Harry Jones: Equity in Development – Why is it important and how to achieve it

Overseas Development Institute
There is growing recognition that equity is important for development. Although issues of equity and inequality had been debated for some time, 2006 saw three major development reports focus on these issues,1 in what was described as a ‘new equity agenda’ (Anderson and O’Neil, 2006). As well as moving up the agenda of multilateral organisations, equity is a concern of many bilateral donors, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) (e.g. Oxfam, see Green, 2008a) and cutting-edge research in poverty analysis (e.g. the Chronic Poverty Report 2008 (CPRC, 2008)).development With trends such as climate change threatening highly inequitable consequences, it is likely that equity will only rise in importance in the future.
Although equity is attracting growing explicit attention in development discourse, and despite its being of widespread intuitive value, it is often seen as somehow less relevant than some other issues, such as efficiency, economic growth or cohesion and remedying conflict.
For many Southern governments and multilateral and bilateral development agencies, policies that would promote equity are often low on the agenda. There may be a variety of reasons for this. One suggestion is that considerations of equity, inequality of opportunity and redistribution go against the political grain of what has been the most prominent and influential paradigm in international development over the past two decades, the Washington Consensus (Therien, 2002). More generally, equity considerations by definition seek to work against existing power imbalances, which will always be an uphill struggle.
An alternative (or perhaps complementary) explanation is that equity has yet to be explored comprehensively. Poor understanding of the concept and its implications may be part of the reason why equity is underrepresented in development policy and practice. A recent scoping study shows that, while donors are committed explicitly to promoting equity, the overall level of analysis is poor and shallow (with the exception of gender equity), with the term often used only as yet another buzzword (see Box 1) (O’Meara, 2008). A clear discussion of its meaning is lacking and very few policy-oriented reports have presented a satisfactory overview on how to orient development policy and programming towards promoting equity in development.

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