Arithmetic of societal in-equality

The University of Ghana’s College of Humanities (UG-COH) organised its 6th International Research Conference (IRC) in May under the broad theme of addressing the myriad of problems associated with the prevalence of inequalities in society. 


It offered the opportunity for participants to ponder over relevant issues regarding societal inequalities, vis-à-vis the glaring prospects and challenges for sustainable development.

There were 134 papers presented by individuals and groups from Ghana (91), Nigeria (25), Kenya (7), Europe (5), North America (5), and South Africa (1).The discussions at the different sessions covered youth-related matters, COVID-19, diplomacy, poverty, culture, migration and climate change.

Others were on public health policy, nutrition, gender, religion, education, economics, literature, technology and the media.


UG-COH is an intriguing component of the university, comprising six schools — Arts, Business, Language, Law, Performing Arts and Social Sciences — to facilitate the teaching and learning of humanities at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels.

It engages actively in advocacy, and provides leadership in vital policy considerations. Additionally, COH is home to the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER); Institute of African Studies (IAS), Regional Institute for Population Studies (RIPS) and the (Centres) for Migration Studies (CMS), Social Policy Studies (CSPS), Language, International Affairs and Diplomacy (LECIAD), Gender Studies and Advocacy (CEGENSA).


In-equality, in the context of the conference papers presented, refers to the phenomenon of unequal and/or unjust distribution of resources and opportunities in society. It often means different things to different people in varied contexts, but basically encompasses distinct, yet apparently overlapping, economic, social and spatial dimensions.

In mathematics, an inequality is a relation which makes a non-equal comparison between two numbers or other arithmetic expressions — to objectively compare their sizes on the number line.

It may appear that because everyone is different, achieving equality is impossible. It is noteworthy, nonetheless, that equality and inequality are not opposite to each other. Let us imagine the former simply as the “zero point” on the infinite range of the latter.

In-equality is most pronounced in the food, nutrition, education, health care, politics, and income-related sectors of national and global economies.

The relevant pointers in all these scenarios are skewed (not “normal”) in their distributions, with about only one-third of the population having access to, and enjoying, adequate income and resources to acquire property, patronise recreational facilities, influence public policy direction(s), and have the best nutritious food available, for example.


There has been an increasing awareness of (in)equalities within and across social groups, something the UG-COH has been charting admiringly over the years. Scientific evidence abounds to signify its notorious influence on human health, quality of life and life expectancy.

These vary across societies, with the advantage tilted more towards affluent ones. Our awareness at the gathering was further sharpened with stark reminders of the novellas Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (which entrenched societal inequality 

between males and females, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which four-legged animals were considered “good” and others “bad”.

Socio-economic status (SES)

The existence of in-equality depends on socially recognised difference(s) regarding certain variable(s). Those may constitute the bases for socially imposed in-equalities, as with gender, for example. It could also be a real cause of itself, as it is with some considerable differentials in health status.

In statistical parlance, inequality is a form of variation which must be well understood, especially when SES is being deployed as a primary exposure for a disease of public health concern.

It is even more dire if it is considered a potential confounder and/or an effect modifier of the epidemiological association(s) between a putative risk factor and the disease in question, especially infectious ailments such as HIV/AIDS and COVID-19.

Admittedly, SES is a composite index that is quite difficult to determine. Many attempts have been made earlier, typically using income, employment and educational attainment as the key pointers.

Given the fact that there could be more factors beyond these variables (e.g., household dwelling, size, marital status, property ownership, etc.), a broader indicator that carefully and more prudently integrates these other variables should be explored.

This would ensure the reduction, if not the elimination, of any potential misclassification of SES and residual confounding it can present in our crucial research endeavour. The phenomenon of (in)equality per se, is not natural. It is also not an (in)evitable condition.


We therefore certainly can do something positive to ameliorate its societal defects, damning dents, coupled with their concomitant ludicrous legacies of discrimination, bigotry and stigmatisation.

Some countries, including Ghana, have taken some initiatives to this effect, through social protection and poverty reduction schemes, alongside the generic monitoring of vulnerability.

More sustained efforts are needed. 

The writer is a Harvard-trained freelance writer on science and public health matters.

E-mail: [email protected] 

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