Much has been done—but much is left to doby Lucinda Smyth / December 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
On 29th November, the British Academy held a debate at the Royal Society in London on the reduction of global inequality. It specifically concerned the effectiveness of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a list of 17 objectives aiming to transform the world for the better by 2030. How do nations claim to be realising the UN’s vision of worldwide opportunity? The host Eliza Anyangwe, founder of The Nzinga Effect, introduced the topic: “Do the SDGs offer a transformative agenda for addressing global inequality?”
The first speaker was Joe Cerrell, Managing Director of Global Policy and Advocacy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He addressed whether the UN’s vision is achievable. “It is hard to argue with the central aim of the SDGs,” Cerrell said, “which is to eradicate inequality in all its forms and all its dimensions.” But though this aim is ambitious, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that if we follow a “robust implementation plan,” it will be possible to continue the progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and “ensure no one is left behind.”
The MDGs have contributed to a number of impressive feats. In 1990, 12.7 million children below the age of five were dying from preventable causes. In 2015, that number had fallen to less than six million: a drop of more than half, despite population growth. MDGs also helped to pull people out of poverty: “We have now reached gender parity in both primary and secondary schools globally.” SDGs therefore provide a “coordinated agenda,” he said, which will allow the “international community” to address global inequality.
But is the international community the right target? When we perceive inequality, do we look to an average citizen of a faraway country—or do we consider it in relation to people in our community? Jan Vandermootele, Co-Architect at UN Millennium Development Goals, argued for a more localised approach. “Global inequalities cannot be addressed at a global level,” he said, “only at a country level.” This means also prioritising inequality above poverty on the UN objectives (it is currently listed “tenth out of 17” on the list.) Even leading economists have pointed out that the number one global concern is “no longer global poverty,” but inequality. “You can’t talk about inequality if you don’t cover the entire spectrum of your distribution,” said Vandermootele.
What do the numbers say? It is helpful to ground theoretical arguments in solid statistics. Sonia Bhalotra, Economics Professor at the University of Essex, argued that policy design must be innovative and evidence-based. “Spending money isn’t enough. We need causal evidence of what works.” There is clearly a need for policy innovation, particularly for women’s issues including maternal mortality, maternal depression and the share of women in parliament. “Maternal mortality is still high, and women’s parliamentary share, though it has risen, is still low.”
Interestingly, Bhalotra’s research discovered that both increasing employment for women, and equalising property rights for men and women were not always effective. It suggests that legal reform, if it clashes with social norms, can be destructive. “In data collected from 300,000 women across 23 countries, we saw that variations in labour market conditions which favoured women resulted in more domestic violence,” Bhalotra said. “Studies of India’s recent attempt to equalise inheritance rights for women resulted in an increase of female foeticide and suicide.” We must be careful to take these social issues into account when implementing progressive policies.
Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director of campaigning group Forward UK, also drew attention to the important role of gender parity in combatting global inequality. The SDGs have a “stand-alone goal on the empowerment of women.” They not only talk about gender-based violence, but look at specific examples of abuse—such as FGM and forced marriage. The SDGs also encourage discussion about sexual and reproductive health. Yet in order to ensure these issues are brought to the fore, Otoo-Oyortey said, what we firstly need is “government coordination,” as well as better policy, framework and enforcement of laws and practices. Where there is access to funding, there are often “such demands put upon grassroots organisations” by larger companies that they are prevented from putting their practices into effect. We also need to target girls, before they become women: to give them a “voice, empowerment and the capacity” to help combat gender violence over the world.
The final speaker, CEO of Oxfam Great Britain, Mark Goldring, concluded the discussion. “Let’s celebrate that over 20 years, a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty,” he said. But he also called on us to recognise that though the world is now more equal as a whole, the inequality gap is wider within countries. We need to consider what role the concentrated accumulation of wealth plays in keeping people in poverty, and what effect poverty has on inequality.
“The recent consensus is that with the speed of economic development in the world at the moment, unless we can reduce inequality substantially, we will not hit the SDGs.” Though they are a valuable resource, and will make a real difference to the most disadvantaged and to women’s rights, they won’t make a “blind bit of difference” when it comes to targeting top earners. “The thing that will, will be political will.” The SDGs won’t cause international governments to rethink taxation, or the use of tax havens. But unless we do that, Goldring argued, we’re “not going to have the wealth for public services,” nor be able to “give people the income that they need.” We will need a global, national and local set of drivers. Though SDGs can play “a key role” in eradicating global inequality, it ultimately comes down to “political will.”