Identity Politics and Intolerance a Barrier to Development, says UN Report

From The Guardian, March 21, 2017

by Karen McVeigh

 Annual human development index cites Brexit as an example of a nationalist agenda that could hold back progress on the global goals.

Britain First hold a demonstration in Telford, UK, February 2017. A UN report says that exclusion and intolerance could prevent development progress reaching everyone. Photograph: Goodman/LNP/REX/Shutterstock

Nationalism and identity politics – of which Brexit is one of the latest examples – are barriers to development among the most marginalised groups in society, according to a UN report.

The annual human development index said that at a time when global action and collaboration were imperative in achieving the sustainable development goals by 2030, exclusion and intolerance could prevent progress reaching everyone. “Brexit is one of the most recent examples of a retreat to nationalism … ” the report said. “Intolerance of others in all its forms – legal, social or coercive – is antithetical to human development.”

Overall, the report said, millions of women, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities continue to be excluded from a quarter-century of impressive global progress on human development. There have been significant achievements worldwide between 1990 and 2015, including the halving of the under-five mortality rate and ending extreme poverty for a billion people.

But systemic discrimination – in both developed and developing countries – has left the world’s most marginalised groups behind, with the gap set to widen unless “deep-rooted barriers” to development are removed, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2016 human development report found.

“Over the last decades, we have witnessed achievements in human development that were once thought impossible,” said Selim Jahan, the report’s author.

“But every year, 15 million girls under 18 get married – that is one child bride every two seconds. There are 32 countries where women follow different procedures than men to get passports, 18 countries where they have to have their husband’s approval before they get a job.”

He also highlighted cases in which developing nations have made great strides. “In Bangladesh, maternity leave is six months, whereas there is no maternity leave in the US. And Rwanda, for instance … has the highest number of women parliamentarians, at 65%.”

Other groups identified as most excluded from progress on human development by the report were refugees and migrants, rural dwellers, people with disabilities and the LGBTI community.

Since 1990, the global human development index, a measure of achievement encompassing life expectancy, the ability to acquire knowledge and to achieve a decent standard of living, has increased by more than 20%, with least developed countries increasing by 45%.

But one in three people worldwide continue to live in low levels of human development, the report found.

In almost every country, the report said, several groups face disadvantages that overlap and reinforce each other, widening the gap in progress across generations and making it harder to catch up, as the world moves on.

“Leaving no one behind needs to become the way we operation as a global community,” said Stefan Löfven, the Swedish prime minister. “In order to overcome the barriers that hamper both human development and progress towards the sustainable development goals, inclusiveness must guide policy choices.”

It found that in all regions, women have a longer life expectancy than men and in most regions, girls and boys have similar expected years of schooling. Yet in all regions, women consistently have, on average, a lower human development index (HDI) score than men. The largest difference was in South Asia, where the female HDI value was 20% lower than that of a man.

“The world has come a long way in rolling back extreme poverty, in improving access to education health and sanitation and in expanding possibilities for women and girls,” said Helen Clark, UNDP administrator. “But those gains are a prelude to the next, possibly tougher challenge, to ensure the benefits of the global progress reaches everyone.”

In the case of women, the report said, while gender disparities are narrowing slowly, women are legally excluded from some jobs because of their gender. Women tend to be poorer, earn less and have fewer opportunities in most aspects of life than men.

The report warned that too much attention was placed on national averages, which often mask enormous variation in people’s lives, and called for a more disaggregated data, to identify who was being left behind. For instance, girls’ enrolment in primary education has increased but in half of 53 developing countries with data, the majority of adult women who completed four to six years of primary school are illiterate.

At the top and bottom of the table of 188 countries, the rankings were little changed from the previous year. Norway, Australia and Switzerland led the table, while the UK slipped two places to 16th. Canada was down one place to 10th, while New Zealand dropped from ninth place to 13th. Central African Republic came last, with Niger second from last.

The report stressed the importance of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development to build on progress made.

More information on the report, its launch and other reviews at