Rising inequality affecting more than two-thirds of the globe, but it’s not inevitable: new UN report

World Bank/Sarah Farhat Students attend class at Zanaki primary school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Inequality is growing for more than 70 per cent of the global population, exacerbating the risks of divisions and hampering economic and social development. But the rise is far from inevitable and can be tackled at a national and international level, says a flagship study released by the UN on Tuesday.

The World Social Report 2020, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), shows that income inequality has increased in most developed countries, and some middle-income countries – including China, which has the world’s fastest growing economy.

The challenges are underscored by UN chief António Guterres in the foreword, in which he states that the world is confronting “the harsh realities of a deeply unequal global landscape”, in which economic woes, inequalities and job insecurity have led to mass protests in both developed and developing countries.

“Income disparities and a lack of opportunities”, he writes, “are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations.”

‘The one per cent’ winners take (almost) all

The study shows that the richest one per cent of the population are the big winners in the changing global economy, increasing their share of income between 1990 and 2015, while at the other end of the scale, the bottom 40 per cent earned less than a quarter of income in all countries surveyed.

One of the consequences of inequality within societies, notes the report, is slower economic growth. In unequal societies, with wide disparities in areas such as health care and education, people are more likely to remain trapped in poverty, across several generations.

Between countries, the difference in average incomes is reducing, with China and other Asian nations driving growth in the global economy. Nevertheless, there are still stark differences between the richest and poorest countries and regions: the average income in North America, for example, is 16 times higher than that of people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Four global forces affecting inequality

The report looks at the impact that four powerful global forces, or megatrends, are having on inequality around the world: technological innovation, climate change, urbanization and international migration.

Whilst technological innovation can support economic growth, offering new possibilities in fields such as health care, education, communication and productivity, there is also evidence to show that it can lead to increased wage inequality, and displace workers.

Rapid advances in areas such as biology and genetics, as well as robotics and artificial intelligence, are transforming societies at pace. New technology has the potential to eliminate entire categories of jobs but, equally, may generate entirely new jobs and innovations.

For now, however, highly skilled workers are reaping the benefits of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution”, whilst low-skilled and middle-skilled workers engaged in routine manual and cognitive tasks, are seeing their opportunities shrink.

Opportunities in a crisis

As the UN’s 2020 report on the global economy showed last Thursday, the climate crisis is having a negative impact on quality of life, and vulnerable populations are bearing the brunt of environmental degradation and extreme weather events. Climate change, according to the World Social Report, is making the world’s poorest countries even poorer, and could reverse progress made in reducing inequality among countries.

If action to tackle the climate crisis progresses as hoped, there will be job losses in carbon-intensive sectors, such as the coal industry, but the “greening” of the global economy could result in overall net employment gains, with the creation of many new jobs worldwide.

For the first time in history, more people live in urban than rural areas, a trend that is expected to continue over the coming years. Although cities drive economic growth, they are more unequal than rural areas, with the extremely wealthy living alongside the very poor.

The scale of inequality varies widely from city to city, even within a single country: as they grow and develop, some cities have become more unequal whilst, in others, inequality has declined.

Migration a ‘powerful symbol of global inequality’

The fourth megatrend, international migration, is described as both a “powerful symbol of global inequality”, and “a force for equality under the right conditions”.

Migration within countries, notes the report, tends to increase once countries begin to develop and industrialize, and more inhabitants of middle-income countries than low-income countries migrate abroad.

International migration is seen, generally, as benefiting both migrants, their countries of origin (as money is sent home) and their host countries.

In some cases, where migrants compete for low-skilled work, wages may be pushed down, increasing inequality but, if they offer skills that are in short supply, or take on work that others are not willing to do, they can have a positive effect on unemployment.

Harness the megatrends for a better world

Despite a clear widening of the gap between the haves and have-nots worldwide, the report points out that this situation can be reversed. Although the megatrends have the potential to continue divisions in society, they can also, as the Secretary-General says in his foreword, “be harnessed for a more equitable and sustainable world”. Both national governments and international organizations have a role to play in levelling the playing field and creating a fairer world for all.

Reducing inequality should, says the report, play a central role in policy-making. This means ensuring that the potential of new technology is used to reduce poverty and create jobs; that vulnerable people grow more resilient to the effects of climate change; cities are more inclusive; and migration takes place in a safe, orderly and regular manner.

Three strategies for making countries more egalitarian are suggested in the report: the promotion of equal access to opportunities (through, for example, universal access to education); fiscal policies that include measures for social policies, such as unemployment and disability benefits; and legislation that tackles prejudice and discrimination, whilst promoting greater participation of disadvantaged groups.

While action at a national level is crucial, the report declares that “concerted, coordinated and multilateral action” is needed to tackle major challenges affecting inequality within and among countries.

The report’s authors conclude that, given the importance of international cooperation, multilateral institutions such as the UN should be strengthened and action to create a fairer world must be urgently accelerated.

The UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which provides the blueprint for a better future for people and the planet, recognizes that major challenges require internationally coordinated solutions, and contains concrete and specific targets to reduce inequality, based on income.                    

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

15 years of risk: from economic collapse to planetary devastation

The climate and COVID-19: a convergence of crises

In Bangladesh, COVID-19 threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis

Finland has giant supermarkets that only stock second-hand goods

European Youth Forum welcomes strong stance on human rights in State of the Union

UN, world leaders, condemn Sri Lanka terrorist attacks targeting churches, hotels, which leave more than 200 dead

Neelie Kroes at the European Young Innovators Forum: Unconvention 2014

Business growth is key to post-pandemic recovery

Mental and comportamental health in the pandemic context

COVID-19 could widen the digital gap. Here’s what’s needed now.

Ukraine takes EU money and runs to sign with Russia

Here’s how blockchain could fight illegal fishing and help tuna stocks recover

The US calls off globalization, targets Germany. Paris offer to Berlin comes at a cost

Thursday’s Daily Brief: ambulance attack in Libya, #GlobalGoals defenders, human rights in Cambodia, Swine Fever

Green Deal: measures to step up the fight against global deforestation

COVID-19 Wave III: Were the lessons learned from last year implemented?

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights turns 70 – is it time for a new approach?

EU-UK future relations: “level playing field” crucial to ensure fair competition

The European Parliament floating over the South China Sea

The company of the future must do well by doing good

Is the EU competent enough to fight human smuggling in 2015?

Time to pay up: UN summit to push for development finance breakthrough

Can indoor farming feed the world?

Merkel: Nationalism and egoism must never have a chance again in Europe

At last a solid base for the European Banking Union

This cheap, 700-year old solution could change billions of lives

A record number of College members travel to Addis Ababa for the 10th European Union-African Union Commission-to-Commission meeting

Threat to biodiversity risks a flood of economic ruin

Road safety: Europe’s roads are getting safer but progress remains too slow

Coronavirus: First case confirmed in Gulf region, more than 6,000 worldwide

Over 80 per cent of schools in anglophone Cameroon shut down, as conflict worsens

Four in 10 indigenous languages at risk of disappearing, warn UN human rights experts

Will the Greek economy ever come back to growth?

3 leadership lessons from the age of coronavirus

This member of the banana tree family could help us cut COVID-19 plastic waste

Galileo and EGNOS programmes back in orbit powered with €70 billion

Reimagining the future of the tax system

UN should be ‘exemplary’ in defending judicial independence, top Judge tells Security Council

EUREKA @ European Business Summit 2014: Innovation across borders – mobilising national R&D funds for transnational innovation in Europe

State aid: Commission approves €73 million of Italian support to compensate Alitalia for further damages suffered due to coronavirus outbreak

The hidden cost of the electric car boom – child labour

Speak up for health care workers’ safety

A UN-backed boost for women-run businesses in the developing world

First calls under Horizon Europe to be launched by the European Research Council

Falsified medicines: new rules to enhance patients’ safety

Winter 2020 Economic Forecast: Offsetting forces confirm subdued growth

Von der Leyen discusses a new Transatlantic agenda at 2021 Munich Security Conference

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Hungary submits official recovery and resilience plan

These Dutch tomatoes can teach the world about sustainable agriculture

EP stands up for democracy in Hungary during COVID-19

Italy can stand the US rating agencies’ meaningless degrading

Focus on EU’s external action and building our stronger inner core: von der Leyen at the Special European Council

Brexit: With May gone the Tory divide is to sink the UK despite Brits wanting to ‘Remain’

The UK is on a record-breaking run of coal-free power

Working Muslim women are a trillion-dollar market

Does upgrading our minds mean losing the spark of genius?

Refugees in Greece: MEPs demand solidarity, warn about impact of health crisis

Here are 4 tips for governing by design in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

These innovations could keep us cool without warming the planet

The cost of housing is tearing our society apart

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s