“Main barrier to tackling inequalities is lack of political will”

Why have many countries had difficulties reducing inequalities and what must be done to change this? How is gender inequality impacting the SDGs? As UN DESA gathered global experts at a recent meeting, to address the topic of global inequality and its impact, we asked multiple experts from the London School of Economics, World Inequality Lab and the Overseas Development Institute.

Why have so many countries had difficulty reducing inequality?
“I believe that the main barrier to tackling inequalities is lack of political will. Over the last few decades a mass of evidence has been produced documenting levels and trends in economic inequality and some other key inequalities such as health and education, and many research programmes and projects, conferences and seminars have explored the main drivers and policy options.

To date, government policy on inequality in most countries has tended to focus on policies that help the most disadvantaged. However, it is naive to think that we can tackle inequality by concentrating on the lower end of the distribution. Policies to raise the lowest wages, poorest education performance, worst health outcomes are all important policies, but these alone will not reduce inequality. Evidence that inequality and poverty are linked suggests that in the long-term poverty cannot be reduced without tackling inequality.

The main problem is that reducing inequality will create winners and losers and in terms of tackling inequality the losers include the rich; a group with a strong voice, who have influence and are powerful. Working in their own interest, an economically rational thing to do, this highly influential group have the power to block government initiatives that could potentially leave them and their families worse off. To tackle inequality, it will be necessary to convince this group that reducing inequality is in their interest (not necessarily their financial interest) or to find ways of getting policies through despite their opposition.”

By Abigail McKnight, London School of Economics

How does gender inequality impact the rest of the SDGs?
“To achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls is of intrinsic value, but also of instrumental importance as it pushes forward the wider SDG agenda. Women and children remain over-represented amongst the poorest populations, are often more food insecure, may face stigmatization and discrimination that results in a range of multidimensional deprivations.

Structural constraints often contribute to these inequalities. Social exclusion and harmful gender norms can block vulnerable women’s mobility and agency and circumvent existing laws which lack the power of implementation or monitoring. Structural and individual deprivations may also be compounded. Inequalities concerning poverty and gender – for example, those affecting chronically poor women and girls- are especially severe. Yet, research and policy-making in these fields typically address issues of poverty or gender, but rarely its intersection. A focus on intersecting inequalities can address SDGs in a range of its dimensions.

The Chronic Poverty Advisory Network has a large body of work on drivers of poverty dynamics, which indicates that sustained escapes from poverty are particularly prevalent in situations where there are collaborative spousal relationships – where women have stronger agency and gender inequalities in the household reduce. Actions to foster women’s agency, for example through economically empowering poor women, can thus help reduce poverty. More generally, it can also lead to higher household spending on human development of offspring – all conducive to improved multidimensional wellbeing across SDG indicators.”

By Vidya Diwakar, Overseas Development Institute

What must do be done to reduce global inequalities? Where are we on the road to achieve SDG 5 and 10?

“Economic inequality is largely driven by the unequal ownership of capital, which can be either privately or public owned, and by policy. Since 1980, very large transfers of public to private wealth occurred in nearly all countries, whether rich or emerging. While national wealth has substantially increased, public wealth is now negative or close to zero in rich countries. Arguably this limits the ability of governments to tackle inequality; certainly, it has important implications for wealth inequality among individuals.

The future of global inequality depends on the pace of economic growth, particularly in emerging economies, and on trends of inequality within countries. No one
knows which of these forces will dominate and whether current trends are sustainable.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, even with high growth in the emerging world, growing within-country inequality will define trends in global inequality. Other pathways are possible however. If all countries adopt an “European inequality” pathway, global inequality could decrease by 2050. This would have enormous impacts on global poverty eradication.”

By Lucas Chancel, World Inequality Lab

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