COVID-19 | How exclusionary social protection systems in the MENA are making the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects worse

COVID-19 | How exclusionary social protection systems in the MENA are making the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects worse

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the majority of people living in the MENA region even more vulnerable, adding to existing structural problems that include under-resourced public health services, a high ...

Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto ...

Positioning Academia | Reducing inequality should be our top priority during the COVID-19 pandemic—but it isn’t

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated income inequality all over the world. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of reducing inequality (SDG 10) is getting more and more off track. How are countries reacting to this worrying trend? This blog reviews how governments report on reducing income inequality to the UN, showing  that although attention to income inequality is increasing, strong policy measures to tackle the underlying structural factors that cause income inequality are often not reported and are still found wanting.

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

COVID-19 has been with us for around a year, and we can finally see what it’s doing based on the results of ongoing research. Such research on the dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic clearly shows that income inequality in low-, middle- and high-income countries is increasing: according to the ILO, poor workers are becoming poorer as some 600 million people work in sectors which are hardest hit and that pay poorly, while the informal sector where many of the poor work and lack any protection and public support is also severely affected. On top of that, the generation gap is increasing, with a greater number of younger workers being excluded from the labour market and having to work under precarious conditions, while relatively privileged workers are better sheltered from the COVID-19 economic outfall. Furthermore, as the value of global stocks has soared after an initial brief dip, the rich, and especially the super-rich, are getting richer during the pandemic.

It is in light of these worrying developments that a lack of progress in meeting the SDGs requires greater attention. The UN’s Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) discussed at its annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) can help shed light on how countries have been doing in meeting the SDGs during the pandemic. Every year a batch of 40-50 different countries provide the forum with an extensive report on progress on the SDGs in their country—the so-called Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). I have been involved in these discussions and in shaping an analysis discussed below.

According to a UN-CDP analysis published in 2019, SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities) was the most underreported SDG in 2019 VNRs. However, a preliminary analysis of last year’s reviews shows that attention to this SDG has increased. This is a positive sign, as reducing income inequality, which is growing as mentioned above, is needed more than ever in a post-COVID-19 world.

But we also observe that those SDGs that echo the MDGs, such as the ones on health, education, and gender, still dominate in most of these reviews. The MDGs were concentrated almost exclusively on social issues, while the SDGs seek to include broader issues of economic, social, and environmental issues and the structural changes required to address these, which are necessary for real progress in reaching the social targets and in reducing income inequality.

The UN reports that increasing income inequality ironically not only moves the world further away from reaching SDG 10, but equally importantly also affects many other SDGs. Thus, that inequality still gets insufficient attention in the reviews remains worrying, especially in the gruesome times of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating social and economic inequalities due to the far-reaching effects of national lockdowns. The effect of inequality on efforts to address it now requires our attention.

Some 2020 VNR country reports do refer to the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social consequences, including its effect on income inequality, but fewer refer to policies on how to structurally redress increasing income inequality. In this respect, it is useful to recollect what happened to income inequality after the 2008 recession.[1] A striking factor of the 2008 global recession and its aftermath was that poor and unorganized groups both in developing and developed countries were thrice affected—firstly because they did not profit from the economic boom preceding the crisis, secondly because they profited less from income support provided after the crisis, and thirdly because they suffered more from an economic slowdown when restrictive monetary and fiscal policies were prematurely introduced in 2011.

So, in order to not to repeat the mistake in the form of economic policies introduced after the 2008 recession, governments must foster structural changes to redress the growing inequality between incomes from capital and labour and to stimulate sustainable growth. Do we see in the 2020 batch of VNRs a strong tendency to undertake such policies?

Of the 40 reviews of last year mentioning SDG 10 explicitly, only 22 refer to Target 10.1 (increasing growth of the poorest 40% of the population faster than the rest[2]), while even fewer countries (19 and 12 respectively) refer to targets which have a bearing on fostering structural changes, such as Target 10.4 (improving fiscal, wage, and social protection policies) and Target 10.5 (regulation of national and global financial markets)[3]. And of these countries that report on these targets, less than half give sufficient details to gauge important changes in budget outlays and explicit policies. It therefore also comes as no surprise that special schemes and projects (including those to reduce gender inequality) dominate actions related to SDG 10 in the overview report of the 2020 VNRs.

Some 40 to 50 countries are now starting to prepare their reviews for this year’s High-Level Political Forum that will take place in July this year. One might hope and even assume that the continuous onslaught of the pandemic will result in greater attention to income inequality and to the necessary structural changes that are called for to achieve that. But policy change does not come automatically. It needs continuous efforts from progressive and concerned scholars and from civil society to push for structural changes.


Foot Notes

[1] van der Hoeven, R. 2019.  ‘Income Inequality in Developing Countries, Past and Present’, Chapter 10 in Nissanke, M. and J. A. Ocampo (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Development Economics, Palgrave McMillan, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14000-7_10

[2] Target 10.1 is in itself a rather weak target. See van der Hoeven, R. 2019.  ‘Income Inequality in Developing Countries, Past and Present’, Chapter 10 in Nissanke, M. and J. A. Ocampo (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Development Economics, Palgrave McMillan, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-14000-7_10

[3] Some countries addressed income inequality and SDG 10 in the context of other SDGs, but as such did not focus on structural changes needed to reduce income inequality.

About the author:

Rolph van der Hoeven is Professor Emeritus in Employment and Development Economics at the ISS and a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy (UN-CDP).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

When Linda Johnson and I shared responsibilities for the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity, we had many discussions that were close to the leading topic of the ongoing ...

Positioning Academia | Who is a migrant? Choosing a human security approach to rehumanise migration

Positioning Academia | Who is a migrant? Choosing a human security approach to rehumanise migration

Contemporary policies and discourses on migration largely overlook human dynamics of migration and focus on migrants as a policy problem to be ‘dealt with’. A human security scope is a ...

Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality

Inequality is growing in most countries and deep-seated injustices continue to pervade our world—from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic groups and the tragic death of George Floyd in the US, to reports of the collapse of the health system in Yemen. In the face of such embedded inequalities and injustices, what must we, as engaged academics, do to make our commitment to a more equitable and sustainable world real?

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

Changing how we ‘understand’ and ‘do’ development

As shown by contributors to the World Social Science Report on Challenging Inequalities, which the IDS led in 2016, multiple forms of inequality intersect to drive marginalisation and discrimination. In 2020, injustices and inequalities have been exposed and exacerbated in different ways through the disruptions and shocks that are shaping our era—from COVID-19, climate change and financial crises to conflicts, new technologies and closing political spaces.

These disruptions, which share many underlying causes, are both threatening collective futures and sharpening the vulnerabilities felt by particular people and groups. Long-dominant development models, such as those promoting economic growth, market liberalisation, globalisation, carbon-intensive industries and command-and-control planning regimes, are now under unprecedented challenge. But while these disruptions pose threats and challenges, they also offer opportunities to do things differently:  to ‘build forward differently’ and to rethink development as transformative change.

At IDS, we have identified three key areas in which a collective endeavour within, across and beyond the development sector is urgently needed. Each provides a valuable opportunity to develop our thinking with global partners, including colleagues at ISS, on how we can best collaborate to co-generate and mobilise evidence in ways that ultimately make a difference to people’s lives, and especially tackle the most extreme forms of inequity and injustice. We wish to:

1. Build and connect solidarities for collective action, locally and globally.

Responses to interlinked global challenges such as inequality, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that knowledge, action, and leadership can emerge at local levels, as well as, or often in the absence of, action at state, national, and global levels. Neighbourhood quarantines, initiatives to provide food to the most vulnerablecommunity gardens, and local actions to eradicate plastic waste are just a few amongst myriad recent examples across the world.

More concerted efforts need to be undertaken to connect such local initiatives with national and global collective action, whether through building national and transnational alliances between social movements, encouraging government recognition and support, strengthening international financial, economic, health and environmental governance, or sharing science and data. For example, the World Health Organization’s repeated calls for global solidarity in relation to COVID-19 have been heeded by many, but international collaboration is still limited. Global partnership is an essential part of the equation in tackling global challenges—whether that’s finding treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, tackling climate and environmental vulnerabilities, or understanding and addressing institutional and systemic racism—and pressure needs to be applied to governments worldwide not to retreat behind borders.

ISS and IDS share a commitment to a universalist approach to development; we recognise that the time is right to look within Europe, to apply our frameworks, tools, and praxis of international development to new development trends in the Global North, including climate change, the global rise in populism, inequalities of many kinds, and health crises. A working group within IDS is developing partnerships and thinking around this through our European Engagement Approach.

2. Value diverse knowledge and expertise.

IDS and ISS are both committed to ensuring the representation of social sciences in responses to global shocks, and we advocate the need for expertise from across disciplines, countries, sectors and communities, and better ways of facilitating the collaborative generation and sharing of this knowledge and learning. Again, the COVID-19 response, and its interconnections with inequalities, is salutary. The mantra of ‘led by the science’ misleadingly presents science as a singular, uncontested, unbiased thing operating outside of politics and social norms. The range of disciplines drawn on in most national responses has been narrow, dominated by epidemiology and biomedicine.

Bringing wider forms of expertise to bear means, for example, challenging assumptions underpinning scientific modelling; drawing on social sciences to understand how the virus is spreading, between whom, and who is vulnerable and why; and complementing formal science with the knowledge and learning of local populations —as occurred so effectively in countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

But taking inequalities and injustices seriously means we also need to go further. We need to invest in equitable and sustainable research partnerships that value and strengthen the knowledge and expertise produced by institutions, universities, and communities in low- and middle-income countries, and to support moves to ‘decolonise’ development knowledge and practice, and foster cognitive justice.

3. Understand, address and challenge power imbalances.

Most important in changing the way we think about and do development is to understand, address, and challenge deep-seated power imbalances. Power relations underlie the causes of and vulnerabilities linked to health, climate, and economic disruptions. They lie at the heart of inequalities and injustices. Whether progressive economic, social, and environmental change takes place ultimately depends on political choice and mobilisation, involving citizens, states, and other actors in processes that will often be highly charged. Development can no longer be imagined as a technical matter, but must be treated as thoroughly political.

We must also move beyond limited applications of ‘thinking and working politically’ in aid programmes, to embedding understandings of politics and power, including the politics of knowledge, more widely and deeply in attempts to influence change and transformation. In doing so, we must look within our own organisations and institutions at how we create and prop up, consciously or sub-consciously, entrenched power relations, injustices, and inequalities.

And as academics and scholar-activists, we also need to reflect on and be humble about our own assumptions and positions. Whether through the ways in which we approach partnership, in relation to where and who we choose to engage with, in how we frame and teach development, or in how far we reflect equality and diversity across all that we do, it is time to match our commitments to a more equitable and sustainable external world with commitments to justice in our personal and institutional practices.

As academics and knowledge professionals committed to a more equal and sustainable world, staff at the Institute of Development Studies and the International Institute for Social Studies share the goal of collaborating across sciences, sectors, and communities to do research, learning and teaching that brings progressive change. Our institutes have a long history of collaboration, including through the Journal of Peasant Studies, the Land Deals Politics Initiative, the Wellbeing, Ecology, Gender and Community Innovation Training Network (WEGO-ITN), Robert Chambers’s and Richard Jolly’s Honorary Fellowships at ISS, and more. We look forward to collaborating with ISS and others in this vision of development. Read more about our commitments and priorities, and join us in solidarity around a search for social and cognitive justice in meeting challenges that affect us all.

About the author:

Melissa Leach is Director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.