We live in a very unequal world. Recent data suggest that the poorest 5 percent of Americans earn 35 times more than the poorest Zambians, after adjusting for relative prices (Milanovic 2011, p. 16, p. 9). Between 1980 and 2007, the top 1 percent of Americans nearly tripled their share of total national income from 8 to 23 percent.1 Disabled adults make up some 15 percent of the world’s population but some 20 percent of the world’s poorest wealth quintile (WHO and World Bank 2011, p. 28, Table 2.1). And in Egypt, women without any education are 24 times as likely to have married before age 15 as those with at least a secondary school education (UNICEF forthcoming, p. 25, Figure 4.2).
Given such wide ranging disparities, it is unsurprising that inequality is emerging as a salient issue in debates over the post-2015 development agenda. It is recognized as a key cross-cutting issue that was neglected in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)—which came to be operationalized through a focus on average levels of achievement across eight pressing development areas. Critics argued that the omission of inequality was compatible with a policy focus on ‘low-hanging fruit’ or the better off among the poor, at the expense of those facing more intractable deprivations. In so doing, the MDGs overlooked the way in which these overlapping inequalities constrain the life chances of excluded groups and reinforce their social exclusion (Kabeer 2010a, 2010b).
Equality—and even more fundamentally, equity—is integral to human development. This is reflected in the attention the capability approach has devoted to these issues. It provides a theoretical basis for an understanding of equity and inequality that is rooted in people’s real freedoms, and that encompasses multiple dimensions of well-being.