OPINION: Why inequality harms us all, and what we can do about it

by Laura Chinchilla Miranda | Costa Rica
Wednesday, 18 December 2019 18:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: People walk under a collection of umbrellas placed on a boulevard to promote their sale as winter approaches in San Jose, Costa Rica April 19, 2016. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Countries will not be able to beat inequality on their own. As with the climate crisis, collective action is an essential part of the solution.

Laura Chinchilla Miranda is the former president of Costa Rica.

From Bogota to Beirut and beyond, citizens have taken to the streets this year to raise their voices in protest. Prompted by specific triggers such as rising prices or climate change, these demonstrations quickly escalated and expanded to comprise other, more sweeping and systemic complaints, against corruption, stagnant wages and insecurity. Taken together, disparate sparks have ignited an angry outcry globally against entrenched systems that disproportionately reward a fortunate, favored few over more or less everyone else.

Understanding and addressing what’s behind this outcry—the damaging and growing inequalities between and among countries, communities, and individuals—stands out as a defining challenge of our time.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) flagship 2019 Human Development Report, on whose Advisory Board I was privileged to serve, addresses these challenges. Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in 21st Century  looks beyond income disparities to consider multiple, overlapping challenges in health, education, and opportunity.

Tackling inequality effectively requires to complement the traditional responses of taxes and transfers with interventions at all stages of people’s lives, from early childhood to old age. Some solutions require resources. Some require bold new ways of thinking, which is increasingly urgent in the face of the huge changes sweeping the planet, especially the climate crisis and the technological revolution.

Addressing inequalities effectively also requires addressing the causes, not just the symptoms. Of course, inequalities do not always damage a society, nor do they always reflect an unfair world. Some inequality is productive in rewarding talent and effort, and some is probably inevitable, such as the inequalities from diffusing a new technology: preventing anyone from access to a new health treatment until everyone can have it makes no sense.  

Countries will not be able to beat inequality on their own, however. As with the climate crisis, collective action is an essential part of the solution. 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. 

We also need to look ahead to anticipate inequalities driven by climate change and rapidly advancing technology. Poorer, less privileged populations are already suffering first and worst from the devastating effects of climate change and accompanying extreme weather events that destroy homes, livelihoods, and services that poor and vulnerable people lack the resources or capacity to rebuild. Access to technology and technological skills, too, will increasingly determine who will learn more, earn more, and have access to better opportunities now and in the future.

These are stubborn, complex challenges whose impact ripples more broadly and deeply all the time—often erupting, as they have in 2019, in violent protests that paralyze whole economies

Prioritizing human development and taking action against a whole range of inequalities is the right place to start.