Looking back at the decade that was...
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
The world seems to be in a state of permanent crisis, and with it, our ambitions for sustainable development as well. The liberal international order is besieged globally. Democracy is in decline. A lacklustre economic recovery has failed to significantly raise incomes for most. A rising China threatens U.S. dominance, and resurgent international tensions increase the risk of a calamitous war. Recently, two meticulously sourced, profoundly disturbing, warnings about our shared global future were brought to the fore. One terrified much of the world. The other hasn’t, or doesn’t seem to yet, but it urgently should. One threat, climate change, is likely to define this century. The disruption to the earth’s climate will ultimately command further attention and resources and have a greater influence across domains, globally. A broad, distinguished panel of the world’s top climate scientists indicated just over a decade to get our environmental act together. This is because what government’s once saw as a ‘safe’ level of global warming, if reached would trigger calamitous dangers. The second threat is the rising global inequality that presents a challenge to all developmental progress. Inequality isn’t just a problem in itself but also a challenge to the eradication of extreme poverty (and fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals) and thus to tackling climate change. As outlined by Oxfam, nations aren’t doing nearly enough to address SDG-10 (reducing inequality within and among countries).
Oxfam’s findings weren’t successful in generating the required attention. The shocking warnings implicit in the IPCC findings on the impending climate catastrophe gained far more of the world’s attention. A burning house is what we’re living in, after all. Who has time to argue about who gets the biggest rooms. I argue that it is imperative we find the time. It will be impossible to put out the fire or forge a sustainable future until we proactively confront the concentration of wealth, power and resources. Becoming more equitable and inclusive is the only way to ensure a future. Thus, inequality is a societal issue with strong political and technological implications.
Inequality, if not addressed in a well-thought-out and resilient manner will threaten to undo impacts of growth and development whilst worsening the impacts of climate change. It is quite clear that inequality tends to reduce the pace and durability of growth. Even after exceptional progress on reducing poverty globally, it’s entire eradication remains elusive because we need to face up to inequality, within and amongst countries. Liu Zhenmin, a UN Under-Secretary-General argued rightly that social-exclusion, fragmentation, and weak institutions are associated with high levels of inequality. Reducing these gaps and tapping into the countries’ development potential, the importance of economic diversification and effective management of natural resources should be given primary focus. Moreover, inequality remains prevalent in global forums (UNFCCC, UNCCD) where smaller nations have little say in dialogue. For example, Nepal and Bhutan have relatively minimal carbon footprint but face immense pressure to tackle climate change impacts. The current, dismal state of global inequality not only presents a challenge over the short run but creates a looming uncertainty over any sustainable futures in the longer run. This undoubtedly warrants research alongside what immediate actions can be taken to face this challenge head-on.
Apart from the many concerns’ that inequality threatens to exaggerate, being the divide that tears society apart is one of the most critical. Oxfam highlights that inequality is contributing to a poisoning of politics across nations, developing and developed. Apart from fuelling authoritarianism, leaders rather than working on bridging gaps between rich and poor are instead disparaging immigrants, ethnic groups, nations, women, and people in poverty. Besides, unequal countries breed lower trust levels and higher crime rates. Inequality-ridden societies have high stress levels and thus are not happy and have higher prevalence of mental health issues. Briefly mentioned above, the serious threat that inequality has grave consequences for and vice versa is, climate change. First and foremost, dealing with climate change means looking after the world's poorest. This will involve assisting the poor in pursuing development in a clean way and adapting to climate change impacts. Although huge improvements have been made in absolute poverty reduction, inequalities are evidently getting worse. There is an urgent need for climate-proofing development, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized.
Combatting climate change and inequality necessitates commitment across the spectrum of communities and nations. Transboundary cooperation, domestic reforms, and grassroots-level pressure is required if we are to achieve progress. Evidently there is a multiplier effect, i.e. virtuous cycle, in doing so. Investment in activities that alleviate climate change can also support economic growth, altering our energy trajectories towards cleaner production and new technologies, and improving living standards in developing countries. Stressed earlier, though the window for action is scarily small, and ever-closing, there is optimism that with the sense of urgency and multiple benefits associated with these actions, there is real potential for change. Nonetheless, it is always easier said than done. The persistence, and often widening, of multiple inequalities testifies to the struggle involved in dealing with this problem.
The emergence of the “leave-no-one-behind” concept in the development narrative is a welcome one (e.g. “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” in India meaning collective efforts, inclusive growth). However, it will require the participation of the most vulnerable and marginalized in holding the relevant authorities liable and claiming their rights. Women need to be central to realizing this aim, while the concentrated power of vested interests must be rattled and those interests held more accountable by governments and civil society. To ensure no one is left behind, understanding the numerous barriers that communities face, from economic and gender inequality to how the marginalized are affected by climate change, will be critical. Ensuring no business-as-usual scenario, these goals are achievable. Governments across the globe must defy vested interests that seek to maintain the status quo at the expense of the people and the planet. Inequality is not inevitable- it is a political choice.
The depth of inequality as an issue and climate change as a threat needs nothing short of an interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral and multi-level approach to address. With different disciplines looking at similar scenarios it is often advantageous to learn from answers found in other disciplines. With many perspectives, a more complete picture is achieved. Obtaining interdisciplinary insight may not be easy in practice as it will require extra effort and will need to be fostered and nurtured. However, it’s significance is irreplaceable when we are staring at complex issues that spill over sectors of governance, health, education, environment and the economy. Development funding has continued for decades and similar issues seem to be prevalent else we wouldn’t have to shift from the earlier Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs, for instance. An interdisciplinary perspective provides higher chances of making discoveries or breakthroughs required in policy-reform, implementation and accountability mechanisms, as consolidated knowledge can lead to novel insights. There are hurdles such as the difficulty of interdisciplinary research draining funds, longer gestation periods for effective delivery, cooperation and time away from core disciplines. Regardless, these are worth overcoming through innovative stakeholder collaborative mechanisms as the benefits will eventually, if not right away, far outweigh the effort required.
It is of huge importance in today’s context to guide and target research that can generate implementable learning that is demand-driven. This was the aim of the Multidimensional Inequality Framework (MIF) that was put forth by the LSE International Inequalities Institute and Oxfam bridging academic, implementer, and activist standpoints for designing and executing relevant, robust and effective programmes for the reduction of inequalities at all levels. It is vital to have a framework that is theoretically grounded yet has practical value. Using this framework through its 7 domains stresses the importance of interdisciplinary research. Based on Sen’s capability approach, these 7 domains range across health, relationships, knowledge, safety, decision-making and financial security. A strong argument for this framework rests on the fact that it discards focus on subjective measures of wellbeing (utility) and on economic resources (affluence), which although widely used, have fundamental weaknesses. MIF focuses on people’s capabilities to live the kind of life they have reason to value. Capabilities here are valuable things that people can be or do, like being physically safe or having meaningful influence over decisions affecting their life.
This is a time of swift, unparalleled technological change. This is also a time where humanitarian and developmental challenges are more complex and intertwined than ever before. Rise of new issues like violent extremism, climate extremes, and lingering issues of inequality, poverty, and anthropogenic change call for new solutions, new approaches. Block-chain innovations to reach the vulnerable, predictive analytics to mitigate effects of unforeseen events and robotics to build capacity where human ingenuity isn’t enough are needed. We are in dire need of champions. Nurturing human vision and creativity is what is required to match technologies to concerns that need them the most. Leaders are needed to imagine gaps that technology can fill and facilitate partnerships between governments, private sector and civil society and consequently build bridges between technology and local requirement (e.g. for good governance).
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