In 1990, Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq and Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen launched the first ever Human Development Report (HDR), published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The opening lines of the 1990 report, written by Haq, explain the reason for its existence: “People are the real wealth of a nation. The basic objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives.
“This may appear to be a simple truth. But it is often forgotten in the immediate concern with the accumulation of commodities and financial wealth.”
In the latest report, “Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today” released in December 2019, the HDR highlights the narrow view most institutions have with regards to measuring inequality.
In the report’s foreward, UNDP administrator Achim Steiner said traditional approaches to examining inequality almost exclusively focused on economic measurments.
“But societies are cracking under the strain of this assumption, and while people may protest to keep pennies in their pockets, power is the protagonist of this story: the power of the few; the powerlessness of the many; and collective power of the people to demand change,” he said.
This view is mirrored in the latest Oxfam International report, “Time to care”, released near the end of 2019 and which explores the vital role of women and children in global care jobs.
While both reports respond to different concerns, they both reach the same conclusion: inequality is one of the biggest problems facing humanity.
According to Oxfam, only 2,153 people had more wealth than 4.6 billion people. The richest 22 men own more wealth than all the women in Africa.
This gross inequality is entrenched by a social system designed to protect the power of the few at the top, while actively suppressing the majority of people below.
The UNDP report explains: “inequalities start at birth, often even before, and can accumulate over people’s lives”.
Conditions entirely beyond a person’s control – where they are born, their parents’ economic status, race, gender, and so on — play a huge part in determining their chances of success in life.
While it’s true there are cases of someone clawing their way out of poverty to become successful, they are the exception rather than the norm.
As British activist George Monbiot famously said: “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
Worse still, inequality is only going to worsen as the climate crisis continues without any meaningful change in sight.
Oxfam says that as the climate crisis wrecks havoc on local ecosystems, resources will become increasingly scarce.
“For people living in poverty, many of whom are women, this will mean an ever greater struggle to meet their needs and those of their dependents.”
In contrast, those 22 men will be able to just throw money at the problem and avoid the worst effects of the disaster they played a lead role in creating.
Both reports make it clear the world needs to make radical changes at every level of society if we are to have any hope.