Since 2015, despite the adoption of the SDGs, including n°10 on inequality, inequalities are increasing. Cécile Duflot takes a look at the dynamics of wealth distribution in both emerging and developing countries and in rich countries.
Oxfam has just published a ranking of countries on the basis of their Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI). What can you say about the results? What are the current trends in the fight against inequality, both in the North and the South?
Inequality is increasing dramatically. According to our calculations, 82% of the wealth created last year was monopolized by 1% of the world’s population, while nothing has changed for the poorest half of humanity. The strength of our CRI index, which was developed with Development Finance International Group (DFI), lies in the fact that it measures the effectiveness of public policies.
On a case-by-case basis, we see a wide range of results and sometimes changes in the wrong direction. For example, Denmark has a long tradition of equality, but the country’s situation is deteriorating, showing that political decisions have real impacts. This is the crux of the matter. It is always possible to take action, change things, reverse the trend, as we saw, for example, in South America in the 2000s. There is nothing inevitable about inequality. But the fact remains that the performance of 112 countries out of the 157 we studied stands today at half the performance of the countries with the best results.
In your opinion, what are the most glaring inequalities today which need to be tackled as a matter of priority?
We need to realize that there is a combination of several types of inequality. But gender is a factor which overdetermines all the others. Gender inequality is reflected in a number of fields, in access to skilled work, forced labor or part-time work, for example.
You take social public expenditure into account in the calculation of the Commitment to Reducing Inequality index. But how can financial levers against poverty and inequality be activated in countries where resources are scarce?
One of the reasons for poverty is tax evasion, which cuts a significant quantity of resources from national budgets. It may take place within countries in the South, via an underreporting of income by the more affluent. It is also organized beyond borders, via multinational enterprises which appropriate natural resources without paying for them at their fair value and therefore do not generate the tax revenues which should be due. Triangular trade no longer exists today, but the seizing of local resources continues. The North does not pay for what it takes at the normal price.
Oxfam has shown in the report on the agrifood industry “Behind the Barcodes” that workers in the South produce foods we eat—without themselves eating their fill. We therefore need to indicate how the products we buy here are made in order to make the entire chain accountable, from the central buying offices of hypermarkets to consumers. Furthermore, the role of developed countries is also to create a just solidarity through development aid.
What role does Oxfam want to play in the fight against inequality?
Oxfam has two objectives. Firstly, take immediate action in the field to implement and support development policies. When we help women farmers in the Sahel region implement an agroecological project which allows them to feed their families, we are fighting inequality. Secondly, we want to change the rules through our expertise, by producing reports and recommendations in a committed way. In other words, to say things and talk about them. Oxfam is a non-partisan NGO, willing to dialogue with everyone, business leaders and government leaders alike. We are transparent and we accept controversy.
In another vein, what impact does climate change have on inequality?
The 10% of the richest countries are responsible for 50% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At some point, everyone will be a victim of global warming, but for the time being its impacts are a new form of inequality: Southeast Asia and Africa, which are not the main GHG emitters, are more affected by the consequences. Climate change has a stronger and more immediate impact in developing countries.
For example, there has been a decline in hunger around the world for 15 years. For the past three years, it has increased again because of droughts in the South, which are longer and more frequent than in the past and cause agricultural crises. Climate change is happening today for a large part of the world.
In your opinion, why do the commitments to address inequality and the climate take so long to take effect, whereas the Paris Agreement has been signed and the SDGs adopted three years ago? In other words, why are countries not taking swifter action on these two fronts?
It is not even slow. It is often not even done. There is a serious inconsistency between rhetoric and actions. We are not seeing the development of green investment funds, energy savings, energy transition measures, changes in transport… The signatory countries are not living up to their commitments. The Climate Action network, which mobilizes French associations involved in the fight against climate change, has defined nine monitoring indicators for these commitments to the climate. For France, eight of them are still in the red!
No one is impressed by rhetoric today. Effective policies are what make a real impression. But there is perhaps concern among political leaders, who fear that they may become unpopular, and an element of denial. Yet political consensus on the need to take action was reached twenty years ago. At the time, we thought that our children would face climate change. But we are the ones who have to face it. The latest IPPC report recommends major decisions. It is technologically possible to contain the temperate increase to 1.5°C, but we need radical and immediate choices. At Oxfam, we remain convinced that citizens are ready, that they share a sense of the urgent need for action.
Are you optimistic?
I am optimistic because I observe the human race, which does not have many biological advantages. We have no shell, no claws, we do not dig a den, we do not climb trees well, we can be quite powerless… Human beings use other intellectual skills, based on a rationale for cooperation, which has always ensured their survival in the face of major challenges. When we ask whether we have the cognitive resources, the answer is yes, and whether we have the technical skills, without a doubt—which was not the case twenty years ago. So we have solutions for humankind. This makes me optimistic and even more determined!
What does the notion of social ties mean to you, from an international perspective?
It is simply a matter of recognizing that we are human beings, that we need interactions, relationships, that we are not only living in a world focused on efficiency or simply satisfying basic needs. Social ties mean the ability to be more intelligent together than alone, and to share common objectives. They are essential to achieving these objectives, just as they are to achieving a better life. They are fundamentally a global issue.
It involves saying how we identify with otherness, with the relationship with people who live on the other side of the Mediterranean, for example. When we know that those “others” have children like us, sorrows like us, laugh and want to be happy too, we consider them as equals. It is fundamental. This is the essence of what makes us human beings. In contrast, dehumanization is always a way to avoid solidarity.
Does advocating for social ties mean fighting inequality?
Yes, it does, as it means acknowledging the fact that we live in the same society, where we are able to forge ties which do good. Inequalities, for their part, do harm. Wilkinson, an epidemiologist, has proven that the most unequal societies have poorer results than others in terms of health. The same rich person in an unequal society is in poorer health than in an equal society. The level of stress experienced or potential violence feared deteriorate the health of everyone, not only of the most poor. That gives a sense of the extent to which inequalities are a burden, even in rich countries.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.