July 2019: The UN released the 2019 edition of the ‘World Social Situation’ report, with a focus on the future of inequality. It highlights the effects on inequality of climate change, urbanization, international migration and technological innovation. The note also represents the main findings of the forthcoming 2019 World Social Report, to be issued during the UN General Assembly’s 74th Session (UNGA 74).

The note titled, ‘World social situation 2019: shaping the future of inequality’ (A/74/135), considers the impacts of global megatrends on implementation of the 2030 Agenda and on inequality. It reflects on opportunities to apply an equality lenses to policymaking, and shares best practices in reducing inequalities within and among countries. The note suggests three key building blocks for reducing inequalities:

  • promoting equal access to opportunities, to address the root causes of inequality;
  • promoting macroeconomic policies focused on the goal of reducing inequalities; and
  • tackling discrimination and prejudice.

Climate change will cause at least 3-16 million people to be in poverty by 2020, even with successful adaptation and mitigation strategies.

On climate change, the note stresses its impacts on inequality between countries, finding that rising temperatures have slowed the reduction of such inequality. This is due in part to climate change’s affects on poverty, both in depth and prevalence, making it more difficult for people to escape poverty and increasing people’s vulnerability to falling into poverty. Under a low-impact scenario with successful adaptation and mitigation strategies, the report finds that between “3 million and 16 million people will be in poverty by 2020 because of climate change.” Under a high-impact scenario, between 35 and 122 million people will fall into poverty.

The note further emphasizes that rising temperatures have negatively affected economic growth in warm countries, essentially making “the world’s poorest countries poorer.” Further, people living in poverty and other disadvantaged groups, such as small landholders and indigenous peoples, are disproportionately exposed to climate risks. The authors also cite infectious and respiratory diseases that are aggravated by climate change.

The note reflects on how climate action and the transition to green economies offer opportunities for reducing poverty and inequality. For instance, the adoption of sustainable practices, including increased energy efficiency, changes in the energy mix and growth in the use of electric vehicles, could result in a net increase of 18 million jobs worldwide. However, women are less represented in sectors associated with green technology, and the note explains that the transition to the green economy could negatively affect women’s employment.

On urbanization, the publication notes that the urban transformation “has implications for every aspect of sustainable development, including the reduction of inequalities.” On one hand, cities can be catalysts of economic growth and innovation, and residents of urban areas tend to have better access to health, education and other services. However, urban areas are found to be less equal than rural areas. For example, maternal and child health are typically worse in urban slums and poor city neighborhoods than in rural areas. The authors stress that proper management of cities is critical for reducing inequality and achieving all other SDGs.

The note recommends policies to reduce inequality and promote inclusive cities, with a focus on four areas: securing land rights for the poor, including meeting housing and land needs; improving spatial connectivity through public transport and establishing good transport connections between commercial and residential areas; promoting access to decent formal employment; and addressing urban inequalities, including by strengthening the capacity of local governments to address challenges, including those related to climate change.

On international migration, the report finds that migration does not only result from failed development or inequality; more migrants come from middle-income countries (MICs) than low-income countries. The note suggests that as countries develop and improve education and access to information, more people can cover the costs of migration.

The authors find that most migrants “benefit from moving,” as do their countries of origin and destination, including through remittances. They caution, however, that the degree to which migrants and countries benefit from migration “depends on the conditions under which migration unfolds.” The note recommends reducing the transaction costs of migrant remittances, in line with SDG target 10.c.

On technological change, the note highlights opportunities for governments and international institutions to maximize the benefits of new technologies. For example, technology generally replaces specific tasks rather than eliminating entire jobs, and new technologies also generate new tasks and jobs. The note concludes there is “no solid evidence yet” that recent technological changes have resulted in “massive increases in joblessness or that they will make work obsolete.”

To ensure that new technologies promote sustainable development and do not create new forms of inequality, the note recommends ensuring everyone can access them. For instance, if new technologies benefit students in tertiary education more than children without access to primary education, such technologies can contribute to widening gaps in education. The report recommends three policy interventions: strengthening efforts to bridge technological divides within and between countries, including by expanding enabling infrastructure and ensuring that technology meets the needs of all users, including older persons and those with disabilities; investing in support for workers and skills for people to enable them to perform new tasks, including through promoting lifelong learning; and supporting people in work and life transitions, including through universal access to social protections. [Publication: World Social Situation 2019: Shaping the future of inequality: Note by the Secretariat]