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UNDP warns inequality drags on progress

Inequalities in education, health and living standards caused a 20% loss in global progress towards aspects of needed "human development" last year.

Inequalities in education, health and living standards caused a 20% loss in global progress towards aspects of needed "human development" last year, the U.N. Development Program reported on Monday.

Traditional 20th century attitudes towards inequality focused on money — helping people move up the economic ladder. In the 21st century, according to UNDP, it's more about opportunity, which helps explain why millions of people are taking to the streets to protest their societal circumstances.

UNDP used statistical tools to measure nations' progress based on key indicators such education and life expectancy. More investment in early childhood programs and new approaches to international taxation were among the solutions offered by UNDP's 2019 Human Development Report to offset the roles of gender, ethnicity and wealth in helping to determine a person's relative place in society.

Leaders of the New York-based United Nations agency said the report reflected a past year of mass street protests against governments in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia. The protests exposed an erosion of public trust in political leaders who need to listen more to people’s real problems, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in late October.

"The wave of demonstrations sweeping across countries is a clear sign that, for all our progress, something in our globalized society is not working,” UNDP's administrator, Achim Steiner, said in introducing his agency's 366-page report in Colombia's capital, Bogotá, with President Iván Duque.

Hundreds of thousands of people have marched since last month in Latin American cities, including those in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, to protest their government. The protests began with rallies by unions and social movements on November 21 to demand more worker benefits and jobs.

“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," said Steiner. "This is the new face of inequality and, as this Human Development Report sets out, inequality is not beyond solutions."

Haves and 'nice-to-haves'

UNDP argued that new measures of inequality must count not only income and GDP but also quality and access to education and technology, along with impacts from the climate crisis. Its report found the number of nations and territories with high human development rose to 62 in 2018, up from 12 in 1990, while those with low human development fell to 36, down from 62, in the same time.

Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany and Hong Kong scored the highest, while Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Niger were at the opposite end of the spectrum. But the report predicted it will take more than two centuries to close the world's economic gender gap, and it noted that broadband technologies are spreading 15 times as fast in wealthier nations.

People in wealthier nations were receiving higher education at a rate six times greater than in poorer nations, according to the report, which also recommended carbon pricing to redistribute profits.

“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 UNDP’s Pedro Conceição, director of its Human Development Report Office.


Climate and technology

Steiner emphasized the role of climate and technology in opening what he called "a Great New Divergence" between countries and communities divided by wealth and educational opportunities, which helped determine what kind of help UNDP provided to nations.

"For example, we saw a surge of requests for our collaboration on how to use technology and digital solutions to improve civic engagement, advance digital inclusion, address corruption and uphold human rights," he said. "And we worked with 140 countries to tackle climate change."

About 55% of 20-year-olds in wealthier nations where greater social and economic opportunities exist were very likely to enroll in higher education, the report said. By contrast, it said, 17% of children born in poorer countries were likely to die before the age of 20. Those who do survive, it said, have a life expectancy that is 13 years less than in high human development nations.

"Both of these young people are just beginning their adult lives," it said, "but circumstances almost entirely beyond their control have already set them on different and unequal paths in terms of health, education, employment and income prospects — a divergence that can be irreversible."