The New Global Inequality Debate: “A Symbol of Our Struggle against Reality”?

October 17, 2013 2 By admin

Guest post from Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America’s Vice President for Policy and CampaignsPaul-OBrien 

This blog will make more sense if you watch at least a few seconds of this Monty Python skit first.  

Monty Python haunts me.  Too close to the bone if you work in a rights-based organization.   When I got into development work in the 1990’s, the UN and some NGOs were getting their heads around “rights based programming”.  We re-described “needs” as “rights”; talked about “beneficiaries” as “rights bearers”, slammed our fists on the table, and, for the most part, went back to business as usual.   I now evoke “Monty Python” at Oxfam to urge colleagues never to do just that.   

Here’s what I realized: most good programme staff already understood the rights principles that mattered; the bad ones just learned to spin.   I came to think a rights lens was not useful for engaging or describing rights victims, but could help to push practitioners to identify perpetrators, and work out how to hold them to account even if it meant risking our programming or our relationships with elites.  That work was different and difficult and separated the real rights-based organizations from the PR machines.  Some organizations ultimately backed away.  Others radically changed their business model.   I joined Oxfam because I believed it was serious about holding the powerful accountable. 

sharing prosperity?

sharing prosperity?

But now I’m getting nervous again—I listen to some of the new thinking on “inequality”, and hear Monty Python.   Look at how the UN and World Bank are talking about inequality.  The authors of the UN’s High Level Panel Post 2015 report tried to hardwire inequality into the new MDG goals by committing to “leave no one behind.”  But the draft goals only focus on one side of the inequality equation: on poverty, ignoring wealth (such as the $240 billion amassed by the world’s richest 100 people last year).   The World Bank proudly commits to “shared prosperity” for the bottom 40 percent in its forthcoming strategy.   But sharing by whom?  Until they answer that question, Oxfam and others will keep challenging them “to reduce disparities between the top and bottom”

Why does this matter?  Because reframing the poor as “the unequal poor” while shutting off discussions about the obligations of the wealthy will waste a huge amount of development thinking over the coming two years, and change very little.  It’s not as if the last UN strategy was “let’s make sure to leave a few folks behind”.  Or the World Bank used to promote “Prosperity Reduction Strategies” for the poor.

My test for whether inequality discussions are adding value or are just “a symbol of our struggle against reality” (h/t John Cleese) is whether we find a fresh and useful way to talk about unfair wealth, not unequal poverty. 

Here is an interesting debate:  Is there a quantity of wealth which is just unfair or is it only a certain type of wealth?   Africa’s richest man has made $16 billion while 80 million of his fellow Nigerians survive on less than $2 a day.  Africa’s richest woman has amassed $3 billion while most of her Angolan compatriots live in extreme poverty.  Is it the level of wealth that we should be worried about or the fact that it was made in two of the world’s most corrupt countries?  Are we OK that Bill Gates is worth $72 billion because he got it cleanly and gives most of it away (some of it to Oxfam)?   The answer to those questions will change how we measure inequality, what research we do, what policy solutions we seek and how we build or join movements for change.  That’s the debate I want to be part of. 

See also Ricardo Fuentes v World Bank on inequality

And here’s Paul’s inequality rant at a recent CGD meeting, which triggered this post