Merit, Privilege or Slumdog Millionaires? Income Inequality and Social Mobility

April 24, 2013

Incantations, inclusive growth and the illusory ‘we': whatever happened to politics in the post-2015 process?

April 24, 2013

Make Inequality History? What would change if we focussed on inequality rather than poverty?

April 24, 2013
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Last week I spoke at a Brussels conference on inequality, organized by the Belgian NGO coalition 11.11.11. Inequality is flavour of the month right now, logo_thinkglobalday_date_200showing surprising staying power within the post-2015 process and elsewhere. Inequality gabfests usually involve violent agreement that inequality is indeed a Bad Thing, lots of evidence for why this is the case, and polite disagreements on what inequality we should target first – often along the lines of ‘because inequality is really important, we should all work on X’, where X just happens to be the thing that person works on anyway. A more retro variant involves ritual combat between supporters of equality of opportunity (aka American Dream) v equality of outcome (Socialist Paradise). Cynical, moi?

But in Brussels, I had a more difficult, but interesting job: what, if anything, should we do differently if our focus is on inequality rather than, say ‘getting to zero’ on poverty? So let’s imagine. It’s 2015, the UN has signed off on a shift in focus from poverty (MDGs) to inequality (post-2015). True, the commitment is a little vague (hey, this is the UN we’re talking about), but now NGOs and official donors are charged with the task of turning this into a viable campaign and lobbying exercise. What might a Make Inequality History campaign look like?

Firstly, as poverty reduction starts hitting the hard core of chronic poverty, both poverty and inequality campaigning will have to look more at targeting excluded groups (disabled, mental health, elderly, ethnic minorities.) For some people, the debate stops right there.

But compared to poverty, there could be a number of additional and pretty fundamental conceptual shifts

  • Inequality is all about relationships (a single individual can’t be unequal!), meaning a greater emphasis on power and politics within/between countries
  • Inequality is a universal challenge – within countries, it involves everyone; internationally it obliterates North-South distinctions
  • That in turn means ‘whole of society’ interventions become more important: aid agencies would do more on norms (do children have rights?); prejudice and discrimination (eg against women, indigenous, disabled); disabling environments (eg violence; market failures that exclude poor people);
  • Inequality is structural – what kind of economy do we have/want? What’s balance between disequalizing sectors (finance, extractives, capital intensive agriculture) and equalizing sectors (smallscale ag, labour intensive manufacturing, smallscale retail)

In terms of specific themes:

  • Taxation is the standout issue. A focus on the distributive imapct of how governments raise reveneue would be a necessary complement to the traditional focus on how they spend it. At the moment, there’s real potential for reforming the global system of tax evasion. But at national level, many tax systems are going in a regressive rather than progressive direction.
  • More focus on ratchet mechanisms that drive up inequality – eg hyperinflation or shocks when the rich typically have more access to smoothing mechanisms (credit, social protection)
  • Would there be a focus on ceilings as well as floors, eg on land ownership (South Korea) or Oxfam’s recent cheeky proposal for an end to ‘extreme wealth’?
time to change the title (and maybe lose the mullet)?

time to change the title (and maybe lose the mullet)?

The shift to a more overtly political and relational approach to development might be welcome by campaigners (if not by their fundraisers), but it won’t be easy. INGOs and (even more) official donors would have to learn to strike a fine balance between becoming more explicitly engaged on issues of power, politics and redistribution, and being thrown out for meddling in internal politics. There are ways to do this:

  • Work with and through local partner organizations and curb any messianic tendencies in our own staff
  • Focus on the ‘enabling environment for redistribution’ (promoting norms and values for social cohesion, rule of law, governance, access to information, freedom of expression), rather than specific redistributive campaigns that might prompt a greater backlash
  • Build the state’s capacity to redistribute (eg domestic resource mobilization): this includes supply (training, technical assistance), demand (eg citizens watchdogs) or a mixture of both
  • Develop skills in ‘convening and brokering’, ensuring the voices of poor people and their organizations are at the table by bringing together dissimilar players to build trust and find collective solutions
Which all makes me think that Make Inequality History faces some pretty big challenges:
  • Compared to specific campaigns, society-wide interventions are a lot harder to communicate and inspire people about: ‘what do we want? New norms!’
  • A shift to a more universalist and political project could seriously damage levels of political and financial support for aid agencies, where it is currently based on a rather unthinking (and disingenuous) ‘aid is about helping people, not politics’ narrative
  • Many of these things demand skills more than cash – aid, with its pressure on a small number of aid agency staff to disburse large chunks of funding, may even be counterproductive to the long-term, subtle political engagement required to tackle the structural roots of inequality. This was definitely the trickiest question for those in the room in Brussels – can aid agencies find a way to spend the money, and still free up brain time for the more politically sophisticated, long term, rooted work needed to confront inequality? If not, is the conclusion that more money is a mixed blessing? Or can we divide up our approaches into aid-dependent low income countries (business as usual) and non-aid dependent unequal countries (new inequality lens, needing less money and more knowledge)?
  • If engaging in domestic redistributive processes proves just too politically risky and complex for aid agencies with large budgets and limited attention spans. What about a renewed focus on global inequalities – collective action problems such as climate change, tax havens, trade, inequality-swimming-poolsintellectual property rights, migration? But here the obstacles to change often seem even greater (contrast dynamic national progress with multilateral paralysis on numerous issues).

Conclusions? This is still churning around in my head, but it feels to me like MIH would be right but difficult, banging up against all kinds of institutional constraints including communications, fund-raising and coalition-building. A three tier approach might well emerge:

  1. Make Poverty History: ‘Business as usual’ poverty reduction in low income, aid dependent countries
  2. Make Inequality History: A more politically engaged MIH in middle income and other fast-growing countries with falling aid dependence
  3. Make Externalities History: A global campaign for collective action on climate change, tax havens, intellectual property, arms trade etc

So over to you. With limited resources, and taking into account both the opportunities and the obstacles to success in each, which of the three approaches should aid agencies adopt? And to avoid the ‘both, and’ syndrome, you’re only allowed to vote for one option.

And here is the undoubted highlight of the Brussels show, ‘India’s first youtube star’ Wilbur Sargunaraj with the catchiest song I’ve heard on poverty and redistribution. OK, the only song…..

More Wilbur videos on the Why Poverty? Site – well worth it


  1. If you’d ask me, I’d definitely vote for the MIH campaign.
    We’ve had campaigns on things like Tobin Tax or EPA’s and it never had a negative affect on fundraising. Even a direct message/call for redistribution can and will, if it’s brought in a consistent and catchy way, mobilize the public and sponsors.

  2. Just a side point about the American dream v socialist paradise relevant to the politics of inequality (appreciate the light hearted comparison).

    Equality of opportunity is a useful organizing principle precisely because (a) it is hard to argue the intrinsic importance of equalizing chances and (b) you can demonstrate opportunities are affected by gross inequalities of outcome that then shape later opportunities (poor children have less chance to learn etc. I’m writing from the Young Lives panel study – we’ve synthesized evidence on that at Separating the two gets us into trouble – if there American dream were to work as sold, effective mechanisms are needed to moderate the outcome gaps.

  3. The crucial thing about inequality is, as you say, that it’s about relationships – and relationships are about power. Have you fallen into the trap of assuming that inequality (or poverty for that matter) is only about income – surely not? Moreover it’s about power relationships not just between countries and within countries but also, dare I say it, within households.

    So this brings me to my main point – As Kevin Watkins demonstrated in his presentation to the ODI meeting on inequalities last week, income and gender and inextricably linked. Trying to tackle inequality in one without addressing the other is ultimately futile. Gender is not just a form of oppression that one ‘group’ in society face, but a fundamental way in which society is structured.

    If we are going for a ‘more politically engaged Make Inequality History’ then let’s go the whole way and have a proper power analysis (and by the way ,fundraisers love working on ‘women’,so it’s a win- win option).

  4. Nice post! But Make Externalities History = MEH.
    Just sayin, if you’re worried about inspiring people…

  5. I would vote for Make Externalities History because those issues ultimately trickle down and help to create better environments to foster more equal opportunities and improve quality of life for many sections of society. International standards with a way to reinforce and police these standards will result in widespread betterment if the policies do not become bogged down with bureaucracy. But I prescribe to liberalism in international political theory so some may disagree.

  6. Very thoughtful post. The three-tier approach sounds right.

    Am wondering what this approach would do to the left-right divide within countries, including the left-right divide on aid? I think aid would be perceived not only as more political (which would not be a bad thing) but also as more socialist.

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