave of protests and social mobilizations associated with the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, to see how true this is. Rising vertical inequality concentrating ever-greater amounts of wealth among a small group of economic and social elites coupled with horizontal inequalities that marginalize minority communities while perpetuating cycles of existing privilege undoubtedly create discriminatory outcomes. In Europe, the ongoing migrant crisis is yet another example of the real and pressing challenges of inequality, as countries grapple with how to integrate hundreds of thousands of people into a system designed around the privileges attached to citizenship and legal residency.

Both of these examples are rooted at their core in issues of social, legal and economic inequality, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The US was called to task by other UN Member States for racial discrimination, racial profiling and excessive use of force by police as part of the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process last year, and the EU has come under fire from human rights watchdogs for allowing fears about migration and terrorism to chip away at its commitment to civil and human rights. However, the focus on the social, economic and human rights implications of inequality in developed countries should not stop here. Nor should the issue of inequality in advanced nations be ignored as we measure progress towards the goals and targets of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Inequality is intrinsically linked to many of the great challenges facing developed nations, including those related to Goals 7, 12 and 13, as the poor and the marginalized are often the most vulnerable to the social and economic costs of unsustainable production and consumption patterns and a changing climate. By reducing inequality, developed countries can also reduce these vulnerabilities. Inequality, therefore, must be faced globally if we are to create a more sustainable world for all.

Many tools for reducing inequality are at our disposal, if we care to use them. Universal social policy, including health care and social insurance, ensures that all people have access to basic services and protections, and fair, effective, progressive tax systems with little room for evasion can help produce a more equal distribution of wealth. What is more difficult to address are the social and cultural inequalities that are often deeply entrenched in developed countries and woven into the very fabric of the welfare state. Universal social protection, while necessary and essential, cannot on its own undo a long history of discrimination, but rather must be part of larger, complementary efforts. If the SDGs are to be realized to their fullest potential, developed countries must bring these issues into the light, and critically examine how long-standing policies and institutions generate and reinforce divisions in their societies.

In addition to the ECOSOC Special Meeting on Inequality, March 30 also marks the start of the third meeting of the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators, which seeks to develop a set of indicators against which to measure progress towards the SDGs. As this process moves forward, it is essential that indicators and methodology for evaluating reductions in inequality consider the vertical and horizontal inequalities that divide, marginalize and trap people and whole communities in cycles of exclusion the world over. At the end of the day, inequality may be at its most extreme in developing nations, but low- and middle-income countries are not the only ones that must work to foster more inclusive, supportive, rights-based societies for all.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.