World Bank Photo Collection

Inequality: a political problem requiring a political solution

Nicole Metz, Tom van der Lee | 20 March 2013

In the international post-2015 discussion, inequality remains a sensitive issue. However, it should be addressed as a political issue that requires strong political will to tackle it.

Inequality is not just unethical, it is also economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive, and environmentally destructive. While 1.3 billion people remain living below the extreme poverty line of US $1.25 a day and another 2.6 billion live on less than US $2 a day, the one hundred richest billionaires worldwide enjoyed a US $240 billion net income in 2012. Furthermore, Oxfam research shows that inequality has increased significantly in 14 of the G20 countries since 1990. Other dimensions of poverty and inequality—such as inequality of opportunity, discrimination, and marginalisation—are closely interlinked with income inequality and influence people’s lives and opportunities additionally. Greater equality, however, makes societies stronger: more equal societies suffer less from a wide variety of economic, political and social problems. This means that we have all the reason in the world to bring an end to the extreme inequalities that exist within countries—our own, too—as well as between countries worldwide.

Tackling inequality at the heart of the post-2015 agenda for development

That’s why Oxfam proposes that reducing inequality becomes an absolute priority in the post-2015 framework. The progress we will be able to make in the next decade with regard to ending inequality will determine whether the international community will succeed or fail in tackling poverty altogether. What’s more, inequality is one of the major omissions in the current framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If it is to take itself seriously, the post-2015 agenda must therefore address the challenges posed by huge and growing inequalities—and, perhaps most importantly, in an explicitly political and practical way.

The post-2015 framework should therefore include a specific commitment to tackle vertical inequalities of wealth and income, but must also establish universal or “zero targets”. Zero targets tackle inequality implicitly because they aim for the complete eradication of absolute poverty or strive for universal coverage of services and elimination of specific injustices for everyone, everywhere. Oxfam therefore calls for the following:

  • A goal to reduce vertical inequality of wealth and income, within all countries and globally, should be included in the post-2015 agenda. Potential targets are reducing the income gap between the top 10% and bottom 10% of populations within countries, reducing the share of income going to the top 10% of populations, and making national tax systems more progressive and more robust with regard to tackling large-scale (private and corporate) tax evasion;
  • Universal targets for goals on absolute poverty, health, education, hunger, water and sanitation, and energy should be a part of the post-2015 agenda;
  • A goal on achieving gender equality should figure prominently, and;
  • Proper mainstreaming to address social inequalities across all goals should be aimed for. Goals have to address the specific needs of women and marginalised groups (which include women, the elderly, the disabled, ethnic minorities, cultural minorities, religious minorities, gays and lesbians, migrants, people affected with HIV/AIDS, Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs), and the rural and urban poor) to tackle the challenges they are facing. Additionally, disaggregated, group-specific data measurement is needed to assess progress towards goals and targets, which implies the collection of new data where it is not available. 

When implementing these four principles, the fundamental cultural norms and values that maintain inequalities within societies need to be addressed explicitly. Examples are persistent gender inequality, inequalities between ethnic groups, or between powerful and powerless stakeholders within the global financial system. Women’s organisations’ community work to change attitudes around gender norms provides us with useful insights into appropriate methodology. Also, specific investments are needed in all countries to meet the basic needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised groups. Effective social protection systems, investments in free (or low-cost) public services and access to justice are key elements for girls, boys, women and men, to find their own paths out of poverty.

A Global New Deal to reverse decades of increasing inequality

The developed world should certainly be part of this quest. We propose a Global New Deal to reverse decades of increasing inequality. Oxfam calls on world leaders to curb today’s income extremes and commit themselves to reducing inequality to at least 1990 levels. The post-2015 agenda should include “global partnership” measures and targets that foster greater fairness of the international financial system. A global partnership that truly curbs inequality promotes social responsibility of the richest individuals and most profitable corporations and introduces fair and accountable national and international tax systems. Furthermore, it should introduce an innovative approach towards financing for development that originates in the principles of burden sharing, solidarity and human rights.

Calling a political problem by its name

In the international debates on the post-2015 agenda for development, inequality remains a very sensitive issue. Some emerging economies are starting to understand they need to address inequality within their own countries, if they want to develop sustainably. Some key global powers use other countries’ sovereignty as a reason to not discuss in-country inequalities openly and are anxious to disturb their relations with the top 1% within their own societies. The European Union, and member states like the Netherlands, are aware of inequalities but shy away from bold steps. They are caught up in austerity policies or prefer to stay on the safe side by clinging to implicit rhetoric related to economic growth and how it will eventually trickle down to overall society. Oxfam calls on all parties to be fair and address inequality for what it is: a politically charged issue that requires strong political will as well as real actions to tackle it.

Photo credit main picture: World Bank Photo Collection