In September 2000, one hundred and ninety-one member states established the United Nations Millennium Development Goals:1
- Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
- Achieve universal primary education;
- Promote gender equality and empower women;
- Reduce child mortality;
- Improve maternal health;
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases;
- Ensure environmental sustainability; and
- Develop a global partnership for development.
In 2015, the United Nations passed another resolution: “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ASD)”—setting targets for the reduction of poverty and hunger everywhere by 2030:
The resolution resolved to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. To create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.2
In July 2020, the Sustainable Development Report 2020 outlined five key measures that global cooperation should include:3
- Disseminate best practices rapidly;
- Strengthen financing mechanisms for developing countries;
- Address hunger hotspots;
- Ensure social protection;
- Promote new drugs and vaccines.
These goals are ambitious but unrealistic; worse they have become rhetorical. They are lofty and morally appealing; however, they only disarm the skeptics and justify the protection of capitalistic juggernauts on which the fulfillment of such lofty goals also largely depends.
The reality of the conditions that underlie inequity are only remotely likely to be dealt with in the next forty years, let alone the next nine.
According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report 2019, one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date sources of information on global household wealth, global wealth grew 1.2 percent above the level of mid-2018.4 Wealth per adult reached a new record high of USD$70,850. The report notes that half of all adults worldwide have a net worth below USD$10,000; nearly 1 percent of adults are millionaires who collectively own 44 percent of global wealth.5
At the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that slums are home to an estimated 828 million people, a third of the world’s urban population, and this figure is expected to reach three billion in the next thirty years.6 Another 70.8 million people are displaced worldwide.
Studies show that before the Second World War, up to 18 percent of all income received by Americans went to the richest 1 percent. After that point, and up until the early 1980s, the share of the top 1 percent dropped substantially (first quickly, and then more slowly in the 1970s). After the 1980s, inequality in the U.S. started increasing, and eventually returned to the level of the pre-war period.This was not unique to the U.S.—development in other English-speaking countries followed a similar pattern.7 Interestingly, this pattern is not universal; in equally rich European countries, as well as in Japan, the income share of the rich has decreased over many decades and has not returned to its earlier high levels—instead remaining flat or increasing only modestly. Income inequality in Europe and Japan is much lower today than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.8
We are well past the point when lofty-sounding statements can be relied upon to punt the proverbial can down the road; it is time to effect meaningful and transformative changes from those in positions of leadership and influence.
Wealth distribution is a consequence of policies and is influenced by demographics as much as by global market forces and technological progress.
The ASD goals are unrealistic given the track record and failure of free market economies to raise even the most basic living standards and social services for hundreds of millions of people. There is just something terribly wrong when the conditions provided to even the worst, most heinous criminals incarcerated in our prisons are better than those in which millions of innocent children live.
Worse, such promises foster unrealistic, unattainable expectations which demoralize millions when unmet, eroding trust in global institutions and enhancing anti-democratic sentiment. Yes, studies indicate there have been improvements, but the bar is set so low that it defies relevance. This is not to imply that the world should become a welfare planet. Those who have worked hard, invested in themselves, and perhaps even been lucky, deserve their success. Their obligation to their fellow man should emanate from a humanity that is a moral obligation. But individuals and societies are not islands; they develop because others have made collective structures and historic contributions that created the conditions in which they flourished.
In the global society, resources, treasures, and even human lives were traded to create wealth for a few. Regional trade partnerships exploit their partnerships and affiliations to create advantages, and multinational companies take advantage of cheap labour and lax regulations to advance profits and wealth. Moreover, there are governments whose primary focus is national interest—grounded in gross national product (GNP) and gross domestic product (GDP), measures that approximate contributions of efficiency of labour, and the effectiveness and efficiency of technological and organizational aspects. But communities and citizens must also work hard, invest in themselves, and demonstrate a moral obligation to all members.
The response to COVID-19 across the globe has revealed stark gaps in and among societies on how we value our commitment to ourselves, our fellow human beings, and to the global village. The fragmented responses, the obfuscation, misinformation, denial, and obstructionism that have been so evident in so many places and among so many leaders have revealed the values and priorities of societies and cultures. If COVID-19 were a mid-term exam of our progress, our ability to collaborate on existential challenges and our humanity, the grade would be unimpressive. The marginalized not only remained marginalized, they have been thrust even farther into marginalization.
However, the future need not be bleak. There are outstanding examples of the capacity and potential of planetary resources to support even the most dense and resource-dependent communities. While no single demographic condition taken alone determines a society’s well-being and prosperity, they do provide insight into the magnitude of the challenges. There are of course exceptions, which seemingly counter expectations and offer hope.
Consider population density. Larger population densities place larger loads on the demand for resources. In accordance with the principle of supply and demand, more people competing for the same resources leads to increased demand and higher prices for increasingly limited resources.
The average global population density is twenty-five people per km2 but there are very large differences across the globe. Canada’s population density is four km2 compared to the United States at thirty-six km2.9
Among the top five larger nations, Bangladesh is the most densely populated with 1,252 people per square kilometre, almost three times as dense as its neighbour, India (455 km2). It’s followed by Lebanon (595 km2), South Korea (528 km2), the Netherlands (508 km2), and Rwanda (495 per km2). Compared to India, China has a population density of 148 km2 and the Netherlands 512 km2 compared to Canada’s four km2.10 Greenland is the least dense, with fewer than 0.2 people per square km2, followed by Mongolia, Namibia, Australia, and Iceland.11
On the other hand, Singapore has nearly eight thousand people per km2—more than two hundred times as dense as the U.S., and two thousand times that of Australia.12 So while countries like India decry their population as a handicap, their cultural imperatives and incompetent policies have relegated their millions to the waste bin of the unproductive.
Singapore and the Netherlands exist on lands reclaimed from the ocean, with some of the scarcest natural resources, and yet they have innovated and implemented sustainability initiatives, distinguishing them as some of the most densely populated societies on the planet yet with some of the highest standards. These two societies have starkly different forms of governance—in Singapore’s case, a relatively new cultural imperative designed and built after its independence from Malaysia in 1965. However, both societies have high social capital. Societies that include everyone ensure that no one is left behind; they simply do better.
Universal primary education, gender equality, reducing infant mortality, basic maternal health, combating diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability should not be aspirational; they should be culturally embedded values. Without cultural intrinsicness they remain imposed values and privileges, and as privileges they are not for everyone.
Like population density, a society’s median age has a significant impact on social systems and sustainability. Most of the developed world is experiencing lower fertility rates and declining populations. This is prompting societies to find new ways to compensate for their populations’ declining productivity—through increased immigration, artificial intelligence, outsourcing, or design. Many lessons and best practices are being learned. However, several catastrophes loom.
The global median age is 29.6. Canada’s median age is 40.5, compared to the United States at 37.6 and the Netherlands at 42.1. Japan has the highest median age at 46.3 and Nigeria the lowest at 14.9.13 Higher median age implies greater demand for health care and social support along with a declining productive population.
Clearly, societies like India, Nigeria, Uganda, and much of Africa with its rapidly growing population will within one generation have colossal demands placed on their systems as their citizens grow older. China has a median age of thirty-seven and India is at 26.7.14 And unlike developed societies, which even with their advanced structures are struggling, these emerging societies will not have the time, and do not exhibit the commitment, to prepare for their looming demands—that foresight is simply not evident at the present.
Dovetailing with the median age is youth dependency. As of 2017, the youth dependency rate in Canada was 23.9 percent compared to the United States at 28.8 percent, and the Netherlands at 25.33 percent.15
The dependency rate for India was 42 percent and 24.7 percent in China. Uganda and Nigeria had dependency rates of 95.2 percent and 82.6 percent respectively.16 Not only will young people in these societies place a huge burden on resources in the future, they remain unproductive for far longer than has been the experience in societies that respond to their aging populations. Societies with large populations are challenged on both ends of the spectrum—younger populations, with shorter productive lives, and larger numbers adding to the demands of aging.
Another dynamic is life expectancy. Life expectancy in Canada in 2019 was 82.4 years compared to 78.9 years in the United States and 82.3 years in the Netherlands. Life expectancy in India is 69.7 years and 69.7 years in China, with Uganda at 63.4 years and Nigeria at 62.4 years. Not only will these populations place very high demands on social services as they age, they will reach the end of their productive lives sooner than has been the experience in the West.
But life expectancy is as much about the quality of life as of productivity. In societies with lower life expectancies, the quality of life is limited, creating greater stress and providing less support for longer, healthier lives. This is just another indication of how these societies are lacking today, and how they are unlikely to catch up within the span of this new generation. Supply and demand also impacts family size—at low densities in pre-industrial societies, benefits from children exceed costs, while at higher densities in complex societies the costs exceed the benefits.17 The millions whose caste or status has relegated them to marginalization in some societies will continue to have more children and remain disassociated from productive, integrated lives.
Global infant mortality rates have declined notably from 12.6 million in 1990 to 5.4 million in 2017.18 This has been a mixed blessing. Lower infant mortality indicates welcome improvements in public and maternal health care, but it also means higher population numbers.
The infant mortality rate in Canada in 2019 was 0.49 percent compared to 0.65 percent in the United States and 0.4 percent in the Netherlands. Infant mortality in India is 3.43 percent and 0.79 percent in China. Uganda, Pakistan, and Nigeria have rates of 8.04 percent, 6.72 percent, and 4.56 percent respectively. Consider that improving infant mortality in Nigeria to Canada’s rate would increase Nigeria’s population growth by nearly 8 percent.19
It is unlikely that the Millennium Development Goals will be met by 2030. It is in fact patronizing that a group of extremely privileged and powerful elite, who have likely never set foot in a slum, continue to set agendas on behalf of billions, who for generations have lived in conditions worse than one might imagine in the worst concentration camps.
We are in many ways on a trajectory depicted in the 2013 movie “Elysium”—a planet ravaged by disease, pollution, and overpopulation, with the wealthiest living on a paradise-like space station inaccessible to the masses.
The gaps at present are too numerous and in many instances aggravate rather than mitigate inequalities. It is incumbent on those of us in positions of privilege to take the time to understand the world we live in and to differentiate between the anecdotal, empirical, and moral drivers of policy-making. We must demand realistic goals, measures, and outcomes.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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- World Health Organization, Millennium Development Goals (MDG), https://www.who.int/topics/millennium_development_goals/about/en/.
- Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on September 25, 2015
- Jeffrey Sachs, Christian Kroll, Guillame Lafortune, Grayson Fuller, and Finn Woelm. Sustainable Development Report 2021. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021), https://unfoundation.org/what-we-do/issues/sustainable-development-goals/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwvaeJBhCvARIsABgTDM48ZAicLHmSeMIKjS9P4tdO02aCtieKaV_7dqutVzaeaCI2r95mFXAaAgdsEALw_wcB.
- A. Shorrocks, J. Davies, and R. Lluberas, “Credit Suisse Research Institute Global Wealth Report 2019,” (Zurich: Credit Suisse AG, 2019).
- World Economic Forum. These eco-friendly, affordable housing settlements around the world are under threat. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/billion-slum-dwellers-at-risk/.
- Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Income Inequality,” Our World in Data, 2013, https://ourworldindata.org/income-inequality.
- Hannah Ritchie, “Which Countries are Most Densely Populated?” Our World in Data, September 6, 2019, https://ourworldindata.org/most-densely-populated-countries.
- Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Age Structure,” Our World in Data, September 2019, https://ourworldindata.org/age-structure.
- Mary Tiffen, “Population Density, Economic Growth and Societies in Transition: Boserup Reconsidered in a Kenyan Case‐study,” Development and Change 26, no. 1 (1995): 31–66.
- Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, and Bernadeta Dadonaite, “Child and Infant Mortality,” Our World in Data, November 2019, https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality.
Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash.