Politics of Poverty

Inequality in the post-MDG framework

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New goals for a new era

There is big debate going about what should happen when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in 2015.

I spent a day in New York recently talking about how the successors to MDGs could incorporate goals around inequality.  Other people are following the post-2015 debate closer than I am.  And others know more about inequality.  But I’m interested in how reducing inequality can be included in the next round of “post-2015” goals, and thereby be established as one of the goals of humanity.

When the current MDGs expire, most people assume that the world – via the UN – will embrace a new set of goals, and that they will look something like the existing MDGs.  For inequality, there are a few options, including:

(1) a stand-alone goal on inequality;
(2) integrating inequality indicators in other goals; or
(3) finding a more symbolic or aspirational way to support reducing inequality, without making it a measurable commitment.

It’s worth noting that some goals, like ending extreme poverty or ensuring 100% of children are enrolled in quality schools, are universal and inherently support greater equality.  To some extent, the more ambitious the goals, the more likely they are to help reduce inequality.

But there’s an argument for including a goal (or goals) on inequality in their own right, not as a secondary or incidental benefit of other goals.  For one thing, a stand-alone goal makes clear what the value-statement is and would be a powerful driver for action.

There are serious technical questions about how you could do this.  The standard GINI indicator is widely used, but has flaws that can obscure important aspects of inequality.  Other methods have also been proposed.

While I’m focused on inequality of income, or perhaps wealth, other dimensions of inequality are also important and could make alternative or complementary goals, e.g. inequality of geography, gender, or ethnicity are important and salient in different contexts.

Technical questions have technical answers.  The bigger challenges lie in the politics.  There’s a presumption that a stand-alone inequality goal is a non-starter and would be blocked by the powers that be.  Indeed, the gossip mill reports that when inequality has been proposed in the High Level Panel discussions, the UK Prime Minister has flatly refused to consider it.  But he isn’t the decider.  Or is he?

It’s depressing that the High Level Panel may neglect inequality, but there are plenty of other stakeholders and intervention points.  For example, you can have a say in the U.N. global survey for citizens. (Consider writing in “inequality” as a priority.)

The resistance of some key leaders doesn’t square with the reality that inequality rates very high as a public concern, in countries north and south, rich and poor.

It’s easy to understand why the one percent might not like all this attention to inequality,  and also why they might oppose setting an objective to reduce it.  But why would everyone else?  And why would political leaders like Cameron oppose it?

Unless they cared more about the super-rich than everyone else?

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