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Food for a non-equivalent thought


Human Rights Reader 307



[The time has come for some precisions. When talking or writing about human rights (HR), people too often indistinctively use the terms equity and equality. Let me embark with you in an in-depth analysis of these two concepts to set the record straight of which should be used in HR parlance when].



1. Equity is a core legal concept intimately linked to the notion of justice. It goes beyond the letter of the law and is considered part of natural law/natural justice. By extension, it deals with the willingness to give to each that which they deserve, or ‘to each according to her needs’. A HR analysis can, not always but often, determine if a given distribution is equitable or otherwise; it can, for example, not help in determining how much more a pilot should earn compared with the person who checks the wheels of his/her airplane. (U. Jonsson)


2. Inequity implies unfair and avoidable differences. It refers not only to injustice in distribution and access, but also to the processes which generate this injustice; inequity is about how the social structure determines social inequalities.Inequity arises from the appropriation of power and wealth, which leads to discrimination. Inequity and inequality change in the course of history.


3. Let us take an example: Health as merely the absence of disease limits our conception to the domain health care services. In HR work, health equity is a measure of the degree of social justice prevailing in a society. The objective of health equity thus is to be seen in the context of a wider search for social justice. Achieving health equity requires social policies of empowerment and a redistribution of social wealth.




-Equal is one thing; identical is another. (J. L. Borges)

– Doing more for disadvantaged people is not the same as addressing inequalities!


4. Equality pertains to the principle which recognizes that the same rights apply to all citizens. Equality is the right of every individual to receive the same treatment. It is the principle behind all economic, social and cultural rights, with its opposite being discrimination.


5. Wikipedia offers the following definitions of inequality: “the unequal or discriminatory treatment of an individual by another due to their social or economic status, religion, sex, race, among others. Inequalities are much greater than just “differences”.People are essentially equal; differences arise secondarily.*

*: Beyond difference, discussion on inequalities should be about fairness and social justice. The expression social justice has come into use more recently. It refers to the search for equilibrium between unequal parties that respects their differing needs.


Equality results from having equity just as inequality results from having inequity.


6. Following our example above, chances to reduce (social and) health inequalities** are limited by capitalism and the structures specific to capitalism. Therefore, the grossly unequal global distribution of power (power over information, over resources, over finances) will not change just because the power elites in both rich and poor countries decide to change it. Change will have to come from empowerment and mobilization from below.  (D. Legge)

**: Health inequalitiesare sometimes also referred to as ‘population differences in health outcomes’. These health inequalities are deeply embedded in complex social systems that defy or limit the usefulness of simple interventions that do not address the deep-rooted structural determinants. (R. Labonte)


7. Inequality is an injustice in access, an exclusion from enjoyment, a disparity in the quality of life –while inequity is the lack of equity, that is to say, the inherent characteristic of a society that hinders the common good.


Inequity is injustice producing inequalities (most of the time)***. Inequalities are measured, inequities are judged.


8. The lottery of birth –who your parents are, where and when you are born– accounts for the majority of variation in the resources and opportunities available for human beings. Patterns of inequality reinforce themselves over generations through the imposition of structural barriers, uneven political power and societal arrangements that limit claim holders potential to flourish as human beings. This represents a clear gap in privilege… and it is growing. The pace of change is simply much too slow for those who are already worst off.  Lack of privilege hides discrimination and the latter reproduces itself over time and over generations. People do experience discrimination on more than one basis in the social domain; multiple structural inequalities tend to persist.

***:  This is not generally correct. Example: ‘Affirmative Action’ requires aninequitable process to achieve an equality result. In other words, a process characterized as inequitable is morally defendable, because it contributes to gender equality. (U. Jonsson)


9. The historical evolution of inequalities is usually clear. It is more, mutually reinforcing inequalities are often rooted in historical relationships. It is thus hard to identify how to compensate for the inherited inequalities in opportunity for children and young people without addressing some of the disparities and discriminations that simultaneously affect their parents.


10. Structural inequalities further lead to the systematic accumulation of insecurity, powerlessness and disadvantage at one end of the scale, and wealth, opportunity and influence at the other. As long as these inequalities persist, there is a strong risk that development efforts will not reach the people who are least able to live their lives in dignity.


Differences in international incomes and wealth are indeed the cause and the consequence of many types of inequality.


Levels of inequality grow both in good times and in bad.


11. Global inequalities impact the social, the environmental, as well as the political domains. No surprise here. Take an example at the very core: Transnational corporations unmistakably serve the interests of the global elite. Vital sectors including information technology, communications and pharmaceuticals are concentrated in the richer economies and are focused on corporate profit rather than on the needs of people living in poverty.**** Inequalities in power and influence are systematically institutionalized at the highest level –a good example is the ‘customary’ appointment of citizens of designated countries to lead UN agencies.

****: ….and prolonged experience of chronic poverty renders any sector of a society vulnerable to diverse and enduring inequalities in all domains. (Poverty is also both a cause and a consequence of the known inequalities that affect disabled persons).


12. Addressing inequalities is fundamental and central for HR work. This was the case in 2000 at the launch of the MDGs, and thirteen years later it is even more so –and in the post 2015 era this is now an absolute must. It is high time we look beyond poverty ***** just in poor countries, and beyond the idea that the role of the rich countries is to transfer resources to people living in poverty. The motto must be: Universal Disparities Reduction, Now!

*****: A caveat is called for here: Treating poverty and inequalities as the same is not helpful. Inequalities are fundamentally about disparities, denial of fair enjoyment of human rights, and the persistence of arbitrary discrepancies in the worth, status, dignity and freedoms of different people. Migrants in particular are excluded from the protections afforded to citizens, and lack recourse mechanisms. Such inequalities also affect the children of migrants.


For the post 2015 development agenda, adopting the human rights framework means embarking on a global rich-poor disparity reduction crusade.


13. Both globalization and new technologies have brought and are bringing about a clear shift in income distribution in favor of the rich. In that context, inequalities are neither the consequence of an inevitable step in development’s evolution, nor the consequence of policy oversight or programmatic weakness. Rather, inequalities result from particular structures of power, influence and wealth that maximize the uneven distribution of resources for the gains of a few. It is our tolerance of those inequalities that has allowed greater influence to those who already enjoy greater advantage. Despite the fact that economic policy can either entrench inequalities, or can help to resolve them, discriminatory laws and policies are in place the world over; the institutions of Government simply operate unfairly.


14. Furthermore, patterns of global trade and international finance have reinforced the evolution of inequalities. Trade liberalization, privatization of state enterprises and deregulation have resulted in down-side costs to the populations of developing countries. Privatization of key industries and utility companies has provided for the emergence of small and wealthy elites who actively protect the status quo and also influence labor policies with the resulting erosion of minimum wages and diminishing opportunities for collective bargaining.


15. Some assorted additional bits and pieces:


Climate: The distribution of impact of climate-related natural disasters also shows significant patterns of inequality.

Gender: The main factors of gender inequality are the macho and patriarchal culture ‘normalized’ in society and entrenched in public institutions.

Tax structures: Taxation has tended to be regressive in most of the world, with substantial concessions awarded to newly privatized companies and foreign investors.

Access to land: Factors that limit access to land are also a critical element in asset inequalities. Disparities in access to land have long-standing historical roots. There has also now been a rush by foreign investors for large-scale land acquisitions (or leases) in developing countries. What this will do to equality you can imagine.


16. Bottom line, inequalities create second-class citizens with diminished social standing; opportunities for voice and participation are undermined.****** People experiencing disadvantage and inequalities are often defined in terms of their membership of a specific group, understood to be inferior. Some groups may be criminalized or suffer legal sanction as they are assigned a second-class or illegal status. Inequalities are associated with falling aspirations and falling self-esteem. These effects manifest themselves in stark differences in life expectancy; those experiencing discrimination are also more likely to commit suicide.

******: The denial of political voice and influence to socially excluded groups has often   been a major driver of violent conflict as these groups have no other forum to express their voice.


17. Never forget: Political inequalities may build up over time, but responses can emerge very rapidly, as people reach a ‘tipping point’ in their tolerance of inequalities.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Adapted from Social and Health Equity and Equality: The need for a scientific framework. A. M. Correa B., M. M. Arias V., J. Carmona-F. ,Social Medicine (www.socialmedicine.info), Volume 7, Number 1, December 2012; and Report on the Global Thematic Consultation on Inequalities, UNICEF, UN Women, January 2013.



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