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Leaving no one behind: A methodology to identify those furthest behind in accessing opportunities in Asia and the Pacific

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Predrag Savić, Jonah Simonds, Ermina Sokou and Yichun Wang

Abstract: With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the United Nations Member States pledged to reduce inequality in all its forms through Sustainable Development Goal 10, while ensuring that “no one will be left behind.” This paper proposes a methodology that governments and stakeholders can use in their countries to measure inequality of opportunity, using data from nationally representative household surveys. The Dissimilarity Index (D-index) allows a comparison of inequality of opportunity levels among countries. The paper also proposes an innovative approach, the classification and regression tree (CART) analysis, to identify households and individuals furthest behind in access to basic opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region. Regression trees offer a practical way of operationalizing the pledge to leave no one behind (LNOB), accelerating national progress to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

1. Introduction

Over the past decades, the Asia-Pacific region has made considerable strides in social development, driven by aggregate economic growth. This growth has generated new jobs, increased incomes, and improved overall levels of access to basic services and other opportunities. In several countries, more than 80 per cent of the extreme poor have been lifted out of poverty.

Despite this sustained economic development and substantial reductions in poverty, progress has disproportionately benefited the richest members of society, increasing inequalities between the rich and poor. In Asia and the Pacific, 223 million people are estimated to live below the extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day and another 800 million people subsist on incomes above $1.90, but below the moderate poverty level of $3.20 a day. An even larger number of people are deprived of basic services and opportunities. More than 3 out of 10 people in the region lack access to health care, and out-ofpocket expenditures for health care are among the highest in the world. About a quarter of the region’s population lacks access to improved sanitation, while nearly two billion people still rely on unclean fuels for heating and cooking.

While data in the region are scarce, income inequality, as measured by the Gini index, appears to also be increasing in many countries. This increase has likely been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the consequences of the pandemic are not yet fully understood, informal workers have been the most affected by the crisis. The pandemic has also aggravated inequality in access to other opportunities, including education and health care.

High inequality not only stifles economic progress, but also negatively affects feelings of trust and social cohesion. It thus poses a formidable barrier to sustainable development. These rising levels of inequality within countries have sparked both public concern and political interest, and have contributed to a stand-alone goal on inequality reduction in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 to ‘reduce inequalities within and among countries’ is thus a core policy priority to ensure a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

Large and often increasing inequalities also exist in access to opportunities, such as in educational attainment, ownership of a bank account and access to clean fuels. For example, despite high enrolments, in one third of the countries in the Asia-Pacific region, attendance rates in secondary education for the poorest quintile remained below 30 per cent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with four countries at 10 per cent or below. Meanwhile, attendance rates for children from the upper quintile in these countries was ordinarily as high as 80 per cent. This inequality of opportunity has sparked interest among policymakers and researchers, particularly as it is found to also perpetuate income inequality.

The goal of this working paper is to propose new methodological tools that will help the UN system and policymakers to better respond to these growing inequalities. Sections 2 and 3 of this paper define the concept of inequality of opportunity and explain its relevance to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The following sections (4 and 5) describe the data and variables used to undertake the analysis, establishing concrete links with commitments in the 2030 Agenda.

Section 6 describes the new methodological tools in detail. Section 6.1 presents a methodology for measuring and understanding inequality of opportunity: the Dissimilarity Index (D-index). The D-index is a simple formula that determines inequality in accessing key services and opportunities. Governments can use this information to identify which opportunities are particularly unequally distributed. Section 6.2 presents an innovative and intuitive method to identify those furthest behind in each of these services or opportunities, taking into account intersectionality and multiple layers of disadvantage. Through the classification and regression tree (CART) analysis, researchers and policymakers can explore the circumstances shared by those most disadvantaged and the most advantaged groups in each country.