The Financial Express

Improving social mobility

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Published: February 19, 2020 21:30:15

Improving social mobility

Bangladesh has been ranked 78th among 82 countries of the world in the Global Social Mobility survey conducted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF). The WEF disclosed this through its publication titled 'The Global Social Mobility Report 2020: Equality, Opportunity and a New Economic Imperative' released recently. Bangladesh has consistently performing well during the past three decades in various social sectors including education, healthcare and poverty alleviation. The WEF findings clearly indicate that the richer segments instead of the poorer ones are deriving maximum benefits from the country's socio-economic advancement over the years.

Social mobility is gauged across generations and reflects the effects of measures taken over many decades. According to the WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab, "The global social mobility index focuses on those policies, practices and institutions that collectively determine the extent to which everyone in society has a fair chance to fulfil their potential, regardless of their socioeconomic background, the origin of their parents, or the place where they were born". A holistic assessment of the economies are made in the process by weighing the performances in five key dimensions of social mobility distributed over ten pillars, viz. health; education  (access, quality & equity, lifelong learning); access to technology; work (opportunities, wages, conditions); social protection, and inclusive institutions.

Social mobility can be conceptualised as moving upward or falling downward, whereby people perceive their circumstances to be better-off or worse-off compared to those of their parents or in relation to various junctures of their own life. It is believed that economies with greater social mobility ensure more equally-shared opportunities that include an equal and meritorious socio-economic footing irrespective of background, location, gender or origin. Usually, there exists a direct linear relationship between a country's income inequality and social mobility score. Therefore, lower social mobility reinforces historical inequalities, while greater income inequalities lead to lower social mobility. But this vicious cycle may be transformed into a virtuous one by enhancing mobility that yields a broader and more inclusive socioeconomic uplift. The global social mobility index therefore provides policy makers irrespective of their stages of development with a tool for identifying areas where social mobility needs improvement, thereby pinpointing actions for promoting equal opportunities among citizens.

The key findings of the latest WEF report are as follows: Global momentum is required on tackling inequality through a new social mobility agenda; low wages, lack of social protection and poor lifelong learning systems are the greatest challenges being faced globally; socio-economic returns from investments having a right mix of social mobility factors are substantial; a new financing model for social mobility is necessary through taxation, but that must be complemented by a new mix of spending with tailored approach; improving access to educational opportunities throughout an individual's life-cycle is critical for all economies; forging a new social contract that provides adequate social protection beyond full-time employment is important across economies; businesses must be a core stakeholder in the efforts around social mobility for their own employees and workers; technological changes, economic trends and demand for talents are changing income inequality outcomes within different industries; professional networks - an implicit driver of social mobility - are affected by geographic and socio-economic backgrounds; and, the geography of social mobility is partially determined by an individual's profession.

Based on the above findings, the WEF has made the following recommendations for increasing or improving social mobility in order to ensure a level playing field for all citizens throughout their life-cycle, although the priorities and optimal policy mixes may vary across countries and societies. Firstly, health outcomes should be improved through enhanced, effective and targeted spending. Secondly, countries should increase their spending on education by focusing on programmes for disadvantaged children and youth, as both health and education are powerful equalisers of opportunities. For example, supporting the early development of cognitive, social and emotional skills has long-lasting positive effects on educational attainment, employment and income prospects. Besides, universal enrolment is a necessary but not sufficient condition, because quality is an essential requirement. Therefore, policies should target high-quality learning opportunities for children from less privileged backgrounds. On the other hand, vocational and tertiary education policies should focus on fostering youth skills and competencies, including through well-designed apprenticeships.

Thirdly, a policy that treats social protection holistically and supports individuals' needs throughout their working lives regardless of their status is likely to be very effective. Facilitating effective transitions into and within changing labour markets can also be a major determinant of success. Enabling positive transitions should therefore be a significant short-term mission of labour policies in order to ensure inclusion and meet the changing demands for talents. Fourthly, policies designed to address social mobility would require both additional public resources through taxation and a different mix of spending on key elements that help address inequalities of opportunities. Apart from income tax rates, policies that affect wealth accumulation are also critical tools for improving social mobility. Alongside progressivity of taxes, progressivity of expenditures is also an important lever for promoting social mobility.

Fifthly, businesses not only have a moral imperative, but also an economic rationale for contributing to creation of opportunities for all, leading to more equitable societies. They can facilitate the youths' access to working life, for example by enrolling more youths in vocational education and training. Typically, this would entail hiring apprentices and providing them with on-the-job trainings. Businesses could also encourage a culture of meritocracy based on performance, aptitude, potentials and interests, and shun any form of discrimination when hiring, grooming and promoting talent. Besides, they should strictly apply gender pay-equality spontaneously and systematically.

The Scandinavian countries, viz. Denmark, Norway and Finland have occupied the top three spots in the Global Social Mobility Index-2020, while Cameroon, Senegal and Ivory Coast lying at the bottom. Among the four countries of South Asia, Sri Lanka has the best ranking of 59 followed by India at 76, while Pakistan's performance has been even worse than Bangladesh at 79. With regard to the ten pillars of the index, Bangladesh has been ranked 81st in social protection, 80th in efficient & effective institutions, 79th in working conditions, 33rd in fair wages, 79th in health, 75th in education access, 78th in education quality & equity, 76th in technology access, and 70th in work opportunities. In the light of the above findings, the challenges and factors hindering social mobility should be carefully identified by the country's planners and administrators, and effective steps should be taken to redress the situation in the short, medium and longer terms.


Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary of GoB and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.


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