Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All?

Today we step back and look beyond our usual sectoral concerns, and consider what this important report from the UNDP released today may or may not offer to help us to understand in our up-hill push to sustainable transport and sustainable cities. At first glance, their linking of sustainability and equality as their main theme this year is right in line with our own policy focus. So let’s have a look to see what lessons we might learn from their work and perceptions.

Based on the abundant evidence, it is often the case that planners and policymakers lose sight of the fact that their only ultimate goal is to ensure the well-being of mankind and the planet. This is as true in the field of sustainable transportation as it is in any other of the areas of society and economy. Unfortunately! The “good news” is however that for the last fifteen or twenty years increasing attention has been given to the difficult task of developing indicators of well-being that can help us do better.

It could be tempting to see a correlation between these overall indicators of relative well-being at the national level, and our topic: sustainable transport and sustainable cities. But let’s be careful there! It does not take enormous refection to understand that we are unlikely to find any direct correlations there. But that said, for this one article let us leave transportation per se behind us and see what the United Nations Development Program has to tell us about well-being and change in 146 countries around the world, from richest to poorest, from fairest to most grindingly inegalitarian. Perhaps we may find a few useful lessons for our own work in what we see here. (I will comment on this briefly at the end of this article.)



Human Development Report 2011
Sustainability and Equity: A Better Future for All

This year’s Report focuses on the challenge of sustainable and equitable progress. A joint lens shows how environmental degradation intensifies inequality through adverse impacts on already disadvantaged people and how inequalities in human development amplify environmental degradation.

Human development, which is about expanding people’s choices, builds on shared natural resources. Promoting human development requires addressing sustainability—locally, nationally and globally—and this can and should be done in ways that are equitable and empowering.

Copenhagen, 2 November 2011 Norway, Australia and the Netherlands lead the world in the 2011 Human Development Index (HDI), while the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger and Burundi are at the bottom of the Human Development Report’s annual rankings of national achievement in health, education and income, released today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The United States, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Germany and Sweden round out the top 10 countries in the 2011 HDI, but when the Index is adjusted for internal inequalities in health, education and income, some of the wealthiest nations drop out of the HDI’s top 20: the United States falls from #4 to #23, the Republic of Korea from #15 to #32, and Israel from #17 to #25.

The United States and Israel drop in the Report’s Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI) mainly because of income inequality, though health care is also a factor in the US ranking change, while wide education gaps between generations detract from the Republic of Korea’s IHDI performance.

Other top national achievers rise in the IHDI due to greater relative internal equalities in health, education and income: Sweden jumps from #10 to #5, Denmark climbs from #16 to #12, and Slovenia rises from #21 to #14.

The IHDI and two other composite indices—the Multidimensional Poverty Index and the Gender Inequality Index—were designed to complement the Human Development Report’s HDI, which is based on national averages in schooling, life expectancy, and per capita income. The 2011 HDI covers a record 187 countries and territories, up from 169 in 2010, reflecting in part improved data availability for many small island states of the Caribbean and the Pacific. The 2011 country rankings are therefore not comparable to the 2010 Report’s HDI figures, the authors note.

“The Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index helps us assess better the levels of development for all segments of society, rather than for just the mythical ‘average’ person,” said Milorad Kovacevic, chief statistician for the Human Development Report. “We consider health and education distribution to be just as important in this equation as income, and the data show great inequities in many countries.

Inequalities lower HDI rankings for US, Republic of Korea, others

The report notes that income distribution has worsened in most of the world, with Latin America remaining the most unequal region in income terms, even though several countries including Brazil and Chile are narrowing internal income gaps. Yet in overall IHDI terms, including life expectancy and schooling, Latin America is more equitable than sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, the Report shows.

To assess income distribution, as well as varying levels of life expectancy and schooling within national populations, the IHDI uses methodology developed by the renowned British economist Sir Anthony Barnes Atkinson. “We use the Atkinson approach to measure inequalities in health, education and income, because it is more sensitive to changes at the lower end of the scale than the more familiar Gini coefficient,” Kovacevic said.

Average HDI levels have risen greatly since 1970—41 percent globally and 61 percent in today’s low-HDI countries—reflecting major overall gains in health, education and income. The 2011 HDI charts progress over five years to show recent national trends: 72 nations moved up in rank from 2006 to 2011, led by Cuba (+10 to #51), Venezuela and Tanzania (+7 each to #73 and #152, respectively), while another 72 fell in rank, including Kuwait (-8 to #63) and Finland (-7 to #22).

The 10 countries that place last in the 2011 HDI are all in sub-Saharan Africa: Guinea, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Chad, Mozambique, Burundi, Niger, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Despite recent progress, these low-HDI nations still suffer from inadequate incomes, limited schooling opportunities, and life expectancies far below world averages due in great part to deaths from preventable and treatable diseases such as malaria and AIDS. In many, these problems are compounded by the destructive legacy of armed conflict. In the lowest-ranking country in the 2011 HDI, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than three million people died from warfare and conflict-linked illness in recent years, prompting the largest peacekeeping operation in UN history.

Gender Inequality Index

The Gender Inequality Index (GII) shows that Sweden leads the world in gender equality, as measured by this composite index of health, years of schooling, parliamentary representation, and participation in the labour market. Sweden is followed in the gender inequality rankings by the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Germany, Singapore, Iceland and France.

Yemen ranks as the least equitable of the 146 countries in the GII, followed by Chad, Niger, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, Liberia, Central African Republic and Sierra Leone. In Yemen, just 7.6 percent of women have a secondary education, compared to 24.4 percent for men; women hold just 0.7 percent of seats in the legislature; and only 20 percent of working-age women are in the paid work force, compared to 74 percent of men.

“In sub-Saharan Africa the biggest losses arise from gender disparities in education and from high maternal mortality and adolescent fertility rates,” the Report’s authors write. “In South Asia, women lag behind men in each dimension of the GII, most notably in education, national parliamentary representation and labour force participation. Women in Arab states are affected by unequal labour force participation (around half the global average) and low educational attainment.”

Multidimensional Poverty Index

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) examines factors at the family level—such as access to clean water and cooking fuel and health services, as well as basic household goods and home construction standards—that together provide a fuller portrait of poverty than income measurements alone.

Some 1.7 billion people in 109 countries lived in ‘multidimensional’ poverty in the decade ending in 2010, by the MPI calculus, or almost a third of the countries’ entire combined population of 5.5 billion. That compares to the 1.3 billion people estimated to live on US$1.25 a day or less, the measure used in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which seeks to eradicate “extreme” poverty by 2015.

Niger has the highest share of multidimensionally poor, at 92 percent of the population, the Report says, followed by Ethiopia and Mali, with 89 percent and 87 percent, respectively. The 10 poorest nations as measured by the MPI are all in sub-Saharan Africa. But the largest group of multidimensionally poor is South Asian: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have some of the highest absolute numbers of MPI poor.

The MPI provides insight into environmental problems in the poorest households, including indoor air pollution and disease from contaminated water supplies. The Report notes that in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, more than 90 percent of the multidimensionally poor cannot afford clean cooking fuel, relying principally on firewood, while some 85 percent lack basic sanitation services.

The case for considering sustainability and equity together

This year we explore the intersections between environmental sustainability and equity, which are fundamentally similar in their concern for distributive justice. We value sustainability because future generations should have at least the same possibilities as people today. Similarly, all inequitable processes are unjust: people’s chances at better lives should not be constrained by factors outside their control. Inequalities are especially unjust when particular groups, whether because of gender, race or birthplace, are systematically disadvantaged.

More than a decade ago Sudhir Anand and Amartya Sen made the case for jointly considering sustainability and equity. “It would be a gross violation of the universalist principle,” they argued, “if we were to be obsessed about intergenerational equity without at the same time seizing the problem of intragenerational equity” (emphasis in original). Similar themes emerged from the Brundtland Commission’s 1987 report and a series of international declarations from Stockholm in 1972 through Johannesburg in 2002. Yet today many debates about sustainability neglect equality, treating it as a separate and unrelated concern. This perspective is incomplete and counterproductive.

# # #

ABOUT THE Human Development Index (HDI):

The HDI has been published annually since the first Human Development Report in 1990 as an alternative measurement of national development, challenging purely economic assessments of progress such as Gross Domestic Product. HDI rankings are recalculated annually using the latest internationally comparable data for health, education and income. The Inequality adjusted HDI (IHDI) was introduced along with the Gender Inequality Index (GII) and Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) in last year’s Human Development Report to complement the original HDI, which as a composite measure of national averages does not reflect internal inequalities. Due to data limitations these composite indexes do not gauge other factors considered equally essential elements of human development, such as civic engagement, environmental sustainability or the quality of education and health standards.

Summary report available here:

Full report available here –

# # #

Editor’s closing note:

Here in a nutshell are the main points that I derive from my read of the UN report, always from the perspective of our program orientations to sustainable transportation, sustainable cities and sustainable lives.

Equity: The concept of equity, real equity, should be at the core of all our programs and efforts. To put this in less abstract terms and relate it specifically to our sector: the bulk of all investments and remedial actions in the sector should focus 100% on the needs of the less fortunate 80% of society. (On the grounds that the top 20% will have enough resources, wit and connections at their disposal to figure out how to deal with it for themselves. Besides, much of what we do for the bottom 80% is going to make life better for them anyway. But that will not have been our objective, it is a collateral benefit)

Choice: The other side of the coin of equity is the whole issue of choice. In our benighted sector in most places today no-choice transportation is where you either have a car or you live at a considerable mobility handicap. Thus our goas has to be to provide a far broader and more convenient range of affordable choices for those in the lower 80% of society.

Gender equality: The concept of gender equality is every bit as central and important as that of equity. Indeed the two go hand-in-hand. If we oriented our investments and measures to improve the quality and affordability of transport for women of all ages and conditions of life, we will take a giant step in the direction of sustainability and social justice for all.

Environment: the environmental impacts that threaten and plague the bottom 80% of society are all basically local in nature, and in many respects are driven by considerations of poor transportation systems and choices.

Security: If men, women and children are not able to move about in public places in their daily lives without fear or danger, you have a society that is lacking one of its most important underpinnings.

Civic engagement: Sustainability depends at the end of the day on understanding, support and action from the bottom up. What is needed in a world in which we all want to live and prosper, is not lives that are handed to us by some higher authority, but the lives we make for ourselves.

This is of course not the whole list, but these are the six points which I found to be most salient and relevant to our concerns here. I look forward to our comments.

Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s