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

April 24, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

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

April 24, 2013
Duncan Green