A few years ago I was touring the US to promote my book, From Poverty to Power, which focuses on inequality and redistribution. Big mistake. Even the word ‘redistribution’ was so politically loaded that it effectively closed down debate (it was just after the row over then presidential candidate Obama’s exchange with Joe the Plumber on ‘spreading the wealth’). I ended up replacing ‘redistribution’ with ‘rebalancing’ on the powerpoint.
How times change. Now a 700 page book on inequality is a global bestseller, while everyone from the IMF and World Economic Forum leftwards is lamenting the extremes of global inequality, and its negative impact on everything from human rights to economic growth. Oxfam’s killer fact that the world’s 85 richest individuals own as much as its 3.5 billion poorest people was the talk of Davos this year. Later this month, we are launching a global campaign to tackle extreme economic inequality. Here are a few pointers to what we will be saying.
First inequality of what? Normally, the focus is on income, and in the case of Thomas Piketty’s tome, wealth. But the division of the world into haves and have nots is at its root about power – the gulf between those who have it, and those who don’t, aka (in the deadening jargon of development) the ‘excluded and marginalized’. That covers everything from physical security (e.g. violence against women), to norms and culture (indigenous or sexual identity, attitudes to disabled or elderly people) to land rights, as well as the more traditional focus on income and assets. Often the inequalities are overlapping and mutually reinforcing – a poor, disabled, elderly indigenous woman faces an interlocking set of obstacles to having her voice and desires heard and responded to by those in power.
For Oxfam, redistributing power – both ‘power within’ in terms of a sense of rights and self esteem, as well as ‘power with’(the ability to organize) as well as ‘power to’ get things done, change laws and practices etc, underpins all other discussions of inequality. If that all sounds very abstract, listen to the impact on a woman taking part in a programme to set up civilian protection committees in the violence-torn Eastern Congo: ‘I got married very young. I didn’t know that women could sit and talk to people the way that we are doing right now. We had shadows in our eyes. But now we talk even to local authorities, and even to the military.’
People on the sharp end of inequality have always tried to improve their lot through everything from cultural resistance (language, song, dress) to public protest and insurrection. Whether you are compatriots or outsiders, if you want to support them you can help in numerous ways. In your personal lives you can challenge the norms and value systems that reproduce inequality (India’s caste system, or the rights of children). As activists, you can make a difference through a host of citizen’s movements, faith groups and political organizations. Or you can support others, such as Oxfam and other international NGOs, who are working for that essential global redistribution of power and wealth.
But we also need to get better at telling the story of inequality, and its defeat. An exclusive focus on injustice can be demobilizing, even patronising, if we fail to understand and celebrate the numerous struggles going on to confront it, from global victories such as trade union rights, the abolition of slavery or women’s suffrage, to the unsung liberation of a woman in Eastern Congo, speaking up for the first time. Bloggers and social media have a role here, bearing witness, building understanding, linking what can often seem a dry academic discussion of Gini indexes, social exclusion and the like to the human drama of struggle.
So now it’s over to you. You can start by blogging/tweeting your views and stories to make sure that inequality goes viral on Blog Action Day on October 16th.