By Winnie Byanyima
ADDIS ABABA – Hope. Now there’s a word you don’t hear enough about the global fight against inequality. And for good reason.
Over the past forty years, a tiny few have triumphed over the rest of us – and governments have helped them to do so. The top 1% pocketed more income than half of humanity combined. 26 billionaires today own more wealth than 3.9 billion people. With poverty back on the rise in places around the world, to the frightening scale of climate chaos that’s being driven by the interests of a rich few, it can feel hard to find hope at times.
Just look this week at the United Nations where we have heard from world leaders intent on maintaining the status quo – less complacent about inequality as much as they are complicit in it.
But in a quiet corner of New York, I was witnessing hope to emerge from a new place. Not activists taking on the rich, or bold economists imagining a new kind of economy.
No – it was the leaders of governments.
Sure, a select few. A humble few even. But a group of progressive leaders of countries both rich and poor who have come together in common cause to tackle extreme inequality and exclusion. Each is trying to tackle inequality in their countries. Each sees that the power of their unity can achieve something greater.
This exciting and progressive group is brought together by the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, a former trade union leader who leads a nation that at times has felt like a lonely voice in a world of rising inequality. Standing with him were leaders such as the President of Ethiopia – a woman president of one of the world’s poorest nations that have got 15 million more children into school – the majority girls – over the course of a decade.
The group includes some of the world’s largest economies like Spain – led by a President who says that “inequality is destroying our societies”. It includes countries as large as Indonesia – with a population of over a quarter a billion people. I am particularly pleased to see African leaders such as Sierra Leone and Namibia showing such leadership.
Sure enough none of these governments is perfect. Each can – and should do far more. I personally have committed to pushing them to do so. They should push each other too. But in coming together – as I’m sure each leader knows – these leaders achieve a few things.
First, they offer an alternative to the economic consensus that has defined our times. Their actions challenge in fact a fatal assumption: that inequality is somehow inevitable, or God-given.
For years we’ve been told that such inequality is the byproduct of an otherwise spectacularly successful economic system. That the system, sure, comes with some poverty, but all that GDP growth is great for all of us in the end that reducing workers’ rights or tax cuts for the corporations will somehow benefit us all.
I think this failed story is dying. Parents working all hours but unable to offer hope to their children for a brighter future know it’s a lie. The millions of young people striking against climate inaction know it is a lie. Inequality is a political and policy choice.
Second, this group of leaders not only brings hope of a better world but also brings certainty that it can be achieved. I think of someone like President Moon of South Korea – a country which signs up with the group of progressive leaders – a human rights lawyer and son of refugees from the north. He has set out to build a people-centered economy – and has acted on it by boldly increasing the minimum wage, taxing the richest more and boosting social spending.
A new question then must be answered. If countries from Namibia to South Korea can take simple, effective and common-sense steps for the dignity of their citizens, then why cannot every government do so? And why are so many governments instead choosing to favor the rich over the rest?
I remain excited that the world can soon close the chapter on the brutally extremely unequal kind of economy that has dominated most of this past half-century. It will be a struggle, of politics and of power, of a few wealthy interests versus the rest of us, to get there.
But I hope that this group of government champions can – together with activists, movements, thought-leaders and ordinary people – show that another way is possible. And that it is well within our reach.
* The writer, Winnie Byanyima, is Executive Director of Oxfam International