Closing In on Equity

Global sustainability is a concept with solid physical limits, but sharing responsibility below that level is largely about how much is fair and for whom. Equity and justice are implicit in the sustainable development concept, both temporally in inter-generational equity, respecting the development needs of future generations, and spatially in intragenerational equity, stressing poverty eradication today (Chapter 19, this volume).

Most of the focus on equity and its measurement is at the lower end, at the extremes of poverty, focusing on the ability of people to meet basic needs. Less attention has been paid to the upper end of the equity continuum, the extremes of wealth and related over-consumption. For example, there are limited data on wealth at the national level, even for a proxy such as the number of millionaires, and few indicators of overconsumption (UNDP 1998). Because measurement often leads to management, there are strong incentives to ensure a lack of political attention on the issue of wealth.

National-level indicators that aggregate data into averages can hide significant inequity. National economic statistics are not easily disaggregated to measure equity along the gradients between rich and poor, urban and rural, men and women, and children and adults, or between racial or ethnic groups. The Gini coefficient captures income inequity within countries, and recent editions of the United Nations Development Program Human Development Report have highlighted aspects of social inequity (UNDP 2004). However, the conceptual challenge is to develop a range of indicators that capture the equity dimension of sustainable development.

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