Inequality has become a hot topic, with everyone from the Pope to Barak Obama expressing concern about the growing gap between the haves and have nots. A new wave of diverse voices, from journalists, to faith leaders, trade unionists, billionaires, and international institutions, are beginning to converge into an increasingly powerful narrative, warning that inequality can have a corrosive impact on democracy, security, and overall growth. In fact, looking back, 2014 might just prove to be the year where inequality went mainstream.
When Oxfam warned at the start of the year that 85 global billionaires now own the equivalent wealth of half the world’s population – a staggering 3.5 billion people – and this statistic went viral, it was clear it had hit a visceral nerve with the public, tapping into a raw sense of injustice about growing inequality.
While in April when Piketty’s book ‘Capital’ – which cautioned that runaway wealth inequality will rise indefinitely unless conscious interventions to prevent this are taken – began flying off shelves and hit the best-seller list in the United States, this also seemed to be tapping into the same sense of growing disquiet. Certainly, the extraordinarily popular success of a 600 page economics tome, thick with data and complex analysis, seemed to herald a new appetite among the public for understanding the complexities of modern day wealth and income inequality.
Here in the UK, increasingly the general public are beginning to express a desire for a fairer post-financial crisis economy, with a recent survey showing that more people would choose greater equality over greater wealth for the UK.
As an international development activist one of the moments which has made me sit-up this year and start taking notice of the shifting sands, was when the International Monetary Fund (a hugely powerful institution in setting low-income countries economic agendas) published a paper warning that extreme inequality is a drag on economic growth and can hinder poverty reduction. But perhaps most surprising – especially to those of us who remember the devastating impact that IMF-enforced cuts to tax and public spending had in developing countries back in the ‘bad old days’- is that the IMF paper also outlined how redistribution can tackle inequality, including investment in public services. That is a welcome surprise, especially given the IMF’s previously slavish commitment to trickle down growth, and hugely restrained government social spending and re-distributive measures. Certainly, until very recently, the IMF seemed an unlikely candidate to jump on the inequality bandwagon.
All of this points to a powerful emerging mainstream narrative around inequality. That’s why the choice of inequality as the theme for Blog Action Day 2014 couldn’t be timelier.
In my view, it is also timely, because, in spite of increasing concerns being raised about inequality, solutions remain far thinner on the ground – thinner yet is the kind of political will necessary to enact bold actions which can turn this around. It is time to shift dialogue past simply exposing increasing inequality towards shaping actions to tackle it.
Here at Government Spending Watch (www.governmentspendingwatch.org) we’ve been gathering information on public spending on poverty tackling initiatives in low and lower-middle income countries for the last 3 years. As part of that process, it has become increasingly clear that, unless this spending is targeted towards tackling entrenched inequalities, public spending will not fully unleash its poverty-busting potential, and play a role in reducing inequality. My next blog post will focus on some of the key lessons we’ve learnt through the process of gathering detailed information on over 60 low and lower-middle income governments’ public spending patterns on key sectors – to help inform tackling inequality in developing countries moving forward.
Government Spending Watch is also committed to making this information and data available to the public and civil society, so this can help instigate greater transparency and open debate among citizens about their priorities for public spending. I believe Government Spending Watch has a vital role to play in fostering this dialogue in developing countries.
More broadly, I believe igniting this open public dialogue and citizen-led pressure for change has to be a vital part of building a necessarily bold policy response to inequality – not least because this will involve taking on the status quo and bumping up against powerful vested interests. Finding workable solutions should be fostered through public dialogue and ultimately building the power to make these changes.
Which is why blog action day is so important – we need to build the power of the voice of the many, to challenge the policies which work only for the few. Let the global conversation begin!
Follow the conversation on twitter #BAD2014 #Blogaction14, #Inequality, #Oct16
** Jo Walker works for Government Spending Watch, a joint project of Oxfam and Development Finance International (DFI), which tracks and analyses how much low and lower middle income countries are spending on 7 vital public sector investment areas – agriculture, education, environment, gender, health, social protection, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) – this information is made available for citizens and non-governmental organisations to help empower them in their campaigning for positive change.