“There are only two families in the world, as my grandmother used to say: the haves and the have-nots.” Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote of La Mancha
This is the first post of this blog where I’ll be posting mostly on questions of inequality and social justice. That is because the world is a vastly unequal place. Despite impressive reductions in poverty and child mortality around the world and rapid economic growth among emerging economies, a baby girl born in Niger will still live a life with fewer opportunities and greater deprivations than a baby born in Norway. Their life expectancies will still differ by more than 20 years, and there will still be a 14 year gap in the level of education that they attain. These inequalities are not solely determined by hard work or merit, but by political decisions and the lottery of birth.
No one decides their sex, nationality, or colour of skin at birth, but these factors often play a role in people’s opportunities, experiences, and overall well-being. Biased institutions and policies that favour elites and are skewed against marginalised groups, only serve to compound inequalities. These policies and institutions are the product of history, politics, and power.
Over the last few decades, the world has experienced remarkable progress in several areas of development. The proportion of people living in poverty has declined steadily and far fewer children die before the fifth birthday than 15 years ago. Yet simple averages mask the unequal fate of those left behind – in particular women, whose unequal situation in both public and private spheres remains entrenched at the household and society level. Some areas of inequality are rapidly changing – or are, at least, becoming easier to identify and measure. We know that economic inequality is growing rapidly – especially the concentration at the very top. Across the globe, income inequality within countries is on the rise: 70% of the world’s population live in countries where income inequality has risen over the last three decades. The concentration of financial resources in the hands of the few has distorted political, social, and economic systems against those that are vulnerable or marginalised. The 85 richest people control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.
These concentration of wealth, political power, and influence go hand in hand and are mutually reinforcing. As the Human Development Report stated nearly a decade ago: “Disadvantaged groups – poor people, women, rural populations, indigenous communities – are disadvantaged partly because they have a weak political voice, and they have a weak political voice because they are disadvantaged. Where political institutions are seen as vehicles for perpetuating unjust inequalities or advancing the interest of the elites, that undermines the development of democracy and creates conditions for state breakdown.”
It is not surprising that inequalities are playing an increasingly central role in popular protests, such as those in Brazil in the summer of 2013. Nor is it surprising that inequality is a catalyst for violent conflicts. Research shows that socio-economic and political inequalities are a dangerous combination that can significantly increase the likelihood of conflict. Inequalities also contribute to chronic and extreme poverty making populations more vulnerable to the effects of humanitarian crises, like natural disasters and conflicts.
The inequalities that continue to damage society are interrelated. This is why the current trends in economic inequalities are so worrying. The relationship between wealth, power, social privilege and opportunity create a closed, self-perpetuating, system which leaves behind the poorest.
This blog aims to debate these issues using the most current information available through academic research, data analysis and other sources of relevant – and rigorous – information. The initial objective will be to publish a few posts a week. It will also link Oxfam’s practical experience with the development debates using evidence and data. The last line of Thomas Piketty’s famous book Capital in the 21st century sums up well this goal: “Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off” Welcome.