In 2019, people across the world took to the streets to express anger at their governments for economic and political reasons, including the rising cost of living and a perceived lack of representative policymaking. While protest movements have had different causes, the UN argues "[a] connecting thread (…) is deep rising frustration with inequalities".1 The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR), released in December 2019, was presented as a manual to help leaders "understand why people take to the streets in protest and what leaders can do about it".2 The 2019 HDR’s analysis of inequality and policy recommendations echo protesters’ grievances about entrenched power imbalances.

The annual HDR provides "independent, analytically and empirically grounded discussions of major development issues, trends and policies" with a subtheme each year.3 This report supplements and informs the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), which "is a summary measure of average achievement in key dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living".4 Together, the HDI and HDR aim to capture quantitative and qualitative trends in human development. 

The 2019 HDR, ‘Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today’, focuses on how to capture the qualitative dimensions of inequality. The report uses a capabilities approach to elaborate on how inequalities manifest in people’s lives beyond their paychecks. This approach refers to the theory, first presented as a framework by Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, that inequality should be measured by gaps in people’s freedoms to do and be what they want. Another way to think of capabilities theory is to examine how systems of oppression can limit the choices people make and what outcomes they can achieve. 

The report conceptualizes these systemic barriers through three dichotomies: horizontal versus vertical inequality, convergence versus divergence of achievement, and basic versus enhanced capabilities. Horizontal inequality relates to inequality among groups, for example based on race, gender, orientation, caste, whereas vertical inequality relates to inequality among individuals. The report also discusses convergence and divergence to refer to decreasing versus increasing inequality in capabilities – the inequality in people’s freedom to make life choices. Finally, it defines basic capabilities as those that allow people freedom from "extreme deprivation", including primary education and the right to vote.5 On the other hand, enhanced capabilities reflect people’s desire for "greater agency in [their] lives", which include high-quality education at all levels and greater political participation.6 The move from basic to enhanced capabilities "mirrors the evolution from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals".7

The report finds that while many countries are slowly achieving convergence in basic capabilities, they are rapidly experiencing divergence in enhanced capabilities. These divergences have increased horizontal inequality.8 For example, while more people around the world have access to primary education, regardless of income or human development, people’s access to university education continues to be determined by their human development group. Further still, the gaps between those who are able and unable to access tertiary education continue to widen. 

These widening gaps reflect power imbalances in society, which become institutionalized as those with less power are trapped and unable to access enhanced capabilities. In turn, power imbalances become more entrenched and a cycle of widening inequality continues. The report notes that this widening inequality is directly linked to deepening power imbalances. As the cycle evolves, people become frustrated and channel their anger through protests.9 To break the cycle of inequality and disempowerment, the HDR proposes that policymakers identify and address these inequality traps.10


The report provides a useful framework to explain a sense of dissatisfaction or unfairness that unifies various protest movements around the world. Indeed, it describes how inequality traps can institutionalize power imbalances and skew political incentives to serve the powerful over the many; inequality-driven clientelism sits at the heart of many of the protests. For the UN, the solution to unrest is to take steps to resolve socioeconomic inequality. However, its report does not provide leaders with policy solutions to change or improve the political institutions that make citizens feel powerless. On the surface, protests may respond to a gas tax or fare increase, but the anger driving the protests existed long before these measures were enacted. The protests seize on incremental policies that exacerbate inequality to underscore that governments are not responsive to people’s basic needs nor do they represent their citizens’ interests. 

The HDR recommends that leaders of a country embroiled in protest design policies to address inequality or distribute power equitably. The report notes that these policies will require political will. Unfortunately, its recommendations for policy change would not be enough for many protesters who have explicitly demanded that leaders step down or fundamentally reshape their governments. In France, for example, protesters have appealed for specific electoral reforms and the restructuring of political institutions. In that country and elsewhere, policymakers have yet to address the demands for expanded and responsive democracy.

French Protests Go Beyond Inequality

The report’s analysis on widening inequality and its argument that inequality is at the root of political anger cannot adequately explain why France has seen protests since 2018, when President Emmanuel Macron first proposed a carbon tax rise. According to the report, since the 1980s, "in Norway, Spain, France and Croatia the difference [in incomes] is close to zero: The bottom 40 percent saw their incomes grow at a rate similar to that of the average income. In Norway and France, however, the top 1 percent of incomes grew more than the average, meaning that the income share of the groups in between was squeezed".11 However, in the last ten years, the top one percent of incomes in France actually shrunk while average and lower incomes rose slightly at approximately the same rate. France is one of four countries in Europe where income distribution has not been associated with rising inequality.12 France is categorized as a highly developed country, and despite its lower HDI relative to OECD and other countries in that category, it has a lower inequality coefficient. Nonetheless, it has experienced waves of protests for over one year.13 

The first wave, started by the Yellow Vests, demanded a set of economic reforms, including raising the minimum wage and tax reform. However, some demands were related to governance and participatory democracy through a proposed citizens assembly and increased mechanisms for popular input into law-making.14 Subsequent protests have ignited over proposals by the Macron government for pension reform and pressured the leader of the pension reform agenda to resign. In January 2020, protesters still took to the streets, and for some nothing short of Macron’s resignation will do.15  

As indicated by the HDR, a sense of clientelism helps explain protesters’ deep discontent with the French government. They are angry that Macron seems out of touch with the working class, especially outside of Paris. Thus, exclusively addressing factors of inequality, as the report recommends, would address only part of people’s demands. The protests press for a restructuring of French democracy that allows for more popular input, particularly to implement economic reforms that reflect the interests of citizens.16 Arguably, France has made significant improvements in human development in the past ten years. Yet to answer current protesters’ frustrations, the French government will have to grapple with rising expectations and more difficult questions surrounding participation at the heart of its political institutions.

Political Demands are Important

Similar demands for expanded and responsive democracy are at the core of other protest movements. In Hong Kong, protesters have reacted specifically to the prospect of encroachment by the Beijing government.17 Hong Kong is more prosperous than mainland China; the territory is ranked fourth in human development where China is 85th.18,19 However, Hong Kong has experienced rising inequality, and protesters would argue that ‘mainlandization’, or an increased mainland Chinese political, economic, and cultural presence in Hong Kong, has contributed to higher costs of living with stagnating incomes. Although inequality may have had a role in motivating protesters, it can also be viewed as integral to the broader set of political concerns stemming from the perception that Hong Kong is ceding its autonomy to the Beijing government. The 2019 protests began as a response to a bill that would allow the Hong Kong government to extradite criminals to the Chinese mainland. Protesters saw this legislation as the latest development in ‘mainlandization’.20 Indeed, researchers have argued the fears of mainlandization have ‘fuelled’ the protest movement.21

Hong Kong demonstrators’ five main demands focus on improving governance and justice. Namely, these are for the Hong Kong government to: withdraw the extradition bill (now formally withdrawn as of September 2019); provide amnesty for all arrested protesters; stop classifying the protests as riots; conduct an independent investigation into allegations of police brutality; and implement new elections for Chief Executive and all Legislative Council positions with universal suffrage. Though the first four demands center on the protests in the immediate sense, the fifth calls for reform of Hong Kong’s political institutions and processes. For protesters concerned with mainlandization, the ambitious aim of direct elections reflects the basic desire for political representatives beholden to Hong Kong’s interests rather than to Beijing’s. 

In France, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, leaders should take seriously the demands for democratic reform. Some demands, such as those for executive resignations or full independence for an autonomous region, may be unrealistic. However, leaders can meet protesters half-way and create new pathways for citizens to effect change within their governments. These could include more referendums at the national and local level and the creation of citizens assemblies, as proposed by protesters in France.22 Another could involve participatory budgets, which in Brazil, for instance, have increased the democratic participation of marginalized communities in local policymaking and have helped redistribute resources to poorer areas.23 Participatory budgets were also adopted in the Black Lives Matter policy platform as a tool to strengthen inclusion in the American political process.24 Reforms to expand democratic participation, however measured, can allow for better citizen-to-leader interaction and respond to the central request for policymaking that represents public interests.


The 2019 Human Development Report attributes global protests to growing inequality and its resulting power imbalances. Likewise, its recommendations focus on combatting inequality as a way to empower people within a country. However, the report does not fully address the political frustrations that protesters have harbored – namely that governments are not sufficiently responsive to citizens’ concerns. The report argues that good governance measures, including specific anticorruption measures, can help alleviate inequality. As countries address corruption and clientelism, policymakers are more likely to implement economic reforms that reflect the interests of their citizens rather than of entrenched special interests.2 Nevertheless, leaders should expand their scope of good governance measures and respond to broader demands for more and better participatory mechanisms. To address protesters’ frustrations, they should embrace available political solutions for expanding participation and alleviating the power imbalances that prompt people to take to the streets in the first place.


1 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019 Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century, Foreword, (New York: United Nations, 2019), link.

2 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019, Foreword.

3 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019, page 2.

4 "Human Development Index (HDI)," United Nations Development Programme, 2019, accessed January 10, 2020, link.

5 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019, Chapter 1.

6 Ibid.

7 United Nations Development Programme, Overview Human Development Report 2019 Beyond Income, Beyond Averages, Beyond Today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century, (New York: United Nations, 2019), link.

8 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019.

9 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019, Chapter 1.

10 Ibid.

11 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019, Chapter 3.

12 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2019, Table 3.5.

13 United Nations Development Programme, Briefing note for countries on the 2019 Human Development Report: France, (New York: United Nations, 2019), link.

14 Michaël Bloch, "VERBATIM. Voici toutes les revendications des Gilets jaunes," Le Journal de Dimanche, November 28, 2018, link.

15 Guz Trompiz, Jean-Stephane Brosse, and Marine Pennitier, "Protesters gather at Paris theater to confront Macron over pension reform," Reuters, January 18, 2020, link.

16 Bloch, "VERBATIM. Voici toutes les revendications des Gilets jaunes".

17 Jessie Yeung, "From an extradition bill to a political crisis: A guide to the Hong Kong protests," CNN, December 20, 2019, link.

18 & 19 "China: Human Development Indicators," United Nations Development Programme, 2019, accessed May 3, 2020, link.

20 U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Hong Kong’s Protests of 2019, Michael F. Martin, IF11295 (2019).

21 Nathan Kar Ming Chan, Lev Nachman and Chit Wai John Mok, "How fears of ‘mainlandization’ fuel Hong Kong’s mass protests," The Washington Post, July 3, 2019, link.

22 Bloch, "VERBATIM. Voici toutes les revendications des Gilets jaunes."

23 Carol Pateman, "Participatory Democracy Revisited," Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 4 (2012): 12.

24 Cathy Albisa and Anja Rudiger, "Participatory Budgeting at the Local, State, & Federal Level," Movement for Black Lives, July 2016, link.

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