29 Mar

Reading between the averages: A review of the 2016 UNDP Human Development Report

Following President Uhuru Kenyatta’s State of the Nation address on 15 March 2017, the whole country was buzzing about his address and the upcoming national elections on 8 August 2017. In matatus, cafés, bus stations and pharmacies across Nairobi, everyone had an informed opinion about the address. KTN news outlet went to Eldoret, a city in Western Kenya, to capture the reactions of local citizens. One of the citizens, in a mixture of Swahili and English, cited George Orwell’s infamous quote, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

Inequality is one of the greatest challenges in societal formation and though we have yet to achieve equality, humanity has reason to be proud of our attempts. The international development community’s latest effort has been the Leaving No One Behind principle. This principle is outlined in the Sustainable Development Agenda and stipulates that progress on the sustainable development goals can only be viewed as progress if the gains include the people most marginalised by poverty.

For those who do not directly work in development, this may appear to be an obvious mandate. If the sector’s raison d’être is to help those most affected by social, political, economic and environmental inefficiencies, it is only right to measure progress by the impact our work makes on marginalised communities. In theory, it seems very logical and straightforward but in practice, as human behaviour has it, to leave no one behind is anything but simple.

Led by Selim Jahan, who also contributed to the 2016 Commonwealth Global Youth Index, the 2016 United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report (#HDR2016) explores the Leave No One Behind principle and its potential contributions to human development. Referred to in the report as universalism, #HDR2016 maps out the scale and nature of exclusion across the world, the drivers of exclusion and the solutions required at the national and global level.

The five key messages of the #HDR2016 of the report are summarised in the report:

  • Universalism is key to human development, and human development for everyone is attainable.
  • Various groups of people still suffer from basic deprivations and face substantial barriers to overcoming them.
  • Human development for everyone calls for refocusing some analytical issues and assessment perspectives.
  • Policy options exist and, if implemented, would contribute to achieving human development for everyone.
  • A reformed global governance, with fairer multilateralism, would help attain human development for everyone.

In the Sustainable Development Agenda, leave no one behind is both a means and an end to achieving development.  It is mentioned in relation to enhancing access of public services as well as measuring progress on the goals through disaggregated data and more representative review mechanisms.

The #HDR2016 report is truly a comprehensive body of work and builds on existing knowledge in the development community, most recently at the first ever High Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals, Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation Second High-Level Meeting, and the Leave No One Behind Partnership led by the civil society movement, CIVICUS.

Here are three examples of how the #HDR2016 report advances the agenda for inclusive development:

Normative shifts in the way we understand inclusion and development

The #HDR2016 report highlights the normative shifts behind Leave No One Behind and more broadly, inclusive development. The Leave No One Behind principle and the concept of universalism, discussed in the report, signal a shift from a state-led view of development to human-centred development. In the Millenium Development Goals, we measured progress by country averages, often missing out on the variation of development outcomes between different groups. In measuring variation of outcomes between individuals, as opposed to households, communities and groups, we are deepening our understanding of what development means to different people and the exciting opportunities to improve the way we create programmes and policies. As Carolyn Culey from Development Initiatives says, we are ‘counting people, not averages.’ Furthermore, in measuring variation between individuals, these concepts demonstrate how equalities can exist in each economy irrespective of their economic advantage. The #HDR2016 report uses a lot of rich data from developed economies, including U.S. and U.K. to illustrate this.

The #HDR2016 report views leaving no-one behind as a continuous process, one which involves trade-offs between different groups. Existing discussions on inclusive development assume that it is an end which we are working towards. However, inclusion is fundamentally about distributional equity. How can a government with limited resources redistribute its resources so that previously excluded communities are no longer marginalised? Where are the trade-offs in doing so? Can new forms of exclusion arise when reallocating resources? The use of action research and foresight planning strategies can help us predict and respond to trade-offs when attempting to achieve universalism.

Quantitative data only tells part of the story

As noted in page 65 of the report, ‘who is left behind, how and why are questions with different answers in different places at different times.’ Quantitative data plays a critical role in measuring inclusion and disaggregated data captures the complexities of poverty and progress. Disaggregated data, however, only tells part of the story. It tells us what, in detail, is happening but it does little to explain why. While working on two projects promoting women’s entrepreneurship in Israel and Lebanon, we faced some notable inconsistencies when trying to gather data on the state of the women’s financial inclusion. The women entrepreneurs reported contradictory figures around their income and the extent to which they engaged with financial institutions (i.e. accessing loans, having accounts) etc. Through open discussions with the women, we gained further clarity on these inaccuracies. These included a previous lack of knowledge about how to count profit and revenues, fear of reporting the exact amount and having to pay tax, fear of their spouses feeling threatened by their success, and the prospect of having to give these uncounted earnings over to their spouses, risking their financial independence.

Without these qualitative discussions, it would be difficult to identify how to address the trends we noticed in relation to financial inclusion. #HDR2016 report is unique in that it advocates for historical research to understand the nature of exclusion within a context which then allows for more accurate and context-specific measurement of progress.

Progress must be inclusive and sustainable  

The #HDR2016 report proposes that our work should create models which ensure people are not left behind now and in the future. In short, inclusive development can only be progress if it is sustainable.

This has at least one important implication for the role of the private sector in advancing the leave no one behind principle. Currently, inclusive development is mainly advocated for by civil society groups as an issue of justice (development should be equal) and by governments as an issue of efficacy (development should produce the most gains). Perhaps framing inclusive development as an issue of sustainability can be a way for the private sector to champion inclusive development in the same way they champion environmental sustainability vis-à-vis the sustainable development agenda.

All in all, progressive insights from the UNDP Human Development Report team. Complement this report with United Nations Research Institute for Social Development’s flagship report, ‘Policy Innovations for Transformative Change’.

Above: An excerpt from the #HDR2016 report explaining the report cover.

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