The opportunity of a generation: Ending extreme inequality

Blog post by Winnie Byanyima

Oxfam International, Executive Director
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It could be the opportunity of a generation.

The world can be proud of the progress made towards ending poverty - as I see for myself when I visit the toughest places, the cynics have been proven wrong by successful efforts to combat disease, to increase access to drinking water sources, and to get girls into school. But, as Oxfam witnesses in work on the ground, and as the expert number-crunchers attest, the completion of this progress is now jeopardized by extreme inequality. 

To end poverty we must tackle this inequality which is causing economic, social and political harm to us all, rich and poor alike. Billionaires like Warren Buffett agree with the communities we work with - we can build a world fairer than this.

There is a growing consensus that rising and extreme economic inequality is harmful to us all: Pope Francis has called inequality the “root of social evil”; a French Economist, Thomas Piketty, is achieving rock star levels of fame for his book on inequality and capital,  and President Obama has warned that it threatens the American dream. Inequality is a major concern of the World Economic Forum, The World Bank, and the IMF.

At the same time a global conversation convened by the United Nations is asking us – citizens and companies and experts and governments - to define what world we want to live in by 2030. 

The Millennium Development Goals are set to expire next year. This week in New York, the latest negotiations aim to agree a new global framework for development post-2015. With many others, Oxfam is working to ensure that this framework makes clear and ambitious commitments to the two issues that will determine whether we succeed in eliminating poverty; climate change and inequality.

This must be the moment where we say loud and clear that world we want is a more equal world. 

Oxfam is calling for a goal for ending extreme economic inequality.  

We back the target proposed by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz - to reduce income inequality so that the income of the top 10 per cent is no more than that of the bottom 40 per cent. We also support calls for a separate goal on gender inequality, and are pleased that so many governments agree this should be part of the framework.

We need to tackle extreme inequality because is morally indefensible and socially corrosive – undermining our health, affecting our well-being, and undermining peaceful societies. We also need to tackle it because it is increasingly understood to undermine growth

The good news is solutions exist.

Extreme inequality is not inevitable. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but countries that have successfully reduced inequality provide some guidance:

  • Crack down on financial secrecy and tax dodging. Financial secrecy sucks money up from the real economy into the hands of the richest few, while denying the majority their fair stake. Developing countries lose billions annually to corporate tax dodging. This is a drain of vital revenues that governments could put to work to invest in social spending, public goods, and social safety nets for those falling most in need. 
  • Invest in universal access to healthcare and education. Public services provide everyone with “virtual income”, fighting inequality by putting more in the pockets of everyone - the poorest especially.  
  • Strengthen wage floors and worker rights. Earning a decent wage is central to not only overcoming poverty, but to reducing extreme inequality as well, by ensuring the proceeds of growth go to not just employers and corporations, but ordinary working people.  
  • Remove the barriers to equal rights and opportunities for women. There is persuasive evidence that gender equality - particularly in jobs and education – encourages growth. Strong development, growth that is inclusive, and women’s rights are fundamentally bound together. 

Equality is what people are asking for.

The Stiglitz proposal is to reduce extreme inequality so that we can truly end poverty, and help ensure that governments can do their job in using taxes and transfers to create societies and economies that work for us all. It is what people want: the CIVICUS 2014 report showed how recent social movements across the world are primarily concerned by economic inequality. 

This weeks’ negotiations must deliver an agreement which tackles the key issues facing the global community. Let’s listen to the voices of the many, commit to a more equal world, and make it a reality.

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