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Outcomes or opportunities: what should equality really look like?

January 2018 / Justine Boillat, Academic Trainee, Quality Assurance and Poverty Reduction Section, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (​SDC)​​​

"Inequality is under attack – but what should equality really look like?" This is the question asked by a recent article of the Guardian's Inequality Project.  Looking back at 2017, there has been a growing outrage against inequalities – gender inequalities, racial inequalities, economic inequalities. Now, looking ahead, how shall we tackle these inequalities and work towards a truly equal world? The author Jo Littler argues that equality will only be achieved if we shift the focus from inequalities of opportunity to inequalities of outcomes: "we need to move away from the tired lies of "equality of opportunity", "meritocracy" and "social mobility". Instead, we need to work for equality in terms of actual results and outcomes".


This article echoes an ongoing debate among development practitioners and academics about the conception of inequality and how development policies should address it. Inequality of outcomes refers to what people actually have: the level of income, but also of other dimensions of human well-being such as education, health and nutrition. On the other hand, the opportunity-perspective on inequality focuses on providing equal access to education, to health or to the labour market to all people regardless of the circumstances of their birth: their sex, race, geographic location or other social, economic and cultural factors. In this perspective, once the equality of chances is secured, remaining inequalities of outcomes depend on individual's efforts and talents. The idea of equality of opportunity has been taking a growing importance in the public discourse, particularly in neo-liberal western societies.


Hypothetically, in a truly fair society, equal opportunities would indeed favour upward social mobility. In reality, however, evidence shows that economic inequality and inequality of opportunities are strongly correlated: children's chances in life are firmly determined by their parents' socio-economic conditions. Wealth begets wealth, through what Oxfam called the "privilege cascade": the wealthiest have a greater influence on the political landscape and institutions, leading to an overwhelming representation of their interests. This political capture implies that public policies tend to reproduce the conditions that are deepening inequality of rights and opportunities, benefiting the privileged classes rather than the whole population. Resources such as public expenditure, access to quality education or to profitable jobs are therefore concentrated in the hands of a few, providing them with increased opportunities while the majority of the population risks to be left behind. 


As a result, inequalities continue to rise globally. The 2018 World Inequality Report shows that, since 1980, the top 1% of the population captured twice as much growth as the bottom half of the world population, while the top 0.1% captured about as much growth as the bottom 50%. But, within the equality of opportunity approach, the prominence of individual responsibility seems to justify massive inequality of outcomes, as long as everyone starts on a level playing field.


To reduce inequalities, it is therefore fundamental to address inequalities of outcomes. In fact, equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes are two sides of the same coin: one cannot be reached without the other. Reaching true equality requires to put in place and enforce fair taxation, and to thoroughly rethink redistribution policies. It also requires to deeply address issues of power and discrimination that lead to unequal distribution of resources. This is fundamental to create an environment that allows actual equality of opportunities and foster transformative change towards equal societies.

Related references:

Briefing Paper on Global Inequalities



Inequality is under attack – but what should equality really look like? by Jo Littler, the Guardian, 4 January 2018

World Inequality Report 2018

Inequality of what? Inequality between whom? UNDP, Humanity Divided: confronting inequality in developing countries (chapter 1)

Working for the few. Oxfam, 2014

Photo: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2018/jan/04/inequality-is-under-attack-but-what-should-equality-really-look-like