MDGs have ignored inequality – inequalities and the post-2015 agenda

Development Policy,Inclusive Economy07 May 2013Sara Murawski

Social exclusion and inequality have been neglected in the Millennium Development Goal framework and their structural causes need to be addressed in a systematic way. That is the main conclusion from the UN Development Programme’s consultation on inequalities as part of the post-2015 agenda.

Two thirds of the world population lives in countries where income inequality increased between the mid 1990s and the mid-to-late 2000s. High inequality rates have detrimental effects on both economic growth and social wellbeing, and can cause conflicts.

With the end of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in sight, the UN has been hosting thematic consultations, intended as interactive discussions between global stakeholders on the post-2015 agenda. One of these is dedicated to addressing inequalities.

Development agenda to address inequalities

In February, inequality was discussed during a two-day event in Copenhagen as a culmination of the consultation. The meetings were co-hosted by UN Women and UNICEF and the governments of Denmark and Ghana. The event also included a public dialogue involving a large number of stakeholders and a high-level leadership meeting. Before the meetings there was an open call for papers (resulting in 300 proposals and 175 reports), a literature review of existing evidence on addressing inequalities, and an online engagement with participants from civil society and developing countries.

The meetings stressed the need to tackle the structural causes of inequality, and not only the symptoms, in a systematic and coherent way, starting from a universal development framework based on human rights. Agreements must be reached both within and between countries to realize transformative policies and actions.

The public dialogue paid attention to three themes in particular: the impacts of inequalities, the different dimensions of inequality and how they affect each other, and designing a new development agenda that effectively addresses inequalities and their drivers. The results of the public dialogue were presented and discussed at the leadership meeting.

Need for transformative policies

The chairpersons’ summary statement on the leadership meeting argues that structural inequalities and social exclusion have not received enough attention in the MDG framework (see Maarten Brouwer’s blog post MDGs disregard transformative power as the core of development). Instead, development goals should target inclusive growth and decent work, especially regarding the needs of poor, vulnerable and marginalized people. This calls for proper indicators that measure progress in terms of reducing disparities between people (see the latest contributions to our Inequality Debate for a discussion on inequality indicators). The statement also recommends putting human rights more prominently at the heart of a new development framework (see Human inequality puts sovereign equality to the test).

Achieving these goals requires transformative policies and actions on both the national and international level. According to the chairpersons’ summary statement, national governments are responsible for “equity based social and economic policies, legislation and actions”, while the international community must reach agreement on “just rules and practices […] in areas including trade, finance, investment, taxation and corporate accountability.”

Inequality is political

These suggestions might sound familiar. But what seems new to the message from the Copenhagen meetings is that the causes of inequality are sought in “particular policies and structural conditions”. In the Consultation’s key messages, it becomes clear that conditions are partly sustained by those who profit from current international power relations. One of the key messages mentions that “unequal control over assets” (of a natural, productive and financial kind) sustains existing inequalities (see Ted Schrecker’s blog post Interrogating scarcity). Additionally, reference is made to the asymmetry of market economies and the interests that they support – namely of those who already benefit from them.

These statements imply that inequality is now being understood in a more political sense, recognizing that reducing inequalities requires transformative change at national level and an international community that is willing to aim at a fairer and more equal global economic system.