One of the refrains that I remember most often when dealing with squabbles between my two children when they were young was, “But Mummy, it’s not fair!” Indeed it often wasn’t – but as parents we wade in, trying to make things as fair as possible. One of the many arguments in Oxfam’s new report Even it Up: Time to End Extreme Poverty is that we human beings have an innate sense of fairness. To quote the report, “Across the world, religion, literature, folklore and philosophy show remarkable confluence in their concern that the gap between rich and poor is inherently unfair and morally wrong.” There are also studies that show when people in different societies are asked what an ideal distribution of wealth would be, the vast majority select a distribution that is far more egalitarian than actually exists; often they are not even aware of how very skewed the distribution really is. A widely viewed video released last year on the wealth distribution in the USA gave a very visual impression in this regard, with the super-rich 1% shooting off the scale of a graph of individual net wealth.
Growing global inequalities
In a separate posting I referred to a study by Branko Milanovic that argued that overall, global inequalities in wealth are reducing. His argument focused on the increasing wealth of populous countries such as India and China, and the growing phenomenon of a middle class. However, he did not explore in detail the gap between the super-rich (whom he acknowledged exist in almost every country) and those who, by whatever measure one uses, are very poor. Oxfam’s report focuses on extreme wealth disparities within countries, and highlights both the terrible waste of human potential that this represents, as well as the inherent danger to society as a whole . Inequality tends to lead to high levels of mistrust and violence, and the undermining of democratic processes. The wealthy elite invariably seek to entrench their position through involvement in the media and donations to political parties, as well as of course often being those who occupy public office (those wanting a summary of the report, see here).
If anyone was tempted to question Oxfam’s statistics on the growing phenomenon of the few super-rich, another report just published last week by Swiss banking giant UBS makes the same point.
A fairer world? A fairer Nepal?
I am just back from two weeks in Nepal, where many of the observations on inequality made in Oxfam’s report ring true. It was, after all, the desperate social and economic inequalities that gave rise to the country’s civil conflict over 1996 to 2006. The high hopes for a New Nepal in the immediate post-conflict period have faded with the stalling of the development of a new constitution – still not ratified eight years later. Kathmandu grows ever more crowded and polluted, but life opportunities in the big city are vastly better than in remote rural areas, some still without safe drinking water and sanitation, road access or electricity. Yet as evidenced in newspaper articles and conversations with many different Nepalis, there is a growing public demand for civic justice and equal opportunities.
It is of course the stated intention of our organisation to work for a fairer world. In the next few postings, I’ll explore some of the ways that we are seeking to do so in Nepal.