The end of the defence of widening inequality, and the beginnings of a coalition to address it

by | Jun 7, 2015


Were it not for the amusing stunts mocking the G7 leaders, the world might not even know the G7 was happening. (What they most fear, I reckon, is that people stop mocking them. Imagine the indignity!) We’re witnessing not just the decline of the old powers but the decline of politics as summitry, back to a longer term agenda of movements beyond moments. By next month, people won’t be talking much about the Bavarian G7. But they will be talking next month, and next year, about the biggest challenge the world faces: inequality.

Yesterday’s heresy is today’s orthodoxy: inequality is harming economic and social progress, and has gotten out of hand. There was a time, not too long ago, when talk of inequality risked being seen as a bit too radical even in the safe space of NGO-land. Now tackling inequality is the mantra of the OECD. And the IMF. Even the World Economic Forum. Governments who have let inequality rise can now be heard declaring that fixing it must be the top priority. South Africa’s Deputy President, the billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa who had been seen as the prime exemplar of the ANC’s amnesia of its egalitarian history, now leads its efforts to put tackling inequality very publicly back in its agenda. Nigeria’s outgoing Finance Minister, the veteran World-Banker and market economy icon Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, declared over the weekend that Nigeria’s challenge is the divide between “the 99.9% and a venal, kleptocratic, power-hungry elite that have colonised the country and refuse to let go.” (In an interview in the FT!) Academia has dumped the old religion and is churning out so many books on inequality that they risk speeding up even further the worrying depletion of the world’s forests.

But whilst the need to tackle inequality is now the new orthodoxy of word, it is not yet practiced in deed. 7 out of 10 people now live in countries where inequality is increasing. Asked to give examples of countries that are successfully tackling inequality, we all keep coming back to Latin America: why no such progress in Africa, Asia or Europe? Let us be frank and say it is not “an absence of political will” to narrow inequality but is instead the overwhelming presence of a different political will to widen inequality further. Governments and international institutions are talking equality and practising inequality. The drive to increase inequality is the project that dare not speak its name.

Still, we can celebrate that the defence of ever-widening inequality has become socially unacceptable. This is a journey, and that is a milestone.

We are starting to witness, too, another milestone. We have seen for a while organisations individually raising the issue of inequality, while staying in their silos and failing to join hands. Now they are starting, gingerly, to link up on this very issue: Development NGOs like ActionAid and Oxfam with environment NGOs like Greenpeace; INGOs connecting beyond their comfort zone of groups like them, by linking up with broad civil society networks like Civicus and the Association for Women’s Rights in Development; and these groups at last again linking up with the trade unions. Different streams coming together into what will need to be a mighty river. These groups have sketched out a policy agenda, and a theory of change agenda, that addresses structural issues and recognises that this a long game, a movement beyond moments. As the International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary Sharan Burrow recently summarised the vision that all these groups have united behind, it is one that “includes progressive taxes, universal free public health and education services, living wages, strengthening of workers’ bargaining power, and narrowing the gap between rich and poor, working in a way that strengthens the power of the people to challenge the people with power.” The groups are, in her words, “working ever more closely.” These are embryonic days, a while away yet from a formal bells-and-whistles coalition. But it has begun. What should come next? That’s a chapter not yet written – but where we once asked “will it ever?” we now ask “when?” This year marks the end of the defence of widening inequality, and the beginnings of a coalition to address it.

Author

  • Ben Phillips is Campaigns and Policy Director of ActionAid. Previously, he worked for Oxfam in the UK. He has lived and worked in four continents and 10 cities including New Delhi and Washington DC, as well as with children in poverty in East London. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid.


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