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UN data show huge disparities among countries during crisis

Credit: UN

Indicators such as the level of poverty, healthcare capacity, access to the internet and social protection show different levels of preparedness and ability to cope with the coronavirus crisis.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released yesterday two new dashboards with human development data in 189 countries. The pandemic is more than a global health emergency, writes UNDP. It is a systemic human development crisis, already affecting the economic and social dimensions of development in unprecedented ways.

While every society is vulnerable to crises, their abilities to respond differ significantly around the world. For example, the most developed countries – those in the very high human development category – have on average 55 hospital beds, over 30 physicians, and 81 nurses per 10,000 people, compared to 7 hospital beds, 2.5 physicians, and 6 nurses in a least developed country.

And with widespread lockdowns, the digital divide has become more significant than ever. 6.5 billion people around the globe – 85.5 percent of the global population – still don’t have access to reliable broadband internet, which limits their ability to receive information and to work and continue their education.

Even the most prepared countries, in terms of health care and other resources, were not prepared for the pandemic and did not react in time to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Preparedness is one thing. Once a crisis hits, the least developed countries have even less chances. Those already living in poverty are particularly at risk. Despite recent progress in poverty reduction, about one in four people still live in multidimensional poverty or are vulnerable to it, and more than 40 percent of the global population does not have any social protection.

The pandemic also reminds us that disruptions in one place are contagious, triggering problems elsewhere, UNDP underlines. The pandemic not only disrupts trade and supply chains but affects revenues from remittances and tourism that many poor countries rely on.


The new dashboards are drawing on data in UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report which was released in December last year. That report “looked beyond” income and averages today and addressed the new forms of inequalities in human development in the 21st century.

At the launch of the report in Brussels last December, UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner, said that inequality has become the defining issue of our time. The drivers of inequality accumulate through life and across generations. Income and wealth may be accumulating at the top in many countries much faster than one could grasp based on summary measures of inequality.

Inequalities start before birth and many of the gaps may compound over a person’s life. Parents’ incomes and circumstances affect their children’s health, education and incomes. When wealthy people shape policies that favour themselves and their children, that can sustain accumulation of income and opportunity at the top.

“Universalism as we know it in Europe, especially in areas like health and education, was the result of policy choices,” said Pedro Conceicao, lead author of the report.

Climate change

Importantly, the report highlights how inequality and the climate crisis are interwoven from emissions to impacts to politics and resilience. Countries with higher human development generally emit more carbon per person. Developing countries and poor communities have less capacity than their richer counterparts to adapt to climate change.

High income inequality within countries can also hinder the diffusion of environmentally friendly technology. Income concentration at the top can coincide with the interests of groups that oppose climate action.

The lockdowns during the coronavirus crisis have resulted in a reduction in green-house gas emissions. It will be a challenge to keep it like this and use the crisis, once it’s over, as an opportunity to accelerate even more the transition to  a green economy.

Power asymmetries also manifest in the capture of policies by elite actors. This can lead to a vicious circle of inequality. When that translates into lower compliance with paying taxes, it diminishes the state’s ability to provide quality public services. UNDP Administrator Achim referred to the UN Sustainable Development Goals that are central to UNDP’s work and should be used as a tool to design public policies.

The report includes a framework of designing policies to redress inequalities in human development. Such policies should cover pre-market measures, in for example early childhood, in-market measures to level the economic playing field, and post-market polices for redistribution of income after taxes and transfers.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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