Addressing the democratic deficit in many economies will require a transformation of economic and political systems to increase participation, in ways that better account for those who face ingrained social injustices. The means and quality of participation are vital, however - inclusion alone is not enough to tackle deep inequalities. The scale of this global challenge requires not only policies that reduce inequality but also a more fundamental shift to open democratic processes at the global, national, and local levels so that everyone has an opportunity to pursue prosperity.
Inequality impacts economic status, health, and identity - and results from imbalances in power and influence
A concentration of political power translates into imbalances in wealth and influence; one stark illustration of this has been the contrast between the relatively swift rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the Global North and the far slower pace in the Global South. Civic and political power inequalities can preclude the people at the bottom from having a voice - while enabling those at the top to shape the future in ways that benefit themselves. This is a result of a process of de-democratization that has taken place since the 1970s, which has increased the political representation of capital while decreasing that of labor through the dismantling of unions and worker’s rights, as the source of wealth shifts from production to assets and rents.
Conceiving of an economy as a construct subject solely to the whims of the marketplace, while promoting it as meritocratic and fair, has undermined social solidarity and increased inequality. Still, despite the ability of elites to shape political outcomes, there are many narratives emerging to counter rising inequality, thanks to Black Lives Matter, La Via Campesino, climate strikes, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (the Landless Worker’s Movement), and the Indian farmers’ protests.
These movements are a response to systems that oppress those for whom existing economic and political models do not work. Having control over one’s own life is central to prosperity and fulfillment, and ensuring that everyone has access to a quality education is a first step to creating fully realized, active democracies. Policies that re-balance economies and de-tangle politics from business are also key.
The tremendous wealth gains enjoyed by the world’s richest people during COVID-19 have undermined feelings of togetherness, and added to civic unrest. Greater public ownership (of tech platforms and physical infrastructure, for example) could create more value for entire populations, rather than certain individuals.
Global Trends in Inequality
The world faces a series of modern, inextricably-linked challenges that cannot be tackled in isolation or by any single nation on its own. COVID-19 has worsened inequalities related to race, region, health, class, gender, disability, and wealth - as it impacts access to basic services, and illustrates how intersecting identities can compound pandemic-related outcomes.
Human encroachment on natural environments has triggered an increase in diseases that can transfer from animals to humans; our relationship with biodiversity needs to improve, if we are going to be able to limit future outbreaks. One key secondary impact of the current pandemic is added pressure on migration systems - as people continue to seek safety and new opportunities amid severe climate change impacts and violent conflict
Urban disparities have been driven by the widening of income inequality as workforces become increasingly bifurcated, and inequality within urban areas has increased amid a return of increasingly exclusionary ways of designing city centers and facilitating segregated residential zones - in ways that isolate communities. Focusing on quality-of-life factors will help us better understand these trends, and incorporating local knowledge about what is needed to sustain local livelihoods will help us more effectively tackle inequality.
The disparate rollout of COVID-19 vaccines illustrates the severity of the current situation.
Despite the relative success of vaccination programmes in the UK, the US, and other wealthy countries, decision-makers in those places have failed to recognize that prioritizing their own populations over others will not end the global health crisis. The poorest regions of the world may not get vaccinated until 2024, inevitably impacting health, political and social stability, and economic growth.
Migration poses not only global challenges in terms of integrating newcomers in search of jobs and social cohesion, but also opportunities. Harnessing diversity for greater innovation is necessary to overcome problems, not least the rapid urbanization that is making cities less affordable, more taxing on existing infrastructure, and more unequal.
Cities can be drivers of social innovation and pandemic recovery if governments pursue forward-looking urban policies, like expanding affordable housing, funding public transportation, and providing greater access to education and social care. Studying and analyzing sources of inequality at the local and regional level is vital for addressing growing differences between urban and rural areas, and between regions (huge discrepancies are evident within parts of the UK and the US, for example).
Belonging Identity and Culture
Institutions and Inequality
The degree of a society’s cultural and racial diversity can affect mental health. Feeling a sense of belonging has been shown to increase life satisfaction for disabled people even as they suffer from discrimination (as has been demonstrated by disabled youth in Canada). In terms of mental health, people often perceive it as being related solely to the affected individual, thereby overlooking the compounding influences of culture, belonging, and identity - and limiting their focus only to genetic and psychological factors.
The degree of a society’s cultural and racial diversity can affect individual mental health. While experiences vary, younger generations generally struggle to identify with and feel a sense of belonging to societies they (or their parents) have migrated too.
The term “intersectionality,” coined in 1991, describes the lived experiences of belonging, identity, and culture - and how they intersect with inequality. The assumption that inequality is limited to discrete institutions and spheres of influence is antiquated and inaccurate, and a failure to recognize how gender, sexuality, class, race, disability, age, language, mental health, and religion all interlink is limiting. Inequality is a fact of life for people with disabilities, who make up 15% of the global population yet are under-researched in terms of the discrimination they experience.
The intersectional experience of race, gender and sexuality also contributes to the inequality in justice systems, immigration and asylum decisions, education, and employment. However, identities can also create a space for belonging - in ways that cultivate powerful social movements, art, and performance
People with disabilities tend to work less due to sociological and health factors, which can disrupt their ability to better their economic condition - and create an even a larger divide between them and those without disabilities.
In the UK, studies show that Black and minority ethnic communities suffer from poor mental health at disproportionally higher rates, due in part to social factors. Meanwhile cultural factors may determine the likelihood a person will seek treatment; if they do, these factors may determine the kind of institutional and social support they receive, and their ability to cope.
To increase equality, we must stop working in siloed ways that perpetuate cyclical inequality. Policies must recognize the importance of intersectional identities and culture, and foster a sense of belonging - to protect against adverse health effects, and create a truly inclusive environment that recognizes and celebrates our differences.
Global institutions have forged alliances with big tech, development banks, and even startups to promote financial inclusion initiatives that advance their own particular interests, rather than those of society as a whole. This form of neoliberal capitalism can result in the exploitation of the very poor by applying systems designed for profits rather than human well-being. To lessen inequalities, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on the role of local governments - which have generally suffered from budget cuts. Across Africa, there is a significant positive association between the quality of local governments and healthy economic development at the regional level (after controlling for institutional quality at the national level).
Democracy will not necessarily result in equality, depending on how wealth and decision-making are distributed. Inequality and democracy are not automatically connected; the degree of inequality is attributable to the particular political processes in any given country, and how they shape the redistribution of wealth and control.
The stabilizing effect of healthy institutions is crucial for any functioning economy or society. Whether it is financial and government institutions, judicial systems, or basic democratic processes, their effectiveness and efficiency can determine the degree of inequality plaguing any particular place.
Citizen-led action can help reduce inequality, and more direct forms of democracy such as participatory budgeting (as pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil), can bring significant benefits. Taking such a decentralized, bottom-up approach to policy-making can address democratic deficits, bring often-excluded people into decision-making processes, improve their quality of life, and increase their prosperity.
The 'Biosphere' and Inequality
Building more circular economies and greater community engagement will now be critical for ensuring prosperity in the face of biodiversity loss.
The knock-on effects of crop yield loss and poor nutrition are impacting millions of people. Countries at high altitudes are also extremely vulnerable; the Himalayas have experienced rising temperatures, and melting glaciers and ice caps have caused landslides. The vicious cycle of increasing poverty, vulnerability, and inequality worsens the already precarious situation of many disadvantaged groups, and the degradation of ecosystems is often a manifestation of social inequality.
History has shown the positive impact that proactively tackling global environmental issues can have; the partial restoration of the ozone layer through international agreements and the banning of plastics and chemicals in everyday products have benefited everyone, but especially poorer nations.
Poorer nations are more vulnerable to the disastrous impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss.
The UN has forecast the potential loss of one million plant and animal species due to climate change. A deeper understanding of the relationship between nature and people (including their socioeconomic status and gender) is necessary to tackle this growing crisis. The disproportionate impacts of climate change mean many poorer nations are more exposed to extreme weather events and natural disasters. These countries are very often less resilient because of the degradation of ecosystems such as rivers, forests, coral reefs, and mangroves.
Compartmentalizing the risks of climate change to make it more understandable and quantifiable is potentially dangerous - we are only now beginning to understand the intersection of inequality, biodiversity loss, and climate risk in the countries where extreme, climate change-related disasters occur, and the feedback loops set in motion will have cascading consequences that are difficult to foresee. In Bangladesh, for example, flooding is increasingly prevalent, causing destruction and displacement as sea levels rise.
As more people have become reliant on coastal ecosystems these natural sources of protection are becoming less effective, and in Bangladesh alone more than 19 million children are exposed to the most hazardous consequences of climate change, according to UNICEF.
Countries near the equator such as Ethiopia and Kenya are facing temperature changes that are exacerbating soil loss and desertification - creating the perfect conditions for locust swarms.
The ways in which green infrastructure is developed (or not) can also affect inequality - both nature-based and socially-contextualized versions will be needed, to tackle disparities while restoring the natural environment and boosting local prosperity.
Technology and Inequality
The world is divided between technology haves and have nots, and innovative tools can often compound social injustice. China has reportedly developed one of the most advanced internet filters in the interest of controlling information and blocking sites that criticize the communist party or delve into human rights issues. The use of censorship in combination with the weaponization of political or cultural messaging on digital media for geopolitical gain has undermined democracies - though these countries face their own internal challenges in terms of unequal access to and control of technology, which must be addressed in order to better protect human rights, foster greater knowledge and protect democratic processes. Populism thrives on the internet, and we need new models to better control it.
The technology divide is only getting wider, and countries that combined social with technological innovation were better able to protect the most vulnerable as COVID-19 spread. Even prior to the pandemic, Estonia made digital skills, internet access and infrastructure a national priority - going as far as classifying internet access a human right in 2001 - which helped it maintain a high level of education delivery and access during COVID-19-related school closures. However, even in advanced countries the biases that can be imparted to algorithms have created problems in terms of hiring and administering justice.
The nuances of facial recognition technology in the US, for example, have meant that reading white male faces can be as much as 99% accurate, though that falls as low as 35% accuracy for dark-skinned women. Racial and gender bias can therefore be built into systems, perpetuating oppressive structures by failing to account for a wider variety of physical attributes and abilities in ways that increase incarceration rates for people of color, and worsen inequality and injustice.
There has been a significant increase in censorship and government control of the internet in recent decades. When governments cannot block specific articles or references on social media posts, they may block entire websites - restricting public access to knowledge and potentially vital information. Often in the name of “protecting” social and cultural norms, governments are quick to clamp down on political content (frequently more quickly than they restrict sensitive content like pornography), though the real aim is often to protect the government’s own authority.
Livelihoods and Infrastructure
Addressing inequality cannot be done without first acknowledging that we all depend on a certain level of safety, support, and solidarity to live our lives - and public services are core to this. The accessibility of schooling, for example, is a key factor in income inequality; in India, a father’s attainment of education and a non-farm job can increase the likelihood his child will also have a non-farm job.
The global trend towards the outsourcing of public services to private interests has worsened inequality
Inequality creates barriers to accessing this infrastructure, and can undermine one’s control over one’s life. Scandinavian countries typically have relatively strong social safety nets and forms of social democracy, which offer support through progressive taxes, help people achieve higher levels of education and a better balance between home and work life, and expand access to housing. These countries generally achieve high marks on measures of well-being, social progress, and happiness. However, the global trend towards the outsourcing of public services to the private sector since the 1970s has contributed to rising inequality - including in Scandinavia.
People rely on whatever services, institutions, and social networks are available to build secure lives and livelihoods - in addition to social (youth centers, community groups) and material (healthy food, adequate housing) infrastructure.
In China, however, a father’s educational background and non-farm work does not necessarily foreshadow that the same will be attained by his child. Such disparities between countries and generations highlight the many diverse ways that access to both material and social infrastructure impacts livelihoods across generations.
It is only by making an effort to understand the lived experiences of individuals and communities that policy-makers can fully grasp the interconnected services, support systems and infrastructure that their constituents rely on to get by - though the specifics of these systems will vary dramatically from place to place.
In both poor and rich countries, the quality of both available jobs and the systems designed to protect workers’ rights are crucial for reducing potentially destabilizing inequality. The rise of the gig economy has coincided with an increase in “in-work” poverty (suffering from poverty despite living in a working household) in some parts of the world. Having a job does not necessarily guarantee access to food - and the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a sharp increase in the use of food banks in many countries (use was already on the rise before the pandemic).
Unchecked capitalism, dizzying technological change, grossly disproportionate executive pay, and intensive financial globalization have all been blamed for rising levels of inequality. One key underlying factor has been the increased prevalence since the 1970s of neoliberalism and the financialization of everything - resulting in a de-democratization of economic policy-making.
Yet, inequality is not solely about income; inequalities in terms of health, age, (dis)ability, gender, technology access, infrastructure, and geographical location have all been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mitigating inequality will now demand a mix of bottom-up and top-down changes that recognize the social and economic systems aggravating inequality are a matter of choice.