Suffer the little children: Why equality of outcomes matters as much as opportunity

Saturday January 11 2014

Toward the end of last year, the Society for International Development (SID) released a new publication looking at inequality in Kenya. Pulling Apart or Pooling Together provides rich detail on inequalities across the country, down to the ward level.

The data show extreme inequalities in access to services. For example, in all of Kenya’s 47 counties, the gap in access between the ward with the best access to improved water sources and the least access is over 45 percentage points.

When looking at data like this, the obvious question is: So what? What are the implications for policy?

This is not the first time that SID has put inequality on the public agenda. The 2013 volume is the latest instalment in a series dating to 2004. A 2006 SID volume on inequality instructs us to “emphasise equality of opportunity and not equal outcomes.” We were similarly advised during the launch of the new report last November.

In a report released by the International Budget Partnership last August, we agreed with the emphasis on equality of opportunity, but cautioned:

“However, full equality of opportunity is nearly impossible to achieve. We can get closer, but some people will always have disadvantages we cannot compensate them for. Therefore, even if we put less emphasis on equality of outcomes, we may still want to put some emphasis on it.”


Why did we say this? Our argument was that, while equality of opportunity is critical, it is impossible to achieve at any given moment. Therefore, we should also try to reduce inequality in outcomes to some reasonable level (which, of course, we slyly avoided defining).

Why is equality of opportunity impossible to achieve? Suppose we thought that if everyone had access to a good primary school, they would have equal opportunity to attend secondary school.

This necessarily implies two additional types of equality: Equal access to secondary schools and equal ability to take advantage of primary school. Although it is expensive, we can probably eventually ensure that every Kenyan has access to secondary school. But what does it mean to have “equal ability to take advantage” of primary school?

Suppose that a child is beaten at home, or that he is orphaned after his parents die in an accident and has slow cognitive development, or that his parents prevent him from regularly attending school so that he can help on the farm.

Even if there is a good primary school nearby, and even if the fees are not prohibitive, will he be able to take advantage of the opportunity to the same degree as others? We know the answer.

These developmental inequalities stretch back beyond primary school to the earliest years of life. A substantial factor affecting children’s outcomes around the world is the level of education of their parents, which is somehow transmitted to their children from the day they are born.

In the past few years, a growing body of “foetal origins” research has shown that in fact, the process starts even earlier, during the nine months that a child spends in the womb.

Actually, in marginalised communities or in areas of civil strife where women come under intense stress during pregnancy, they are more likely to deliver their babies early, so they miss out on a full nine months of foetal development.

Children who are born early tend to suffer from a variety of developmental problems. The children of women who are themselves malnourished or stressed are often disadvantaged.

In some cases, these disadvantages are obvious at birth. But in others, they emerge only later. Several studies reviewed in Annie Murphy Paul’s book Origins: How the nine months before birth shape the rest of our lives demonstrate that poor nutrition and certain drugs taken by pregnant women can trigger poor health in teenagers or even in middle age.

Can we really mitigate this level of inequality by addressing “opportunities” alone? What does it mean for a society to address inequalities of opportunity that start in the womb?

Intriguingly, even when people have fairly good outcomes in life, they are often still punished by social inequality.

Health researcher Michael Marmot has shown, looking exclusively at British civil servants, that those of higher status tend to have better health outcomes than those of lower status. Marmot’s findings from various social hierarchies suggest that even small doses of inequality in outcomes reduce welfare.

While capitalism depends for its dynamism on a certain level of inequality, the emerging research suggests that a just society is one in which inequalities of outcome have been reduced to the minimum necessary to provide incentives for excellence.

The first (but hardly the only) implication is that Kenyan public policy must confront the inequalities in the SID report not only from the perspective of equality of opportunity, but also of outcomes.

Jason Lakin is senior programme officer and research fellow with the International Budget Partnership. E-mail: [email protected]