If opportunities were like breakfast cereal

28 November 2018

Our dislike of inequality is innate. A child may have been perfectly happy with her breakfast until she sees her brother being served a more desirable kind of cereal. Desire is unlocked when new opportunities become available, while feelings of injustice may arise when they are not distributed equally. As overwhelming as the choices of cereal may be, are the same choices available to everyone?

Opportunities have certainly increased for people in Asia and the Pacific over the past 30 years. Across the region, there are more schools and health clinics than ever before. Economic growth has created more jobs. Water supply and treatment works have come on stream. Electricity grids and telecommunications systems have reached billions. This progress is in line with the universality permeating the Sustainable Development Goals: everyone should have standard of access to basic opportunities. As average access to key services has increased, it may look like everyone has benefited. Yet data show that distinct, identifiable groups are being left behind.

Like in any transition, some people gain access before others. In a fair world, access to essential services should increase equally across different groups, no matter what their individual circumstances may be. ESCAP has tested this assumption for the Asia-Pacific region. In a comprehensive assessment on inequality in all its forms, (including in access to 14 key opportunities, ranging from education to nutrition, to key household services such as access to water and sanitation and clean energy), it finds that for accessing opportunities, who you are matters not only for you, but also for your children.

The groups of those left behind, across all countries and opportunities, are conspicuously similar. They consist of individuals or households that are already disadvantaged: people living in rural areas, those in the bottom 40 per cent of the wealth distribution or those with lower education.

For example, the probability of a child being stunted - a measure of access to adequate nutrition - is higher if their mother has a lower education level. Exactly how much these circumstances matter can also be calculated. In Pakistan, a child whose mother has no education is twice as likely to be stunted as a child whose mother has completed secondary education, even if they live in otherwise similar households.

Inequality in educational attainment is also linked to the wealth status of the household: the higher the wealth, the better the education. However, in many low-income countries in South-East Asia, including Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Timor-Leste, living in a rural area is an even more significant factor than the person’s wealth status. In Afghanistan and Tajikistan, gender is behind most of the inequality in education.

In some instances, gender may work to a woman’s advantage. In several North and Central Asian countries, as well as in some South-East Asian countries, women have higher chances of completing secondary and higher education than men. In Mongolia, their chances are twice as high as for men.

No matter what the direction of advantage or disadvantage, inequality in access to opportunities is corrosive, if it is shaped by circumstances the individual has no control over. It creates a feeling of injustice, discourages effort and threatens social cohesion. It is also a reminder that inequality is not a static phenomenon, but rather transmitted to children, creating intergenerational traps that reproduce income inequality, locking families in poverty.

Focusing current efforts on expanding available opportunities and services to all has positive future impacts on society and the economy. Affordable and reliable access to education, health care, clean water and sanitation, electricity, clean fuels and financial services frees valuable resources and time for people to engage in productive activities and invest in their future. Equitable access to new opportunities can also shape the outlook for next generations, creating more empowered societies.

The quality of these opportunities also matters. Even in countries with equal or universal distribution of access to basic services, the poor and vulnerable often access services of lower quality. For example, while most people in Asia and the Pacific have access to food, access to nutritious food is still a privilege of those who can afford it. Gaps in quality of service also magnify underlying inequalities: education outcomes are skewed against poorer learners, electricity access is not always reliable in remote rural areas, and while public health care may be affordable, patients often must wait long before receiving treatment, which may be low-quality.

In the world of breakfast cereal, the more desirable brand is often less nutritious, but most children cannot tell, and do not care. In the real world, however, there is little ambiguity about the vast quality gaps in health care, education and basic services available to different groups across the region. Advantaged and disadvantaged people alike can tell the difference.

Until quality services are guaranteed for all, income inequality will continue to rise. The region has come a long way. It is now time for countries to make sure that not only access is fairly allocated, but that the most disadvantaged also receive services of high quality. Only then can feelings of injustice truly be curtailed and societies can realize their full human potential.