Bringing the inequality message to the Davos elite

From the exclusive chalets of the Swiss Alps to the world’s ghettos, inequality affects us all and it is out of control.

To address this worsening issue of our time, I was invited to attend the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last month as a co-chair. This was an opportunity to take the concerns of the people Oxfam works with in the world’s poorest countries to an event synonymous with the global elite.

My intention was to present some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet with the stark facts: 80 people now have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. I wanted to point out the consequences extreme economic inequality has on poor people around the globe; and to turn concern about inequality into real action to tackle it.

Oxfam’s view is that by making sure the richest pay their fair share of tax, tackling the scourge of precarious low paid work and investing in high quality, free and public services for all, we can begin to make progress on reducing inequality. These were outlined in our Even It Up report released in October, which was backed up by our latest findings. Released just ahead of the WEF Annual Meeting, we showed that if inequality is left unchecked, the richest 1 percent will own more than the rest of us by 2016, while 1 in 9 people do not have enough to eat and more than a billion people still live in extreme poverty.

To put inequality at the top of the agenda

Did we succeed in getting the message through? I’m proud to say, we - as Oxfam pulling together on this effort globally - managed to put inequality at the top of the agenda in Davos.

We made headlines and column inches around the world, and secured precious air time throughout the Annual Meeting.

Due to the tremendous support Oxfam receives via social media, I was named as one of the most influential top ten social media users at Davos, ranking alongside Bill Gates and Arianna Huffington.

Words of support came from across the Davos spectrum, including from our Oxfam ambassadors, Angelique Kidjo and Chris Martin, while high level meetings were had with Christine Lagarde of the IMF and Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, and Donald Kaberuka of the African Development Bank. I had some warm conversations and some tough conversations - as you would expect in such a setting - but each time I attend Davos I see more and more of the world's elite realise that extreme inequality is a problem for all.

This was a worthwhile engagement – but it is just the beginning of Oxfam’s campaign to Even It Up for the 99 percent.

Now we will continue to push for solutions to the injustice caused by extreme inequality – starting with making sure companies pay their fair share of tax as a first priority. From Apple to Amazon, it’s an issue that has barely been off the front pages in recent months. 

When tax rules are unfair, inequality rises

Companies make more money when they pay less tax, and these profits go towards making the richest people even richer. At the same time, when corporations don’t pay their fair share, this also deprives governments of vital funds that could be spent on reducing poverty: services like schools and hospitals, the very services that are essential to closing the gap between rich and poor, and eradicating extreme poverty for good. Oxfam has estimated that developing countries loose at least $100 billion a year due to corporate tax dodging.

But it’s not enough to just target the global corporations who dodge their tax. This problem is bigger than a few bad apples. We need to target the system that allows companies to use their power and influence to get away without paying their fair share. An ambitious, far-reaching and inclusive process is needed to fix the broken international tax system, to prevent corporations from dodging the taxes they owe and to give governments the resources they need to tackle poverty and inequality. 

This is why Oxfam is calling for a World Tax Summit, where all countries are invited and where the rights and needs of citizens are prioritized over the profits of corporate giants. We think this should be a prominent part of the agenda for the Financing Conference in Addis Ababa this year, where all countries are already planning to gather to talk about how to finance development. Developing countries must be given an equal seat at the table where global tax rules are agreed - their ability to reduce poverty and tackle inequality depends on it. We can’t make tax fair if the journey to change isn’t fair. That journey must begin with a truly inclusive World Tax Summit as part of the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa this July.

Davos was the start of a robust and frank discussion. I look forward to real progress on these issues in 2015.

This entry was published on 24 February 2015, by Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International.

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