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inequality of opportunity

Machine learning and the measurement of injustice

Daniel Mahler's picture

Machine learning methods are increasingly applied in the development policy arena. Among many recent policy applications, machine learning has been used to predict poverty, soil properties, and conflicts.

In a recent Policy Research Working Paper by Paolo Brunori, Paul Hufe and Daniel Mahler (BHM hereafter), machine learning methods are utilized to measure a popular understanding of distributional injustice – the amount of unequal opportunities individuals face. Equality of opportunity is an influential political ideal since it combines two powerful principles: individual responsibility and equality. In a world with equal opportunities, all individuals have the same chances to attain social positions and valuable outcomes. They are free to choose how to behave and they are held responsible for the consequences of their choices.

Equality of opportunity for what?

Daniel Mahler's picture

Equality of opportunity is a popular policy objective around the world. It is deeply embodied in the American Dream and has resonated with politicians ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Nelson Mandela. It is also connected to the World Bank’s goal of shared prosperity; individuals with low opportunities should have a chance of growing and prospering in life.

We must be bold to improve learning in classrooms

Jim Yong Kim's picture
A young student in Côte d'Ivoire shows off his schoolwork. © Ami Vitale/Word Bank


Education is one of the surest means to end extreme poverty in our time. Yet, 121 million children today remain out of school. These young people are the hardest to reach—due to poverty, gender barriers, remoteness, and disability. We must make a new concerted push to bring all children into the classroom.

In addition to this challenge of improving attendance and access, we face an even tougher problem ahead: ensuring that children are learning while they’re in school. The sad truth is that most education systems are not serving the poorest children well. An estimated 250 million children cannot read or write, despite having attended school for years. This is a tragic failure of our educational aspirations for the world’s youth.

Inequality of opportunity: the new motherhood and apple pie?

Adam Wagstaff's picture

On the face of it, questioning the usefulness of “inequality of opportunity” seems about as wrongheaded as questioning the merits of family vacations, Thanksgiving or dessert trolleys. What’s not to like about it? Well, as we argue in a recent World Bank working paper, the idea is not quite as useful as it might at first glance appear, and is in fact rather dangerous. But turned upside down, it might yet be useful.

A simple idea – let’s see some numbers

The idea behind inequality of opportunity is simple yet powerful. Not all inequality is bad. The bad bit of inequality (‘inequality of opportunity’) is the part that emerges because of factors over which we have no control (our 'circumstances'). By contrast inequality that emerges because of our different choices and efforts (holding constant our circumstances) is fine, and to be encouraged.

Rising Inequality in the United States: Lessons from developing countries

Francisco Ferreira's picture

As the United States prepares for its first presidential election after the Great Recession, inequality has emerged as a central political issue. This is not unremarkable: Americans have historically seemed much less troubled by income differences than, say, Europeans. You may remember a 2004 article by Alberto Alesina, Rafael di Tella and Robert MacCulloch in the Journal of Public Economics, which reported that happiness in the US was much less sensitive to inequality than in Europe.