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Tackling inequalities matters now more than ever before

Dec 08,2019 - Last updated at Dec 08,2019

In September, teachers across Jordan took to the streets to demand higher salaries, and earlier this year, unemployed Jordanians marched from Aqaba to Amman to demand jobs. These protests highlight the difficulties Jordanians face in terms of rising costs of living and high unemployment rates, the latter reaching more than 40 per cent amongst youth.

Across the world, different triggers bring people onto the streets. Many share a rising frustration with inequalities which are deeply rooted in societies, economies and politics. Despite substantial gains in health, education and living standards, the basic needs of many remain unmet while a next generation of inequalities opens.

The 2019 Human Development Report Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today released on Sunday by the UNDP, looks at inequalities in human development with a new lens. Currently, inequality is often framed around economics, on summary measures masking huge disparities across places and groups or considers only the past and present. Innovative ongoing work suggests that income and wealth may be accumulating in many countries much faster than one could grasp based on summary measures. Under the shadow of the climate crisis and sweeping technological change, inequalities in human development are taking new forms. Existing and new forms of inequality interact with major social, economic and environmental forces to determine the future of today’s youth and our ability to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.

In Jordan, as well as many other countries, the Human Development Index (HDI) has shown important improvements over the last few decades, reflecting improvements in life expectancy, years of schooling and Gross National Income. Jordan’s HDI improved from 0.616 in 1990 to 0.729 in 2005 but has since seen a slight decrease to 0.723 in 2018. According to the 2019 Human Development Report, Jordan ranks 102 out of 189 countries and territories. In comparison, Turkey ranks 59, Tunisia 91 and Lebanon 93. Overall, Jordan’s ranking has declined by six positions between 2013 to 2018.

Gender inequality remains one of the greatest barriers to human development across the globe. On current trends, it will take 202 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity alone. Jordan ranks only 113 on the Gender Inequality Index, with Turkey ranking 66, Tunisia 63 and Lebanon at 79. Girls around the world as well as in Jordan have been catching up on enrollment in schools and at universities but there has been limited progress beyond these fundamentals. Inequality is still sharp in the power men and women exercise at home, at the workplace or in politics.

To address inequalities, we need to understand them better. In Jordan, as elsewhere, there is limited data and analysis on inequality. UNDP Jordan is, therefore, embarking on a series of research papers identifying new ways of measuring and addressing inequality in Jordan.

But with the scale and scope of the challenges mapped out, how do we respond?  For starters, a relatively low national income is no excuse for inaction. Countries with fewer resources might take inspiration from Ethiopia, which has rolled out pre-primary education, securing a double win through facilitating early childhood development and freeing up mothers’ time, so they can join the workforce if they choose. A wide-range of countries with a broad assortment of health systems and incomes, ranging from Indonesia, Turkey and Vietnam, have all worked to either create or expand their universal health coverage programmes.

Countries will not be able to redress inequality on their own, however. As with the climate crisis, collective action is essential. For example, international collaboration will be required to tackle tax evasion and prevent a race to the bottom on corporate taxes and environmental standards. Moreover, new standards need to be developed to make sure that new generations of digital firms make markets more efficient, satisfy labour regulations and pay their fair share of taxes.

On gender, policies should seek to change social norms and eliminate discrimination through education, awareness and changing incentives. To ensure that everyone benefits from the latest technologies, the UNDP hopes to see more measures like free broadband and electronic medical records to micro-target those left furthest behind.

Governments must drive radical reforms to enable their citizens to thrive rather than just survive in an era of climate crisis and technological transformation. If they do not, the current unrest might set off a decade of turmoil and uncertainty. We must act now as it will only get harder. The climate crisis shows that the price of inaction compounds over time as it feeds new inequality, which can in turn make action on climate more difficult.


Sara Ferrer Olivella is UNDP’s resident representative in Jordan.

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