he Nobel laureate in economics Professor Amartya Sen has long argued that human beings constitute the ‘ends’ of economic activity, rather than its means. Indeed, Sen has, for decades, argued that “development” is not only about income but also about the human desire to live longer and better lives. Inspired by the work of Sen, the United Nations Development Programme publishes an annual Human Development Report (HDR) with an accompanying Human Development Index, which measures and ranks country performance along a range of development indicators.
Since 1990, when it was first launched, the HDR has remained highly influential in shaping the international development discourse. This year’s report, launched a few days ago, focuses on how various types of inequalities weaken social cohesion and economic growth, and damage people’s trust in public institutions. Inequalities that matter intrinsically are inequalities in what Amartya Sen calls “capabilities”—broadly defined as people’s freedom to choose what to be and do.
Viewing inequalities in human development through a new lens, the 2019 HDR highlights three key messages: going “beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today”. The world has achieved numerous developmental successes in recent decades and the HDR concludes that inequalities in basic capabilities—associated with the most extreme human deprivations such as global inequalities in life expectancy at birth—are shrinking.
Consequently, larger groups of people throughout the world are now achieving basic forms of human development. However, the world is simultaneously witnessing an increase in inequalities related to enhanced capabilities. Individuals and groups are increasingly dissatisfied with the choices made by their leaders.
Many feel unfairly treated and believe they are losing out to other groups who are becoming richer and leading better quality lives at the expense of those excluded or marginalised from the development process.
Perceptions on inequalities differ around the world and among various groups in the population. The youth in Africa, like in all other world regions, are especially frustrated at their exclusion from political and economic processes. They demand a greater voice in societal maters and argue that while their demands receive symbolic attention, the older generation continues to make key decisions that risk affecting the lives of both current and future generations.
The growing number of demonstrations and protests around the world today, such as Fridays for Future, are very much an expression of such frustration. Recent research on the relationship between inequality and conflict also provide for fascinating reading.
It turns out that although income inequality is growing, it is not in itself a unifying factor in motivating large groups of people to rebel against the State. But perceived inequalities related to ethnicity, religion or regional identities can significantly increase the risk of armed conflict.