Full report
Published: 8 October 2019

Global Competitiveness Report 2019

Chapter Three: Competitiveness, Equality and Sustainability – The Way Forward

Decades of focus on economic growth without equal focus on making growth inclusive and environmentally sustainable is having dire consequences for the planet and humankind. Accelerating climate change is already affecting hundreds of millions around the world, and it is likely that people under aged 60 could witness its radical destabilizing effects on Earth. In parallel, rising inequality, precarity and lack of social mobility—made worse by the 2008–2009 Great Recession—are undermining social cohesion with a growing sense of unfairness, perceived loss of identity and dignity, weakening social fabric, eroding trust in institutions, disenchantment with political processes, and an erosion of the social contract.

In addition, the recent track record of the global economy is underwhelming. Although many factors contribute to the fragility of the global economy, persisting weaknesses in the drivers of productivity, highlighted by the Global Competitiveness Index 4.0, are among the principal culprits (see Chapter 1).

Over the past decade, it has become clear that environmental, social and economic agendas can no longer be pursued separately and in parallel: they must be merged into a single inclusive and sustainable growth agenda. In this context, the two sections in this chapter examine the relationship between competitiveness and the two other dimensions of sustainable development—shared prosperity and environmental sustainability. Both sections show that there are no inherent tradeoffs between competitiveness and sustainability, and between competitiveness and social cohesion. They explore the “win-win” policy space, revealing that a productive, low-carbon, inclusive economy is possible—and the only viable option going forward. They also make it clear, however, that win-win policies do not depend strictly on competitiveness. Countries with the same level of competitiveness can achieve very different environmental and societal outcomes, because of different priorities and policy choices made over the course of many years.

For example, when it comes to social mobility in the United Kingdom, it takes, on average, five generations for a low-income family to reach the mean income (Figure 1). By contrast, it takes only two generations in Denmark, which has the same GCI score as the United Kingdom (81.2). Similarly, when it comes to environmental sustainability, Denmark and Uruguay have increased their shares of renewable sources of energy significantly more than other countries at their respective levels of competitiveness (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Competitiveness and intergenerational mobility, selected countries

Source: Source: World Economic Forum and OECD, A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility, 2018.

Notes: Number of generations refers to the number of generations needed for those born in low-income families (bottom 10% of the income distribution) to reach mean income in their society.
AUS = Australia; BRA = Brazil; CAN = Canada; CHL = Chile; CHN = China; COL = Colombia; DEU = Germany; DNK = Denmark; ESP = Spain; FIN = Finland; FRA = France; GBR = United Kingdom; HUN = Hungary; IND = India; IRL = Ireland; ITA = Italy; JPN = Japan; KOR = Korea; NOR = Norway; PRT = Portugal; SWE = Sweden; USA=United States; ZAF = South Africa.

Figure 2: Competitiveness and renewable energy trends

Source: Sources: World Economic Forum; World Bank, Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) database (accessed 10 September 2019).

Notes: Data available for 79 economies. CHE = Switzerland; CHL = Chile; CHN = China; DEU = Germany; DNK = Denmark; ESP = Spain; FIN = Finland; GEO = Georgia; GHA = Ghana; GRC = Greece; IND = India; ISR = Israel; JPN = Japan; MYS = Malaysia; NGA = Nigeria; NLD = Netherlands; SAU = Saudi Arabia; SWE = Sweden; TZA = Tanzania; URY = Uruguay; USA = United States; VEN = Venezuela; VNM = Viet Nam; ZWE = Zimbabwe.


The need for a new economic agenda that combines environmental, social and economic growth objectives has been recognized by all stakeholders in advanced, emerging and developing countries alike. We have shown how achieving productivity growth is not just compatible with greater equality and environmental sustainability, but may in fact spur a new era of quality economic growth.

The challenge is the implementation of such an ambitious agenda. Transitioning to such a new development path will require significant efforts, bold policies and resolving some potential trade-offs.

Against this backdrop, all stakeholders need to come together and agree on a shared common solution—failing to do so may jeopardize present and future generations. In a multi-stakeholder fashion, policy-makers, business leaders and civil societies around the world should act together and take full responsibility for adopting policies, practices and behaviours that are aligned with the common goal of achieving widespread prosperity and sustainable development.


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