Taking Inequality into Account in the Post-2015 Development Agenda

Rachel M. Gisselquist

There is much to commend in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as we approach their target deadline of 2015. In addition to the major improvements achieved in poverty, health, and education, the establishment of a set of worldwide targets, and their incorporation by countries into diverse national development agendas, represents in itself a remarkable global achievement. The MDGs have also left some major issues on the table. One of the most important, and challenging, is inequality.

Despite this, the MDGs themselves have helped to illuminate some aspects of inequality. One of the most striking findings highlighted in continuing efforts to monitor their progress, for instance, is that none of the so-called ‘fragile’ states is expected to reach any of the MDG targets. When we consider what this implies about the opportunities open to the average child born in one of these countries, to those born elsewhere, the stark inequalities of our increasingly globalized world stand in sharp relief. The MDGs have also helped to bring attention to major gender inequalities, in education, health, and employment.

At the same time, the national-level statistics highlighted by the MDGs have obscured other major inequalities within countries, both across individuals and households, and across different groups in society. Inequalities across social groups, defined in particular by ethnicity, region, religion, and other markers of communal identity, involve systematic differences in power, status, or opportunity, as well as income and wealth – and pose arguably the greatest challenges for the post-2015 development agenda. Successfully addressing these various aspects of inequality will require technical and political innovation.


The importance of addressing inequality has not been lost on those involved in the consultative process to develop the post-2015 agenda. Equity is among the three fundamental principles identified in the UN system’s 2012 task team report, Realizing the Future We Want for All. As this report notes, inequality matters not only because it is unjust but also because it is linked with other outcomes that we care about. 

Research has explored these linkages in considerable depth. Frances Stewart’s work, for instance, highlights the relationship between ‘horizontal inequalities’ among culturally-defined groups, and violent conflict. Her 2001 WIDER Annual Lecture on the topic highlighted diverse examples from Mexico (Chiapas) to Sri Lanka to South Africa. Although scholarly research has tended to focus on civil conflict and communal violence, inequality may also be linked to criminal and terrorist violence. The journalist Robert Kaplan made this point almost twenty years ago in his provocative and much-read essay, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, which predicted an increasing divide between the world’s haves and have nots within and across national boundaries. 

‘Every day’ politics, economics, and social relations are also affected by inequality.  Social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, for instance, finds that more economically equal societies are both healthier and happier than less equal ones. In political economy, a major body of work explores how social divisions – in particular those defined in ethnic terms – undermine economic growth even in times of peace, through their effect on governance, namely economic policy and public goods provision.  Research by political scientists Kate Baldwin and John Huber suggests that what is most problematic in fact is economic inequality across ethnic groups, more so than cultural divisions. 


Addressing inequality poses technical and political challenges. On the technical side, measurement and monitoring systems are inadequate and need to be developed. The MDGs themselves raised similar concerns at the outset, which led to investments in better national statistics. That said, the particular technical challenges of measuring and monitoring inequality should not be underestimated. 

On income inequality, for instance, UNU-WIDER’s World Income Inequality Database (WIID) is currently the most comprehensive source for worldwide data, with information on 159 countries.  Existing databases, including the WIID, rely on estimates from various national and international sources. For many poor countries there is little available data. No standard surveys are focused on measuring inequality, and sources may provide multiple and conflicting estimates for the same country for the same year because each relies, for instance, on different surveys or income concepts.  Furthermore, commonly used indicators of income inequality do not necessarily help us to assess ‘progress’ in the manner that we might wish: A decline in the GINI coefficient, for example, does not necessarily indicate that the poor are getting richer and overall well-being is improving. The rich may simply be getting poorer.

UNU-WIDER is in the process of updating the WIID and addressing these technical challenges, as well as trying to find a way forward in how to consider inequality more broadly. Based on the international data currently available, we know very little about social inequality across countries. Standard sources like the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDI), for instance, compile no information on ethnicity, much less present disaggregated statistics by ethnic group. Such basic facts are hard to come by in many national statistical sources as well. Compilation of such information is complicated, in part, by the nature of group identities: Issues like identifying what ethnic group an individual belongs to may seem obvious on the surface, but research shows otherwise. It is common both for individuals in modern societies to belong to multiple ethnic or communal groups, and for salient group identities to vary by social context. This has major implications for the design and interpretation of census and survey questions on these topics.

The measurement of social inequalities in particular also poses knotty political challenges.  The categories included in a census, for instance, are inherently political, among other reasons because they can provide a basis for the distribution of state resources.  Some countries do not compile or make public information on ethnic groups in particular because they view this information as nationally divisive.  Data documenting unequal situations could be used by disadvantaged groups to press for more equal representation and benefits within a political system.  It could also serve to solidify group-based grievances and to foment rebellion.  Dominant groups thus have clear incentives to obscure such information. In short, getting buy-in to compile data on inequality writ large will be a hard sell to some governments.


Addressing inequality also offers opportunities. For one, inequality is an issue of concern for most countries, and especially so for some wealthy ones like the United States. The MDGs have been criticized as prescriptions for developing countries by developed countries, but addressing inequality will highlight shortcomings and best practices that cut across such traditional distinctions. This may create incentives at the top for national governments to embrace this objective. From the bottom up, it may also strengthen opportunities for disadvantaged groups around the world to collaborate in mobilizing for their rights, across national boundaries. The indigenous rights movement in Latin America offers one such example.

Tackling inequality in the post-2015 development agenda will raise real technical and political challenges. It may also open new opportunities for global engagement and collaboration, in working toward a more just, more stable, and better governed world.  With respect to Africa, many of these issues will be under discussion at our September conference on Inclusive growth September conference on inclusive growth.

Rachel M. Gisselquist is a Research fellow at UNU-WIDER

WIDERAngle newsletter
March 2013
ISSN 1238-9544