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“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” – Gandhi.

Inequality and poverty aren’t a matter of fact; earth provides enough for everyone yet individuals are not equal on both social and economic levels. Wealth and often the opportunities associated with wealth are limited to the top proportion of society particularly in the developing world. We live in a world were equality and equality of opportunity is believed to be a universal right but more often than not isn’t granted. This blog entry was an aspect of my work experience with the ISSR and I decided to research the implications of poverty and inequality on the developing world particularly on the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and Africa. So I started with a few questions that I wanted to see if I could answer about poverty and inequality: Are individual’s lives controlled by inequality of opportunities? Will this have an effect on future economic growth of developing economies? Finally is inequality sustainable or do we need to create sustainable solutions to inequality?

I wanted to explore the reasons for inequality as this is the starting point for the creation of solutions. I focused on three reasons: Government policy, access to opportunity (education and employment and how those may differ by gender or race) and access to basic services (electricity, the internet and health services).

Often government policy in the BRICS countries and developing countries can impact on the levels of inequality between different groups in society. 50.3% [1] of China’s mainland population live in rural areas but China’s household registration system often results in the rural population being excluded from social benefits such as medical care and education. This is because urban populations by that designation receive access to better education and health care services. Rural-urban migrants are often unable to access the benefits experienced by urban residents. This severely restricts an individual’s ability to improve their standard of living and escape poverty. However, changes in social policy for the rural population are beginning to be implemented by the Chinese government and could help reduce inequalities between the rural and urban populations. Government policy is key to ensuring that no area of society is excluded from gaining access to opportunities such as healthcare and education. One of the ways that inequality can be reduced is by ensuring that all areas of a society have access to basic services. However, often inequalities between different groups arise because the government doesn’t have the funds to supply basic services. This could be due to corruption, low economic output or debt.  For example, in Pakistan in 2010 it was revealed that 61% of policy makers in their year of election hadn’t paid income tax. [2] Only 2.5 million out of 10 million pay tax which results in one of the lowest ratio of tax to GDP in the world. This limits expenditure on social services such as healthcare and education. Corruption within government policy limits a country’s ability to reduced inequality and poverty; often only leading to increases in inequality.

"If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people." Chinese Proverb, Undated                        
Having been in school from the age of 5 and now coming up to year 13 I have always considered education to be something to which I should have access (I will admit taken for granted occasionally) and I see it as my way of achieving things in life. In the UK, 47% of young people are expected to graduate from tertiary (academic) programs before the age of 30 and 93% of people will complete upper secondary education in their lifetime. In Uganda only 22.34% of children will reach 6th grade or complete 6 years of schooling. Students in the UK are more likely to gain a degree than students in Uganda are likely to finish primary school education. In Tanzania gross secondary school enrolment is 35% and tertiary school enrolment is 3.9% (2012) [3]. The likelihood that students in the UK will finish secondary education is greater than the likelihood that students in Tanzania will even enrol in secondary school. The inequality in access to education in developing nations is something that we all know about yet upon seeing the figures still tends to shock. I wanted to explore these inequalities in access to education by looking at regional, gender and ethnic differences in school enrolment in numerous developing nations to access the scale of the issue.

Solving inequality in education is the starting point to reducing inequality particularly income inequality. However, underlying issues of geographical disparities, gender and ethnic discrimination can limit educational opportunities. For example, in Laos the percentage of female heads of households without an education is 70% compared to 20% of women overall. [4] This shows the link between education and gender inequality which can result in girls becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty. This is also evident in Uganda; a study undertaken by Action Aid [5] found that in both the Nakasongola and Buvuma districts girls had dropped out of primary school due to pregnancies often resulting from gender based violence (GBV) or parental preference to fund a boy’s education. Also, unemployment for females (18-24) in Uganda is 27% compared to 9% for males. Gender inequality in education could be a contributing factor to inequality within employment which prevents girls from escaping poverty.

Does having equal opportunities to attend school for all income groups lead to equal educational attainment?
Circumstance 1
Circumstance 2
Area of residence
Finished Primary School




Figure1: – Impact of income and area of residence on children finishing primary school.

Figure 1 shows how factors outside a child’s control affect their likelihood of gaining an education. In Brazil, in the bottom 40% income group 97.98% of children aged 10 to 14 attend school compared to 99.64% in the top 20%. However, only 34.95% in bottom 40% finish primary school or achieve 6 years of school compared to 69.68% in the top 20%. [6] The percentage difference between children in different income groups finishing primary school (12 year olds) or achieving 6 years of schooling (13-15 year olds) shows almost equal opportunities to attend school doesn’t result in similar educational outcomes. This could be due to differences in the quality of the education, circumstances (eg. Parent’s educational background), area of residence and family income.

In Africa, 29 million children of primary school age are out of school and only 1/3 children in school will come out of primary school with basic literacy and numeracy skills [7]. Figure 2 shows the coverage of children finishing school (achieving 6 years or more years of schooling or reaching 6th grade) in selected Sub-Saharan countries. This shows that a large majority of countries have a low primary school completion rate.  From this I decided to explore the issues of inequality of opportunities in education in Uganda where there are high enrolment in schools but very low completion rates. In Uganda the number of 12-15 year olds attending school is 89.22% for females and 90.57% for males [8]. These figures suggest education is readily available to most children. The percentage of children attending school up to 6th grade or completing 6 or more years of education shows a different story with only 22.34% of children finishing school. This drives both poverty and inequality particularly income inequality because it limits an individual’s ability to enter the formal job market. Moreover, the likelihood of being trapped in poverty declines the higher level of education a person achieves [9]. The high dropout rates often mean that children don’t gain the required skills needed in the workplace which limits their future employment opportunities and ability to escape poverty. 78% of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30 [10] and ½ of the population is below 24 [11]. This could be beneficial to Uganda and aid economic growth particularly if they use education to create a skilled workforce out of their large youthful population. However, both education and the opening up of skilled employment opportunities needs to be addressed before Uganda is able to reduce poverty and inequality.

Unequal educational opportunities often results in individuals achieving limited qualifications which can result in them becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty as it limits opportunities to work within the formal economy, particularly the tertiary sector. This leads to a growth in the informal sector or in low skilled, low paid jobs often with limited social protection, thereby increasing the gap between the poorest and richest in a society resulting in increased inequality. Education and equal educational opportunities are vital to a child’s future prospects as it enables those of the lowest income groups to access formal employment which can help reduce inequality between the top and bottom income groups.

 "... none of us should tolerate a world in which over 1 million children are, in a perversely literal sense, dying for a glass of water and a toilet." Kevin Watkins, 2006
Basic services: running water, electricity, the internet, transport infrastructure, education, health services, and toilets
. Can you imagine living even a day without access to these services? However much we might complain about the getting stuck on the M5 or the education system or the NHS, they are services that we need and believe we have the right to. They enable us to take opportunities, stay healthy and expand the choices we have in life. In India 4.1% of GDP is spent on health (2010) this amounts to $132 per person with only 29.2% funded by the government. In the UK health spending is 9.6% of GDP which is $3.480 per person and 83.9% is government funded [12]. Health inequalities in India have meant that access to basic health care is often unavailable to the poorest. Malnutrition affects 43% of India’s children with children under 5 in rural areas more likely to suffer from malnutrition than urban children, low-caste children more likely than those of a higher caste [13]. If an individual is unable to access healthcare then educational achievements and income can suffer causing growing inequalities between the poorest and the wealthy. "The health industry focuses on people with the greatest ability to pay rather than the greatest need for care." Phineas Baxandall, 2001                                                                                                                  
“Have you ever thought about what you would have to give up or how much work and effort you would have to dedicate to daily activities if electricity did not help you?” Prazká Energetika, 2005 Living without a phone or the internet is something most of us dread to think about. Whether you have ever considered the importance of having access to a phone, the internet or electricity or not, the huge part it plays in our everyday lives is incredible. In Sub-Saharan Africa, electricity access is 30.5%[14] and in Tanzania the figure is only 13.9% (2009).  Access to electricity means that you can easily work into the evening and use the internet which allows people to make connections and communicate, imagine the disadvantage you would have without it.  

“For prosperity to be sustained, it must be shared” Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth.                                                                                                                                     Inequality isn’t sustainable; it creates social/political tensions and damages economic growth. Evidence presented by Oxfam suggests that if South Africa continues with a poverty reduction strategy based mainly on economic growth then between 2010 and 2020 more than a million additional people will be pushed into poverty [15].Countries with low income inequality were able to reduce poverty by 4% with every 1% of economic growth[16]. For future economic growth to be effective in reducing poverty then underlying inequalities need to be tackled.  Inequality also triggers social and political tensions that can lead to widespread protests and conflict; as has been seen in Brazil with the protests that surrounded the World Cup. On Monday 17th June, 100,000 people across Brazil took to the streets to protest about poorly funded public services despite the high government spending on the World Cup[17].

Climate Change and a predicted temperature rise of 1-2.5⁰C by 2100 are going to have the greatest impact on the poorest as many depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. They have a limited ability to adapt making the poorest people most vulnerable which could only lead to an increase in inequality and poverty. Therefore, solving inequality and helping the poorest escape poverty is essential to limit the impact of climate change. Also, reducing inequality can help the poorest people and countries in the transition to more sustainable management of the earth’s natural resources.

I don’t have the space to be able to explore all the possible solutions to inequality and poverty. I believe that the starting point is to reduce inequalities in education as this helps improve a child’s future employment opportunities. There also needs to be the job availability otherwise solving income inequality is almost impossible. The other two solutions I explore briefly are farming in Africa and investment in SMEs (Small-to-Medium Enterprises).

... illiteracy is essentially a manifestation of social inequality, the unequal distribution of power and resources in society." Bharati Silawal-Giri, 2003                                                      Regional disparities in education are one of the greatest issues when it comes to inequality of opportunity. For example, in India the ability of pupils aged 8 to 11 to read basic texts in government run schools vary enormously from region to region. In Jammu and Kashmir only 26% could read but in Kerala the figure was 80%[18]. How does a government solve this problem? Poor quality public school education can cause an increase in private school attendance (often better schools). However, regional, income and ethnic disparities often results in poorer children become trapped in poor government run schools. How does a Government ensure that an increase in private school attendance (often better schools that cater for the wealthier) doesn't cause an increase in inequality between the rich and poor? I think that a strong and good quality public education system that is available to all children regardless of ethnicity, wealth, place of residence or gender needs to be created. If the basis for good quality and equal education is set up then this can be sustained for future generations. How does a developing country’s government fund state schools that provide good quality education? This I don’t know the answer to but finding a solution could be the starting point to ensure equal educational opportunities for all children.  

Where can education lead or not lead? Improving education so that every child has access to a school and a good quality education is all well and good but unless there is a link between the skills learnt in school and the skills needed to enter the job market of that country then the improvements to education will do very little to help reduce poverty and inequality. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh unemployment of educated young people is 7.3% compared to the 6.7% for ordinary adults.  Governments need to ensure that there is a link between the curriculum taught in schools and the needs of employers and the job market.  Another issue I found was discrimination based on gender and race within employment.  In 2008 in Brazil, women earned 2/3 of men’s real wages and in South Africa between 1993-2008 women earned 60% less than men and in 2008 Africans were typically paid four times less than white people[19]. Government policy that bans racial, gender or ethnic discrimination within employment in many developing nations needs to be implemented to see a reduction in income inequality.

Africa- Is farming the solution to inequality? 2/3 of Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihood yet in 2011 Africa imported US$35 billion in food[20]. This market if opened up to local farmers could help boost economic growth and reduce inequality and poverty. The International Food Policy Research Institute has found that economic growth in agriculture reduces poverty twice as much as growth in other areas. If support bases for small holder farmers are set up to provide advice and help farmers increase their output of crops. This could help farmers escape poverty and also if output was increased by a big enough margin some African countries could become huge players in the global food market. The threat of climate change on agriculture particularly in Africa means that increased investment in smallholder farmers also needs to be matched with investment in climate smart technology for agricultural growth to be sustained.

Could investment in SMEs be the solution? Could it solve regional disparities in income inequality? Typically SMEs can be more geographically spread out compared to big organisations, which in developing countries are usually positioned in large urban areas.  In China about 40% of manufacturing employment is in SMEs compared to 5% in India. China has reduced poverty at a much greater rate than India. However, other factors have contributed to this and the effect of SMEs on reducing inequality is still unclear.

"Trickle-down theory - the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows." John Kenneth Galbraith, undated                             
Reducing inequality isn’t about letting the rich get richer and hoping the wealth trickles down to poorer parts of society. For economic and social development to be sustainable inequality needs to be tackled in way that ensures equality of opportunity for all groups in society. It gives everyone the same footing to be able to improve their own standards of living and escape poverty without being controlled by factors outside their own personal control. To end with here is quote that I think summarises my main point and that is the importance of equality of opportunity:
"I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops." Stephen Jay Gould, 1980 

Written by Milly Atkinson Handley, A-level student at Plymouth High School for Girls. This blog is the  product of my work experience with the ISSR over the summer of 2014. 

[1] BRIC inequalities Fact sheet (Oxfam)
[2] Representation without Taxation – Umar Cheema
[4] World Bank Development Report 2006: Equity and Development
[5] Equal Opportunities? Gaps in Youth policy and programming in Uganda
[7] ‘Grain, Fish, Money’ Africa Progress Report 2014
[8] World Bank Visualize inequality
[9] AAU, DRT, UNNGOF.(2012). Lost Opportunity? Gaps in Youth Policy
and Programming in Uganda.
[10] IYF, 2011 Youth Map Uganda. Navigating Challenges,Charting Hope. A Cross-sector Situation Analysis on Youth in Uganda
[11] MoFPED, 2011 Uganda’s Population Stabilisation Report. Population Secretariat
[13] Inequality Matters: BRICS Inequalities Fact Sheet, Courtney Ivins
[14] International Energy Agency: WEO-2011 new Electricity access Database 
[15] Left Behind by the G20? (Oxfam)
[16] 2 F. Ferreira and M. Ravallion (2008) ‘Global poverty and inequality: a review of the evidence’
[17] Brazil protests erupt over public services and World Cup costs – The Guardian
[18] S.B. Desai. A.Dubey, B.L.Joshi, M.Sen, A.Shariff, R. Vaneman (2010), Human Development in India: Challenges for a society in Transition, op. cit.,p.94
[19]Inequality Matters: BRICS Inequality Fact Sheet, Courtney Ivins
[20] Africa Progress Report, 2012

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