Mr. Eliott Harris Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist

Opening Remarks
UNU-WIDER —DESA Workshop on Inequality

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen and Colleagues

It gives me great pleasure to open this workshop focused on important aspects of inequality and its measurement. I would like at the outset to extend a particular welcome to Kunal Sen and our other colleagues from UNU-WIDER, and to thank them for the excellent cooperation in co-organizing this workshop.

Inequality is indeed one of the defining challenges of our time. There has always been inequality, but in our age, it has reached distressing and indeed damaging proportions, and it is rapidly getting worse.

It is well established that excessive and persistent income and wealth inequality pose a threat to sustained economic growth. They also undermine the equitable access to opportunity and to key services. In combination with the many other aspects of rampant inequality, especially gender inequality, they endanger social and political stability and the well-being of entire societies.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development responds to this rising concern. With its pledge to leave no one behind, the Agenda recognizes that development will not be sustainable if it is not equitably shared.

Promoting inclusion and reducing inequality are broad, multidimensional objectives. For the first time, the global development agenda sets out a concrete commitment to reduce income inequality, under SDG 10.

But the Agenda also calls attention to the imperative of ensuring equality of opportunity. The unfortunate reality is that a person’s chances in life continue to depend on factors that have nothing to do with skills or efforts—instead, one’s place of birth, ethnicity, or gender can be the main determinants of one’s life path.

We live in a world increasingly driven by technological change, by integration and by specialization. These factors have been at play for decades, shaping our societies in increasingly visible ways. And these factors have affected different groups in different ways and generated unequal outcomes—inequality in in its many different manifestations. But this effect has been overshadowed for a long time by the overall rise in prosperity, by “development”.

We recognize now that “development” alone isn’t enough. We need sustainable development. Moreover, as our economies have become more sophisticated and diversified, the divergences among different groups have become increasingly apparent. Global trade has shifted patterns of income within and between countries. And with capital-intensive technologies holding sway and the financialization of the economy, the share of income accruing to wage labour is shrinking steadily.

Again, none of this is entirely new. It happened during the First Industrial Revolution. But the pace of technological change under the Fourth Industrial Revolution is immeasurably higher than back then, and the challenge of adapting to it is much greater.

Winners and losers are being created, as always happens during structural and transformational change, but there is little open discussion of this in our societies. At the same time, information is more readily available, and people are much more aware of the inequities that plague our societies. The combination of rapid change, fear of the future and, often, a loss of status has generated a loss of trust and confidence in institutions. People are more susceptible to arguments that blame others for one’s own sense of malaise. That explains in part the move away from the spirit of multilateral cooperation.

We have to address these inequalities in effective and visible ways if we are to avoid losing the very basis of our prosperity and the foundation for the sustainable development of the future.

This leads me to highlight a few of the reasons why this workshop is so timely and so important.

First, measuring inequality in all its dimensions requires moving beyond averages. The world is awash in data, but there are still important gaps in the availability and use of disaggregated data.  The 2030 Agenda provides momentum to address these shortcomings but, thus far, its targets are far ahead of the available statistics.

Second, the workshop is timely because, as you know, the HLPF this summer convenes under the theme “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”. The discussions and outcomes of this workshop will inform the HLPF and contribute to the in-depth review of Goal 10.

Third, the workshop will also provide important insights to the forthcoming report on the World Social Situation being prepared by DESA, which focuses on inequality. The Report draws attention to the interlinkages between inequality and global mega trends, such as technological innovation and climate change. The next Human Development Report also has inequality as its theme.

During the last three decades, UNU-WIDER has played an active role in promoting and disseminating data on different dimensions of inequality. Its innovative research and cross-country datasets can help fill gaps in the measurement of inequality. DESA, for its part, has used the data and research produced by UNU-WIDER in bringing the inequality predicament to the attention of the Member States.

The stage is well set, therefore, for an excellent and informative workshop. I look forward to the presentations and discussions.

Thank you.

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