Focus switches to inequality

In Kenya, minority ethnic groups risk lower immunization levels and higher under-five mortality rates. Among the Mijikenda/Swahili, for example, 27 percent of births have a skilled attendant present, against 71 percent among the Kikuyu.

In Latin America, children of indigenous origin are more likely to be undernourished – by between 1.6 and 2.5 times – than children of non-indigenous origin.

In Nepal, 23 percent of children from the majority Chinese community were underweight in a survey, compared with 34 percent from ethnic minorities in the northern mountains and 45 percent in the central highlands and coastal areas.

These are just some of the examples of social exclusion and how it limits universal achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), cited in a new report by Naila Kabeer, a professor at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), Can the MDGs provide a pathway to social justice? The challenges of intersecting inequalities, produced by the IDS and the MDG Achievement Fund.

At the opening of the three-day summit in New York, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, urged world leaders to “stay true” to ensure the goals are met by 2015.

“True to our identity as an international community built on a foundation of solidarity. True to your commitment to end the dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.”

He also stressed that “being true means addressing inequality, both among and within countries. Even in countries that have registered impressive gains, inequality eats away at social cohesion.”

The concept was stressed again in the Outcome document issued on 22 September: “We are deeply concerned ... that the number of people living in extreme poverty and hunger surpasses one billion and that inequalities between and within countries remains a significant challenge.” 

Kabeer told IRIN by email: “I think a number of UN agencies, including [the UN Children’s Fund] UNICEF in particular, have been trying to highlight inequality and social exclusion in their work in recent years so the idea itself is not groundbreaking. But it sometimes takes time for an idea to work its way into the institutional consciousness.

“Perhaps this summit was the moment when inequality became an idea whose time has finally come. In taking stock of progress on the MDGs, it has become clear that it has been mainly the easier-to-reach sections of the poor that have made most progress on the MDGs while those who are most vulnerable lag far behind.”

In the MDGs’ original form, the “social justice agenda” was left out. “They [the MDGs] are largely formulated in terms which measure ‘average’ progress in relation to the goals. While these measures capture overall progress at global or national level, they do not indicate whether such progress has been broad-based or equitable,” writes Kabeer.

This view is echoed in a 13 September report by The Lancet with the London International Development Centre: “The MDGs enable us to focus on access to minimum levels of provision in health, education, or earnings, but they do not go far enough to address unfair social relations associated with crossing a line of minimum adequacy... Poverty rather than inequity is regarded as the challenge, thereby relieving wealthy countries of having targets of their own.”

''Perhaps this summit was the moment when inequality became an idea whose time has finally come''

Social exclusion can lead to severe social (in terms of crime and conflict) and economic (slowing down poverty reduction) costs, not just in less developed countries.

In his blog, Development Horizons, the director of IDS, Lawrence Haddad, writes: “... Donors and governments don’t much like talking about inequality. The focus on gender [in the MDG Outcome] will force them to, but there are other forms of inequality that also need to be addressed.

“Perhaps the most stark demonstration of the need to address inequality to accelerate progress on the MDGs is the new data analysis from IDS Fellow Andy Sumner. It finds that three quarters of the world’s poor do not live in ‘low income’ countries any longer. The figures show that poverty is as much about inequality within countries as an absolute lack of resources in a country.”

New approach

Addressing inequality and inequity will entail a completely different approach to implementing the MDGs, writes Kabeer, including social protection programmes, which include cash and in-kind transfers, as well as public works and school-feeding programmes and community-based insurance schemes. “They are now estimated to reach over 150 million households in poor countries and benefit around half a billion people,” Kabeer writes.

Extending such benefits, despite the pledge by world leaders on 22 September for another US$40 billion towards eradicating poverty, will be difficult without community buy-in; government-led and targeted anti-discriminatory initiatives; and addressing global structural inequalities, in trade, for example.

“The Outcome Document on the MDGs is excellent in terms of its analysis of the problems - it speaks of the importance of equality, of human rights, of participatory governance - but it is disappointing on the Action section - there is little practical discussion of how these challenges are to be met,” Kabeer told IRIN.