The latest Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) this week shows Sri Lanka has jumped five places and broken into the category of High Human Development.
It means that Sri Lanka has managed to improve the lifespan of its citizens, health, education and living standards. However, it is important to understand that even as the world takes impressive steps in reducing poverty, a new wave of severe inequality in human development is emerging. Under the shadow of the climate crisis and sweeping technological change, inequalities in human development are taking new forms in the 21st Century.
As the report observes, inequalities in capabilities are evolving in different ways. Inequalities in basic capabilities—linked to the most extreme deprivations—are shrinking. In some cases, quite dramatically, such as global inequalities in life expectancy at birth. Many people at the bottom are now reaching the initial stepping stones of human development. At the same time, inequalities are increasing in enhanced capabilities—which reflect aspects of life likely to become more important in the future, because they will be more empowering. People well empowered today appear set to get even further ahead tomorrow. Policymakers need to understand that inequalities in human development can accumulate through life, frequently heightened by deep power imbalances. They are not so much a cause of unfairness as a consequence, driven by factors deeply embedded in societies, economies and political structures.
Tackling inequalities in human development means addressing these factors: Genuine improvement will not come from trying to fix disparities only when people are already earning very different incomes—because inequality starts at birth, often even before, and can accumulate over people’s lives. Or from looking back and simply trying to reinstate the policies and institutions that held inequalities in check, at times and in some countries, during the 20th Century. It was under those very conditions that power imbalances deepened, in many cases accentuating the accumulation of advantage over the lifecycle.
Assessing inequalities in human development demands a revolution in metrics. Good policies start with good data and measurements, and a new generation of inequalities requires a new generation of measurement. Clearer concepts tied to the challenges of current times, broader combinations of data sources, sharper analytical tools—all are needed. Ongoing innovative work suggests that income and wealth may be accumulating at the top in many countries much faster than one could grasp based on summary measures of inequality.
Making these efforts more systematic and widespread can better inform public debates and policies. Metrics may not seem a priority, until one considers the continuing hold of such measures as gross domestic product since its creation in the first half of the 20th Century.
Redressing inequalities in human development in the 21st Century is possible—if countries act now, before imbalances in economic power translate into entrenched political dominance. Sri Lanka is not an exception. Struggling with an aging population, years of slow growth, weak economic fundamentals, slow reforms, high debt and high public aspirations, a clear line can be drawn between limited human development and political upheavals. The frequent protests by unions and others are an indication of a much deeper problem and politicians and policymakers have the responsibility of addressing this.