Header image for news printout

“Addressing inequalities in the SDGs:A human rights imperative for poverty eradication”

New York, 4 February 2014

Your Excellencies,
distinguished representatives,
ladies and gentlemen,

Mahatma Gandhi once remarked: “There’s enough on this planet for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

We live in a world that is wealthier than ever before. Yet millions of people still struggle to feed their families.

Our problem today is not poverty. It is inequality.

There is no lack of wealth or resources – we have more than enough resources to eradicate poverty. The problem today is the great inequality in the distribution of these resources. As the non-governmental organisation, Oxfam, reported last month, that the richest 85 wealthiest individuals in the world now have about the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people put together!

While the MDGs have served as a vital catalyst for galvanising progress in reducing poverty, there is a risk the focus on statistical averages and aggregate numbers, has glossed over rising inequalities. We have not been paying attention to who is winning and who is losing.

And we are now seeing the results. A rise in social unrest around the world. Disparities between groups flaring into divisive and often violent conflict.

Extreme inequalities have profound consequences for us all, as they deepen discontent and destabilise our political, economic and social systems.
As the authors of the well-known book, The Spirit Level, pointed out –inequalities are divisive and socially corrosive. It is not only poverty that matters, it is also where we are in relation to each other and how wide the gaps are between us.

Highly unequal societies not only have lower, and less sustainable levels of economic growth, and higher levels of conflict, but they are also sickly societies, with lower human development outcomes –not only for the poor, but for us all.

For those who are poor, the experience of inequality, like the related experience of being discriminated against, is a feeling of unfairness, injustice, powerlessness, desperation, dependence.

It is a feeling that has brought people out onto the streets, as we have seen in Tunis, in Rio, in Madrid, and here in New York - from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring. People are angry at many different kinds of inequality – economic inequality, political inequality, social inequality and environmental inequality. And they are right to be so.

The Occupy Movement, for example, has decried economic inequality. They are outraged that the top 1% of the global population is getting richer, while the poor face misery and mass unemployment. They are frustrated that ordinary people were forced to bail out the banks, while wealthy investors went largely unscathed. They fear that governments are adopting laws and regulations that benefit the rich and penalise the poor. They believe - as Oxfam also reiterated - that the wealthy have captured our political systems, so that they can roll back the mechanisms of regulation and redistribution that were designed to balance out the inequalities and instabilities that unregulated markets tend to produce.

In the protests and demonstrations that have swept the globe in recent years, people have expressed their frustration with economic inequality, mass unemployment and poverty, but they are equally angry at political inequalities; the exclusion of particular religious groups, ethnic groups and women from political representation and full inclusion in society. Many groups, including women, minorities, migrants, indigenous people, people with disabilities or other groups are angry at social inequalities that result when they are treated unfairly on account of their gender or race or status. Legal and practical barriers mean many groups, such as migrants in an irregular situation, are left without access to lifesaving healthcare or basic education. They feel desperate not only for themselves, but for their children, who will grow up less healthy, less well-educated, less able to participate as equals in society.

Inequality can result from the operation of unrestrained markets, but inequality can also result from discrimination. People are angry at the deep inequalities that result from discriminatory laws, policies, practices or traditions. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, islamophobia, class bias –all are forms of discrimination.

Discrimination occurs when people are treated unfairly - not because of their characteristics as individuals - but rather because of their membership of a particular group. Across the world, for example, women, as a group, are paid less than men; they still have less access to and control over resources; they are denied the right to inherit land or property. Gender inequality results from discrimination against women. Opportunities are not equal.

Your Excellencies, distinguished friends,

As a child of apartheid South Africa, I know how inequality is linked to discrimination, in vicious cycle of exclusion, deprivation and poverty. I have lived in a country where inequality and discrimination were not only a fact of life; they were embedded in the law - and in all our policies for ‘development’. People of colour were excluded and exploited – and so they were poor. I wanted to fight against it – but I was young, poor, a woman, non-white. I faced the impacts of multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination - age, race, gender, the social status of my family, all stood in my way.

I’m sure that many here in this room have felt this too. Many have faced some kind of discrimination at some point in their lives –treated poorly because of race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, disability or economic or legal status. Many know that weight of oppression, intimidation, humiliation and utter powerlessness of being treated as less than a full human being.

But the people in this room are now situated to do something about it – to announce a new development paradigm in which inequality has no place.

A new development paradigm which resonates with the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”

These are powerful words. They were reflected in the Millennium Declaration. But they were not translated into the Millennium Development Goals.

While the MDGs have helped galvanize progress, the MDGs have not been an agenda for equality and non-discrimination.

The Sustainable Development Goals must remedy this failing.

The SDGs must an agenda for more equitable and sustainable development, built on the firm foundation of human rights. We must build in the principles of for equality, non-discrimination and a broader sense of equity, into the new agenda. We can do this by:

Firstly, integrating a cross-cutting focus on equality and non-discrimination throughout all goals, targets and indicators. For example, a health goal should have targets to reduce health inequalities, a poverty goal targets to reduce income inequalities. Data must be disaggregated for all indicators - at a minimum by sex, race, ethnic group, age, disability, nationality and income - but preferably by all relevant grounds of discrimination. Ways must be found to include marginalised and disadvantaged groups including minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, older persons, youth, children and people with disabilities. Targets should be set to ensure that no one is left behind and no one is left until last. This means ensuring faster progress for disadvantaged groups, which may require special measures or affirmative action. We need to go beyond equality of opportunity towards equality of result, towards substantive equality between men and women, between different racial, ethnic, age and other social groups.

Secondly, setting a standalone goal or goals on equality and non-discrimination to emphasise the intrinsic importance of equality and to capture aspects of inequality that may not be captured in other goals. For example, this could include concrete targets and indicators to end discrimination in laws, policies, practices. Special attention should be paid to overlapping and intersecting forms of discrimination, to take account of the situations of those who are discriminated against on multiple grounds.

Finally, at the international level, a goal on global partnership must address inequalities between countries, by reducing the inequities in global governance. This must ensure greater fairness and equity in global governance, with meaningful reforms of our institutions to update our global institutions to ensure that all are equally represented, in line with the right to development.

Your Excellencies, friends,

There is more than enough wealth in the world to eradicate poverty, but we must address inequality.

The SDGs must an agenda for more equitable and sustainable development, built on the firm foundation of the human rights principles of equity, equality and non-discrimination.

I thank you.