Skip to Global Futures Initiative Full Site Menu Skip to main content
February 22, 2015

Responding To: Week 5: Inequality and Inequity

The Discursive Space for Inequality

Arunjana Das

Among international development organizations, policies to address inequality have traditionally received less nuanced attention than those to address poverty. Some argue that this is on account of institutionalized biases based on political, strategic, and economic relations. Others see administrative and political feasibility barriers as to blame. To move towards sound development policy targeting inequality, the topic needs more discussion in development narratives and more research on factors that act as speed-breakers to traction in the discourse.

Discourse is important because it establishes the agenda, sets the direction, and, as one scholar suggests, “determines what is considered acceptable and appropriate within a particular institution” (Joachim, 2007: 25). [1] Discussion around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) largely set the agenda of implementing agencies in international development for many years. It is thus worthwhile to analyze the discursive space within which inequality has been dealt with within development narratives over the years, and how the treatment of this issue area affects the formulation and future direction of policy to address it.

Esser and Williams (2014) find that not only does poverty find asymmetric attention over inequality in development discourses, there are agency-specific patterns of doing so. In particular, they argue that there are “distinct agency-level approaches to discursively including or excluding the politically contentious challenge of inequality” (Esser & Williams, 2014: 194). [2] Comparing the World Bank’s World Development Reports, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Reports and a set of white papers by bilateral donor agencies, they find that whereas the World Bank not only includes certain elements of inequality in its conceptualization of poverty, it has pursued the development of complementary dimensions of inequality. On the other hand, the UNDP, on account of political and strategic factors, has failed to do either. This is important in the light of a renewed interest among development institutions about the issue of inequality.

More focus on inequality and discourse around it can reinvigorate debates about the relationship between inequality and its impact on human development. It also reveals the power and political dynamics in and among development institutions and their country counterparts, that have traditionally prevented the issue of inequality from gaining much traction in the development discourse. In order to address inequality, it is important to recognize that institutional and country-level factors influence how the issue of inequality is framed and conceptualized.

Arunjana Das is pursuing her PhD in international relations at American University. She previously worked as a junior professional associate in operations policy and country services at the World Bank.

[1]  Joachim, Jutta M. (2007). NGOs and UN agenda setting, in her: Agenda Setting, the UN, and NGOs: gender violence and reproductive rights. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, pp. 15–33.
Esser, Daniel E. and Benjamin J. Williams (2014). Tracing Poverty and Inequality in International Development Discourses: An Algorithmic and Visual Analysis of Agencies’ Annual Reports and Occasional White Papers, 1978‐2010. Journal of Social Policy 43(1), pp. 173‐200.

Other Responses