Reducing inequality — the great challenge of our time

Early in October 2022, international and Colombian researchers gathered together for three days at the UNIANDES campus, located at the foot of the impressive Monserrate in Bogotá, Colombia. They were there to discuss their latest advances in inequality research.

This was the second WIDER Development Conference of 2022 on the topic of Reducing inequality — the great challenge of our time. Local students from various Colombian universities also joined the meetings.The conference aimed to contribute to the discourse on how to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries with the latest research and empirical evidence. The conference was envisioned when the pandemic started to show its ugliest face and it was implemented amid global convulsions triggered by the invasion of Ukraine. I led the UNU-WIDER team that organized the conference alongside our partners at UNIANDES, and with the collaboration and support of several other participating institutes and experts.

Reducing inequality – the great challenge of our time

The many faces of inequality

We put together an intensive programme with a broad approach to the theme of inequality. We were interested in talking extensively about earnings and income inequality, but also wanted to give substantial space to inequalities that take place across other dimensions —such as education or health— and to discuss both outcomes and opportunities.

We also wanted deeper insight on how inequalities operate among people in terms of the gaps between the rich and the poor (vertical inequalities), but also how some persistent inequalities work along ethnic or gender lines (group-based inequalities).

The conversation focused on the trends in inequalities, including about the best data and methods for understanding them, but also on the causes and consequences of inequality. For example, how do inequalities impact other socioeconomic outcomes, like poverty, growth, migration, or trust?

Finally, any analysis of inequalities would be incomplete without a discussion about the best policies to fight them, whether these aim at reducing inequalities directly where they originate (predistribution), for example, by reducing inequalities in the access to education or to the labour market, or if they reduce the unequal outcomes that result (redistribution) with progressive taxation or social benefits.

Policy actions also need to account for the complex context created by the main challenges ahead, with the pandemic, the rise in energy and food prices, or violent conflicts, let alone climate change or the latest advances in technology.

Our geographical scope was both local and global, but with special focus on the developing world. Latin America was well represented, of course, but we also explored a good sample of research on Africa and Asia. Indeed, building bridges among researchers and institutions from various regions of the Global South was one of the main objectives of the conference.

The programme showcased a significant portion of the research conducted by the UNU-WIDER global network. It highlighted the high quality of research produced by our main partner and host institution, UNIANDES —including its research center, the Center for Studies on Economic Development (CEDE) or the Evidence in Governance & Politics (EGAP) Latin American hub— and all those researchers participating in the VII Colombian Economic Congress that was integrated into the programme.

A collaborative programme

A substantial number of sessions were convened by the many collaborating institutions. A key topic of how inequalities originate in the labour market and are shaped by technology was the theme of two sessions from a joint UNU-WIDER and the International Economic Association (IEA) call for papers. This theme was well in line with the WIDER Annual Lecture delivered at the conference by Daron Acemoğlu which disentangled the complex relationship between technology and inequality.

The relevance of gender inequality and forced migration were discussed in two sessions convened by the Latin American and Caribbean Economic Association (LACEA), while its former president Raquel Fernández discussed the role of the family and social norms in shaping inequalities. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) gave us a flavor of the first results of the review they lead on inequality in Latin America (LACIR), while the Latin American Regional Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme, shared findings on the links between violence, inequality, and productivity from the 2021 regional Human Development Report.

We also heard about inequalities in Africa and in the Arab countries from our colleagues at the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), the African Center of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR), and the Economic Research Forum (ERF). A recent UNCTAD report put on the table the importance of harmonizing the international taxation of foreign investment and the European Union - French Development Agency’s (EU-AFD) research facility on inequalities underscored how critical greater equality is to achieve social and ecological sustainability.

We were also lucky to have great sessions on research submitted through a general call for papers, on a diverse range of topics, like the effects of COVID-19, gender, education, health, and climate change-related inequalities. There was also much to be said about redistribution and equality of opportunities, a topic extensively analyzed by Chico Ferreira’s opening keynote address on inequality of opportunity and mobility in Latin America.

Overall, this was an impressive research programme, but one of the main mandates of UNU-WIDER is to connect research with the policymaking process. For that, we convened a fruitful policy dialogue on how to make the world more equal, in which Santiago Levy, from Brookings Institutions, José Antonio Ocampo, the Colombian Minister of Finance, Marcela Eslava, Professor and Dean of Economics at UNIANDES, and Enilde Sarmento, from the Mozambican Ministry of Economy and Finance shared with us their views on the challenges but also the directions we need to take to tackle inequalities.

We hope that the conference helped to better understand inequalities and to be convinced that they are not inevitable. There are solutions that, if implemented, will make the world a bit more equal in the years to come. We are thankful to all those who contributed to the rich programme and to those who provided the necessary and complex logistics that this type of conference requires.

Carlos Gradín is a Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER. He specializes in the study of inequalities and his work work regularly enhances the empirical evidence and methodological tools used to measure and understand inequalities. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.