Action Day on Inequality

Jane Carter, 16 October 2014
Action Day on Inequality

Today Oxfam is holding a Blog Action Day on inequality. So here’s a contribution to that global discussion – both personal and organisational.

I know myself to be a very fortunate human being; if asked to define this, I think of my family and friends, my job, the place where I live. Most of the time, I take for granted my State-funded education, reliable health care, hot showers, physical safety, electricity at the flick of a switch, access to the internet… Yet through my work, I’m well aware that these are privileges. Of the recent field visits I’ve made, it’s the one to Northern Mozambique that stands out as the starkest example of global inequality.

Arriving in Pemba, the plane circles over turquoise blue water and white sands before coming in to land over an area of large factory-like buildings and general construction. Large gas reserves have recently been discovered offshore, and big business has arrived in what was previously a very small provincial town. A number of classy restaurants have sprouted up by the beach and harbour, and brand new land cruisers and other expensive cars cruise the pot-holed streets. The companies associated with the offshore exploitation provide local jobs for some, but far from all; there is an obvious swagger in the walk of young men wearing overalls and hard hats. They are to be envied.

Driving even 20 minutes out of Pemba, it’s already another story. Each settlement comprises thatched mud huts lining the road. Corrugated iron roofs – or less commonly, concrete walls, mark out the slightly better off. A few hours of bumping along dirt tracks, and we are in areas in which Helvetas is supporting drinking water (tube wells) and sanitation. After a meeting held in one comunidade, Giote, I chat informally – through interpretation – with some of the women. We exchange essential personal information such as the number and sex of children that we have, but they want to know more about life in Switzerland. Water that comes to your home through a tap that you turn on and off; even more amazing, a toilet that you sit on and that flushes clean with water. There is a lot of water in Switzerland. Water in their village is a scare resource. One woman, Christina, shows me rather anxiously the pit latrine that she and her husband have constructed, screened by a torn curtain that flaps in the breeze. It would be so wonderful, she says, to use one of your toilets just once – to see what it’s like.

The life opportunities of Christina and her neighbours are extremely limited, and she knows this without me saying a word. Many people from her village have been to Pemba, and have seen that others have very different lives. The statistics for Mozambique overall support what one sees; not only is the Human Development Index for Mozambique low (178 out of 187countries), but the Gini coefficient of income inequality is a high 45.7. Like her neighbours, Christina wants a better life for her children (those that have survived) – an education, and salaried employment in Pemba or beyond. Of course – I want the best for my children too.

Hopeful masses of poorly educated young people are already swelling urban centres, and are likely to grow; over 65% of Mozambique’s population is under 25. Yet what hope do they have in reality, and how will, or do, they feel when confronted with the obvious wealth of the lucky few?

There is a clear moral imperative to improve living conditions in rural areas such as Giote. Yet tackling global inequality is not only a matter of morality; there is mounting evidence show that reducing inequality makes sense at many levels. An obvious reference here is the work of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson – but perhaps it is the current Ebola outbreak that serves as the most graphic reminder of global inter-connectivity. “What if?” scenarios are frightening. Hopefully they serve as a wake-up call as to why reducing inequality would be good for us as a human race.

Jane Carter

Jane Carter

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