Addressing the challenges of inequality around the world, specifically in Africa, is becoming increasingly paramount. Degrees of inequality at all levels of society negatively impact on poverty-reduction strategies, result in inefficient resource allocations by governments and policymakers, wasted productive potential, exponential growth in dependency ratios within society as well as impaired institutional development.
In Africa, according to research conducted by the Africa Development Bank, varying degrees of inequality prevalent in society ultimately results in stunted development. This stunted development provides the nefarious catalyst for slower or stagnant economic growth, which in turn results in health and social problems in society as well as sub-standard educational outcomes in primary and secondary institutions.
All these variables ultimately exacerbate levels of poverty and unemployment which then lead to even greater social inequalities in society, especially among children, as well as generating social and political instability, which have the capacity to lead to conflicts and civil war.
A tangible example of the impact of gross levels of inequality and its direct link to political instability and civil unrest is highlighted in what unfolded in the North African and Middle East region over 18 months ago. The “Arab Spring” which was sparked in Tunisia by a humble vegetable seller, disillusioned with his prospects of social mobility, ignited a wave of political and social unrest in the region, ultimately spreading to Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen and now currently playing out violently in Syria.
Even though the conflict in Syria against the Assad regime has not yet resolved itself, other previously entrenched and once seemingly immovable totalitarian political regimes, have been overthrown in four countries, namely, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.
The lasting legacy of the Arab Spring, which erupted towards the end of 2010, has led to a number of ambitious and extensive reforms in addressing levels of inequality and issues of social mobility. Added to this, demands for greater levels of economic and political inclusion has resulted in the broad refusal of citizens in various countries to no longer tolerate the gross socio-economic inequality perpetuated by the firmly-entrenched “elite”, who have enjoyed sweeping power, control and influence for prolonged periods of time.
Therefore, in many countries today the issue of inequality has become the critical variable of international and national discourse. Thus, in addition to debates around addressing levels of equity in society, there are also strong economic and political reasons to be concerned about inequality, its various dimensions and what role this will facilitate and tensions it may perpetuate in the 21st century.
In Africa, levels of inequality, which is the result of income poverty, was tracked at 47.5% in sub-Saharan Africa, based on the headcount index metric for international poverty line of $1.25 a day. More notably, at the $2 a day international poverty line, sub-Saharan Africa rose to a staggering 69.2% in terms of people affected by income poverty within the region.
Compared to the rest of the world, the most recent data available from the World Bank indicates that the sub-Saharan African region also has the second highest level of income inequality, measured at 45.4% only slightly better than Latin America and the Caribbean, measured at 51.9% and trailing East Asia and the Pacific region which measures in at 39.2% respectively.
Apart from the challenges that income inequality perpetuates on countries and societies, policymakers and governments are also concerned about other dimensions of inequality, including those in education and health. There is also increasing concern about gender inequality in these social indices and especially those related to the labour market.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, and the potential of the disruptive and potentially destructive nature of civil unrest and civil war, governments around the world need to critically engage in dialogue with large employers in addressing unemployment through strategic skills planning, skills development and skills matching.
Added to this, innovative public-private partnerships and opportunities for collaboration among large employers, governments and other relevant stakeholders such as higher and vocational educational institutions to transform institutional structures and strengthen economies also needs to be planned and implemented.
A prescient look into the future dictates that sustainable inclusive growth and development as well as inclusive governance must form the bedrock for governments and policymakers around the world in order to marry the transformation between the large levels of inequality currently being experienced around the world and the inclusive potential of greater equality in society in the decades to come.