How Can We Bridge The Widening Global Inequality Gap?

For the past five years, I have carried Oxfam’s call to tackle global inequality to the rich and powerful people attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.

I don’t sing alone there any more. I’m worried my message is almost mainstream, that I sound like I’m part of the choir. I bet nearly every politician and industry leader I meet in Davos this week will talk the talk about the evils of inequality and be very eloquent and believable, too.

Men rest after salvaging metal on the 30th floor of a skyscraper ‘slum’ in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas [Jorge Silva/Reuters]

I mean, how could they not? The evidence is overwhelming. Surely, no stable genius attending Davos could possibly try to deny, minimise or justify 2018 levels of global inequality? Now that would be a controversial sideshow!

Oxfam’s report this year is as much about people’s stories as it is about inequality’s staggering statistics. These are the people around the world losing their lands and livelihoods as fast as ever. People forced to work for peanuts in ever-more exploitative and abusive jobs, like the women in US factory lines who have to wear nappies because aren’t allowed toilet breaks.

Millions of children still denied schooling and poor people denied affordable healthcare. Stories of discrimination and exploitation, of activists and unions silenced, and of profits flowing as rivers of money into off-shore tax havens. All this and more to prop up a man-made system where another billionaire is created every other day because the top 1 percent are pocketing more than 80 percent of the wealth our world creates. The bottom half of humanity gets none of this new wealth at all.

The unspoken contract between the elites and the 99 percent that unfettered market globalisation and liberalisation should benefit us all is broken.

Today’s economy is designed near-perfectly to reward wealth ahead of work. This is Oxfam’s story at Davos. And we’re not even seriously attacked any more for saying it.

It’s as if inequality apologists can barely be bothered because – and this does worry me – they don’t feel their cosy system is threatened enough that they need to.

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So this year, more than ever, I am wondering who really holds the answers here. Are some of us waiting for science to come up with some new technology that will magically solve the problem, as I suspect many people are anxiously hoping for a discovery that will stop climate change? Are we waiting for the enfranchised masses to vote for “change”, for the next radical option presented to them? For a revolution?

Or do we think that corporate and political leaders will finally be moved towards enlightened collective interest all of a sudden?

I’m afraid the answer to the last one is that, beyond some notable exceptions, there is no appeal for capitalist elites to be nice. Business ethics are either imposed by regulation or else they exist off-balance-sheet, maybe on a voluntary basis – something that companies can pick up and pay lip service to when necessary.

Instead, we need to look to the business trailblazers like those leading innovative models based upon equity – worker-owned companies such as the multibillion-dollar Mondragon in Spain and Amul in India, for example.

Or those willing to consider a visionary idea. We are putting the case to business leaders that they should not pay a penny in shareholder dividends and executive bonuses until all their workers are getting a living wage and their producers a fair price.

We do not have the patience to wait or hope. We need to look to the law. And new laws must be pushed into existence by the collective power of people.

We will only close the gap between men and women’s pay by legislating it closed. At the speed we’re going now, it will take 217 years. Iceland has caught on.

We need to throw the book at irresponsible corporate tax behaviour which alone costs poor countries $100bn a year. That book needs to hit the corporate lobbyists while we’re at it.

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We need to be less worried about disruptive new technologies, but more proactive in understanding and harnessing them properly. The utility of every invention depends on how it is owned and controlled for the public good.

Law has the power to ensure that nobody should work on a level of pay that they cannot live a decent life.

This means governments getting back into the driving seat. In days gone by, governments would value the masses because they needed them for their factories and armies, and so they would feed, educate and keep them healthy. That’s changed today.

Then we were sold the idea that trade-fuelled growth would spread around the world, carried by democracy, on a rising tide that would “lift up all boats”. That’s failed, too.

The unspoken contract between the elites and the 99 percent that unfettered market globalisation and liberalisation should benefit us all is broken.

Globalisation has lifted many people out of the most abject poverty and we celebrate that. But it has been even more successful in boosting an elite few into superyachts stuffed with stupendous wealth, while dumping hundreds of millions of people onto the flotsam and jetsam at the bottom.

We are beginning to be left to trust that those at the top will rescue those below.

But the worst-case scenario is – they won’t. There will be no value in it. The masses will be left adrift to fend for themselves.

It’s up to us all to make sure that doesn’t come to pass.


This feature is written by , the executive director of Oxfam International and originally appeared in Al-Jazeera.


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