By Dirk Wagener, Resident Representative, UNDP Papua New Guinea

This week marks the launch of the 2019 Human Development Report, ‘Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today: Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century.’ The report presents the case for looking at inequality through a new lens that recognises that the true dimensions of inequality go far beyond old metrics of incomes and averages.

While a deeply heterogenous country, Papua New Guinea’s patchwork of cultures and customs reflect a common sense of equality. This is perhaps best captured in the spirit of community. Across the country, communities will often come together in a ‘kibung’ (a meeting or gathering) to ensure that decisions that impact its members are founded on consensus. It is during such times, that all have an equal opportunity to share their ideas.

By such measures, it is easy to see why for so many Papua New Guineans equality often means sharing. This is most evident in times of crisis. We have all seen Papua New Guineans share their resources, whether it be food, money or offering someone a place to stay in times of need.

But is this what equality really looks like?

There are few countries in the world that have not enshrined equality in their constitutions or statements of national aspiration. As this year’s report highlights, equality and human development are the corner stones of fairer societies.

Ensuring wealth is distributed equally is often at the centre of political debate in countries around the world. Papua New Guinea is no different. Strong and open public debate are evident on how the fruits of its natural resources can be shared in a manner that benefits all people, not just a few.

Inequalities are however, often deeply rooted in our societies, economics and politics. Their persistence is often linked, and overtime become entrenched. Failing to understand the depths and many dimensions of equality only amplifies inequalities. To accept that all people are equal based on constitutions, does not guarantee that all people will have a healthy, happy and prosperous life that provides them with the opportunities and capabilities to live life to its fullest extent.

Our world is experiencing change faster than ever before. Two seismic shifts are shaping the 21st century. They are climate change and technological transformations. Such phenomenon has made old metrics of measuring equality by income redundant or at least, imperfect. Income and the unequal distribution of wealth presents a stark demonstration of inequality. Wealth today is increasing concentrated with fewer than 1% of the world’s population owning approximately 45% of its wealth. Clearly, the more concentrated material wealth becomes, the larger the inequality divide.

But stopping here misses a much more troubling question, that is, why do such inequalities persist?

UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report highlights that inequalities remain high between countries but also within countries. Inequalities weaken social cohesion, undermine citizens’ trust in government and public institutions, and hurt economies by undermining the opportunities and potential of people and countries as a whole.

The report’s deep dive into the causes of inequality leads us to a number of conclusions. Among them, that a new generation of severe inequalities in human development is emerging, even if many of the unresolved inequalities of the 20th century are declining.

While many severe deprivations, such as extreme poverty are decreasing, a new ‘generation’ of inequality may not allow all people to take advantage of opportunities provided by new technologies that are shaping labour markets. People may also experience new extreme deprivations due to the impacts of climate change which has the potential to undermine and reverse hard-fought-for development achievements made over past decades.

Once people are affected by such inequalities, they often accumulate over their lifetime. A lack of access to education will – for example – have a lasting impact on future opportunities and whole generations. The redistribution of income is not the only way to tackle inequalities. It must go hand in hand with increasing the capabilities of people to tackle the multi-dimensional nature of such inequalities.

These persistent inequalities are a huge ‘roadblock’ for countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. As long as widespread inequalities remain and if these disparities are not addressed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will not be achieved.

We must act now before imbalances in economic power translate into entrenched political dominance. Addressing inequality will only be made harder by threats such as climate change, gender disparities and continuing conflict, all of which entrench old inequalities and present us with new ones.

The pursuit of more equitable distribution of material wealth, such as money, cars or houses will not close that gap. As this year’s Human Development Report reminds us, we will only be able to tackle inequalities if we understand what we can all become when we eliminate inequality.


The United Nations Development Programme’s 2019 Human Development Report presents decision makers with policy options to address deep rooted systemic drivers of inequality. It draws into sharp focus what eliminating inequality would mean for so many more people around the world and that new metrics are needed to tackle old and new inequalities is a systematic manner.

According to the 2019 HDR, Papua New Guinea’s Human Development Index (HDI) value for 2018 is 0.543 which puts the country in the low human development category positioning it at place 155 out of 189 countries and territories. Papua New Guinea is the only Pacific country in the low human development category. Between 1990 and 2018, Papua New Guinea’s HDI value increased from 0.377 to 0.543, an increase of 43.9 percent.

The Human Development Index is drawn from life expectancy, years of schooling and Gross National Income (GNI) per capita.

Download the 2019 HDR:


Icon of SDG 17

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Papua New Guinea 
Go to UNDP Global