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What Role for Equality in the Post-2015 Development Agenda?

April 2013

Dahinden, M. 2013. What role for equality in the post-2015 development agenda? GREAT Insights, Volume 2, Issue 3. April 2013. Maastricht: ECDPM

As the target date of the Millennium Development Goals comes closer and the discussion on a new global framework unfolds, the expectation to effectively address inequalities are high. But what kind of equality do we exactly refer to and how shall it be established?

Equality is not a new issue in the international debate on global development goals. Already in the Millennium Declaration, adopted by the UN Member States at the turn of the century in 2000, equality was identified as a fundamental value. Nevertheless, the implementation of the corresponding goal framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has not translated into real equity and equal opportunity. While, globally spoken, income poverty has remarkably decreased since 2000, in many societies around the world – in low, middle and high income countries likewise – the social gap has even widened.

While equality mostly lacks a comprehensive definition, inequality, in turn, is often clearly referred to as any specific form of discrimination. Examples include, and are not limited to: discrimination related to gender, age, ethnic and indigenous identity, minority status, disability, sexual orientation, and poverty. While all kinds of disparity are subsumed under the notion of “inequalities”, it seems evident that the mentioned types are of different nature. Who would contest that the question of (in-)equality between ethnicities, e.g. a member of the Yanomani-tribe in the Amazon region and a citizen of a Western European state, has a different connotation than the one with regard to non-handicapped and quadriplegic persons? The example shows that inequalities have to refer to much more than just “difference”, and that, when calling for equality, the diversity of human beings has to be taken into account. 

In view of elaborating effective policies, programmes and interventions to address inequalities and improve the lives of disadvantaged people, we should therefore, first of all, clarify what kind of equality we are striving for. 

Equality of what?

In recent years, national income inequality has received a prominent focus, in particular with regard to the high level of income inequality in Middle-Income Countries (MICs). With its incomparable growth, China has lifted millions out of poverty in the last decades. Meanwhile, it has been facing a steep rise in income inequality. Other cases of rising domestic inequality include India and South Africa. Brazil provides a notable exception to this trend but still has one of the highest inequality rates in terms of income. 

However, it is sufficiently known that distributional equality of goods is not the answer to the global challenges we are facing today. For a true equity agenda, a simple focus on income inequality and measures to provide decent minimum floors remains insufficient. If people were similar, then an index of primary goods would be an adequate way of judging advantage. In cases of uneven access to goods, including global public goods, redistribution might be an appropriate mean, but it is not the adequate measure to tackle, for instance, the discrimination of a specific ethnic group. 

Since people have very different needs varying with health, longevity, climatic conditions, location, work conditions, etc., different responses are required. Therefore, speaking with Amartya Sen, what real development should promote is basic capability equality. The notion of such equality is a very general one, but its application is concrete. It has to be culture-dependent, particularly in the weighting of different capabilities. Equality defined in this sense refers to a person’s ability to do certain basic things, such as to move about, to meet one’s nutritional requirements, to be clothed and sheltered, or to participate in the social life of a community. 

In other words, when calling to address inequalities, we should make it clear and claim equality of capabilities. And when striving for equal capabilities, we should promote equal opportunities and equal rights. 

Equal opportunities and equal rights 

Any response to inequalities has to be guided by human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a range of international human rights covenants provide clear standards and guidance on what expressions of “difference” can be defined as “inequalities”. The human rights framework states that all people are entitled to all rights, and no-one must experience discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Thus, human rights offer compelling means for putting inequalities at the centre of development policies and practice, and the post-2015 development framework must reflect this.

To address the structural drivers of inequalities, a new development framework post-2015 has to be based on the recognition that all people have rights. It has to incorporate and reflect the human rights principles of universality and non-discrimination, participation and accountability. But this is not enough. Equality depends on the realization of human rights. However, real outcomes in this regard are not easy to identify. The fact that children are given the same right and opportunity to attend school does not imply that they have the same opportunity to visit classes, to learn, to get lessons of good quality, to be fairly evaluated, etc. Therefore, in practice, equality of both opportunities and real outcomes are not to be separated. The concept of basic capability equality accommodates both aspects and ensures that structural drivers of inequalities are addressed, allowing for the realization of rights and opportunities. 

To tackle inequality of capabilities, systemic structures need to be transformed. Such an agenda would challenge unequal power structures, engage with cultural values, and deal with political economy factors that impede on equality of opportunity. This is a complex and politically sensitive task that requires a complex set of measures and goals. 

Need for transformative change

Persistently high levels of inequalities are not only incompatible with the achievement of human rights, they endanger economic growth, political stability, and social cohesion. This might be the reason why there is great recognition that a comprehensive development framework is needed to effectively address inequalities. As elaborated above, such a framework will have to go beyond redistribution of goods, beyond poverty in poor countries, and beyond the transfer of resources from rich countries to people living in poverty. Doing more for disadvantaged people is not identical with fighting inequalities, since only symptoms of the latter are targeted. Despite possible improvements in line with development indicators, business as usual in terms of (income) poverty reduction does not result in effective changes of structural barriers which limit freedom, dignity and social opportunities. 

What is needed to establish equality of capabilities in societies all around the world, is transformative change, i.e. creating conditions in all countries where all people enjoy equality of rights and opportunity. Equitable societies promote social capital, social cohesion, stability and thereby innovation and sustainable economic growth. It is hence in the interest of every society member to create conditions which provide prosperous and equitable development through targeted, coherent and transformative policies and actions. Inclusive and intergenerational growth and decent work has to be promoted, with a special and increased attention to priority needs and rights of poor, vulnerable and marginalized people. 

The recent global thematic consultation on inequalities by the UN Development Group in the context of the Post-2015 Development Agenda (1) came to the conclusion that a framework for transformative change in order to reduce inequalities entails action at four levels: 

1. Legal, social and economic poverty; 
2. Protection from discrimination, exploitation and harm; 
3. Levelling up measures; 
4. Capacity to claim. 

At each of these levels sets of action have to be defined which encompass the economic, social, environmental, and political domains. While it is evident that entitlements to equality and non-discrimination have to be enforced by law (guided by the human rights framework) in each country (level 1), states are also requested to ensure protection of people from discrimination, violence, exploitation and harm (level 2). Transformative changes at these levels will only be possible through progressive economic and social policies. In turn, the implementation of such policies will only have an impact on equality of capabilities, if specific measures are applied to strengthen the capacity of discriminated individuals to claim and realize their rights (level 3 and 4). 

Equality in the Post-2015 framework

The legitimacy of the Post-2015 Development Agenda will be measured by whether and how it will tackle global inequalities. A future set of international development goals will have to promote greater equality of capabilities across sectors and policies. Addressing inequalities, both within and between countries, also requires fair and just rules and practices in international relations. In this context, policy coherence is crucial, particularly in areas including trade, finance, investment, taxation and corporate accountability. A specific goal on inequalities would have to consider targets in each domain of critical need. Thereby, state accountability has to be fostered at all levels mentioned above, cutting across sectoral policies and programmes. 

Switzerland advocates the integration of inequalities into the post-2015 development framework. On the one hand, equality (of capabilities) should be among the main principles on which the new framework is based on. This would imply a prioritization on improving life opportunities and capabilities of the poorest and most vulnerable, while – given the universal nature of a future framework – extending to marginalized people in all countries. On the other hand, specific targets have to be established, either within a specific goal on inequalities or integrated in other goal areas, with the aim to eliminate all forms of discrimination. Only in this way, a post-2015 development framework will have a transformative effect and, eventually, a real impact on people’s lives and dignity.

Martin Dahinden is Director-General of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). He represents Switzerland in the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


This article was published in Great Insights Volume 2, Issue 3 (April 2013)

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Economic Transformation and TradeStrengthening European External ActionEU Development Policy and PracticePost-2015 Global Development AgendaHuman rightsMillennium Development Goals (MDGs)Post 2015Africa

External authors

Martin Dahinden