Poor People Fed Up: UN Human Development Report 2019 Highlights Inequalities, in Jamaica and the Region


In 1996, the dancehall DJ Bounty Killa (real name: Rodney Basil Price) had a popular song called Poor People Fed Up

It was an angry song. The Trench Town-born DJ pointed to poor people “surround by danger” from an unhealthy environment, violence and crime. He pointed the finger at uncaring politicians (“Long time the MP him nuh come near yah”) and corruption among those in powerful positions in the society.

Twenty-three years later, these lyrics still resonate. The inequalities in Jamaican society remain; and just today, head of National Integrity Action (NIA) Professor Trevor Munroe noted that Jamaica is currently “standing still” in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Transparency International will publish the new CPI in January and the Professor did not sound very sanguine about Jamaica’s possible ranking there.

And according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) people in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Chile to Haiti, are not happy with this state of affairs.

At the launch of the UN Human Development Report (HDR) 2019 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) focused on Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities – a goal which the UN admits “continues to be a significant concern despite progress in and efforts at narrowing disparities of opportunity, income and power.” 

In light of this, the theme for the 2019 report is: Beyond income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today: Inequalities in Human Development in the 21st Century.

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You can find the full Report at this link (It was interesting to me to see the U.S. and UK tied at #15, while two “N’s” are top and bottom: Norway and Niger, respectively).

This morning the UNDP in Jamaica live streamed the launch from their Kingston office on their Facebook page, and you can still watch it there. A group of us – including academics, students, youth advocates, Jamaican government agencies such as the Planning Institute of Jamaica, and representatives of several international development agencies – gathered to briefly discuss the findings, which were outlined by UNDP Programmes Officer Richard Kelly. The discussion was nicely moderated by Tijani Christian, Chairperson of the Commonwealth Youth Council. Matthew Mackay was also on hand, from the Department of Government at University of the West Indies (UWI)’s Model United Nations.

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Of course, the launch event did not seek to go into any detail on Jamaica’s rankings. Mr. Kelly stressed that we need to “dig deeper.” The plan is to do this in a joint forum with the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES) at the University of the West Indies (UWI), scheduled for January 30, 2020. Pencil that in your calendar.

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UNDP Jamaica’s Richard Kelly gives an overview of Jamaica’s performance in the UN Human Development Report 2019. (My photo)

Let me try to pull together the key findings for Jamaica (the bullet points below). It’s important to note that, as the UNDP stresses, “it is misleading to compare values and rankings with those of previously published reports.” There are adjustments to how things are measured and there are revisions and updates of the underlying data. So it is simplistic and not helpful to say “Jamaica is up/down in the rankings,” compared to the previous year. Here goes with the numbers:

  • Jamaica’s Human Development Index (HDI) value is 0.726 (96 out of 189 countries). It is in the “high human development” category. This is the same rank as Venezuela. It is below the average of 0.750 for countries in this category and below the average of 0.759 for Latin America and the Caribbean. For comparison, Dominican Republic and Trinidad & Tobago are ranked at 80 and 63 respectively.
  • Between 1990 and 2018, Jamaica’s HDI value increased by 13.2 percent, from 0.641 to 0.726.
  • The HDI measures three basic aspects of human development: a long and healthy life, access to education, and a decent standard of living. Different entities contribute to the data. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics provides the education data, the World Bank supplies the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita information, and the United Nations Population Division provides the life expectancy data.
  • Broken down into these three sectors, Jamaica has improved overall since 1990 (when the HDR was first introduced). Life expectancy at birth has increased from 73.2 to 74.4 years; mean years of schooling from 5.9 to 9.8 years of schooling; expected years of schooling from 11.2 years to 13.1 years. The GNI, based on Purchasing Power Parity (the proverbial “basket of goods”) has improved from $6,597 to $7,932 over the period.
  • When adjusted for inequality (which the UNDP has calculated for 150 countries, for this report) Jamaica’s HDI falls to 0.604 – a loss of 16.7 percent. This puts it down into the “medium human development” category. This loss is below the average of 22.3 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean, however.
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Youth are a critical factor: Tijani Christian (right, talks to Matthew Mackay at the launch. (My photo)
  • The Gender Development Index (GDI), introduced in 2014, measures the same basic dimensions of human development for men and women. Although women spend more years in school than men, and their life expectancy is longer, the income disparity is stark (not only, I should add, for Jamaica): in 2019 the GNI per capita for women was $6,326 and for men it was $9,559.
  • The Gender Inequality Index (GII), introduced in 2010, measures gender-based inequalities in reproductive health (maternal mortality and adolescent birth rates); empowerment (parliamentary seats and achievement in secondary and higher education); and economic activity (participation in the labour market). On this index, Jamaica is ranked 93 out of 162 countries for 2018. It is noticeable that while more women have at least some secondary education (69.9 percent) compared to men (62.4 percent), their participation in the labour force is considerably lower (60.4 percent) compared to men (73.9 percent.
  • The Multidimensional Poverty Index (the most recent assessment was in 2014) attempts to identify “multiple overlapping deprivations suffered by individuals” in the same three areas. Jamaica’s MPI value is ranked at 0.018, with a deprivation intensity of 38.7 percent. In 2014, the UNDP assessed 0.8 percent of Jamaica’s population as in severe multidimensional poverty and 6.4 percent as vulnerable to it. This needs more investigation, as was noted at the launch.
  • There are five “dashboards,” or groupings of countries of roughly equal size in the following areas: Quality of human development, life-course gender gap, women’s empowerment, environmental sustainability, and socioeconomic sustainability. You can read more about these in the full report.
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Takeshi Takano (right) Resident Representative at the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Jamaica, made an interesting contribution. To his left is his newly arrived colleague Kunihiro Butsuen, Project Formulation Advisor. (My photo)

The report is not, of course, all about numbers and rankings and percentages. As Mr. Takeshi Takano, Resident Representative at the Japan International Cooperation Agency astutely noted, it is also about: “How are people feeling?” Do people feel safe and secure, as individuals, he asked. Exposure to crime and violence has to be a factor in inequality, I noted. A representative of SALISES/UWI suggested that the UNDP way of “measuring and mis-measuring” might not be quite connecting with “real lives.” Let’s look into this.

The recently arrived World Bank representative for Jamaica, Ozan Sevimli, commented that while there is praise for Jamaica on the fiscal side of things, “the next frontier is human capital.” He said that a student who goes to school in Jamaica for twelve years only has the equivalent of seven years’ learning (I would like to explore this further). Government and society need to agree, he asserted, that this is a priority going forward. “On the surface, we look fine.” he said. There was an implied “but…” there.

Ultimately, all agreed with the UNDP’s Richard Kelly that “We have a lot of work to do.”

I agree with Mr. Kelly: Our Government cannot fix the many areas that need to be fixed alone. We must all work together to bring greater opportunities for Jamaicans – whether an inner-city schoolboy, a youth on the street corner, or an aspiring woman politician. And this must be inclusive; we cannot leave anyone behind.

As for climate change, this is very much a factor in Jamaica’s present and increasingly for our future. There are strong linkages here with inequality (I happen not to agree with Minister Daryl Vaz’s recent comment that climate change in Jamaica affects rich and poor equally. There is a great deal of evidence to the contrary).

Let us think about all of this some more.

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