Next year, governments will come to the end of a long process to agree a new development agenda to replace the MDGs. A key demand from civil society from the earliest days of this process is that the growing problem of global inequalities should be centre stage of this new vision; many governments have joined this call. The MDGs concentrated on averages, so it was easy to hide large and growing gaps. The post-2015 agenda has the opportunity to set that right.
Growing inequalities are a problem because they undermine the very fabric of society. As Pope Francis tweeted, “inequality is the root of social evil.” Inequalities make it more difficult to break the cycles of poverty and exclusion, and move us away from a world of dignity and inclusion. Inequality is not sustainable; exclusion leads to conflict.
In my lifetime
In the six decades before I was born in 1981, average incomes in the US grew by $26,000. The richest 10% captured 31% of the growth; the remaining 59% was shared by the other 90%.
In the three decades since I was born, the average income grew by $12,000 but 96% of that growth went to the richest 10%. The other 90% shared 4%.
Breaking it down further, from 1997 to 2008 (when I was 16 to 27), the average income grew by $2,700 but all gains went to the richest 10%. All gains. The bottom 90% actually declined.
The US is an extreme case but it’s a story which echoes across many countries.
Inequality between, as well as within
It is not only inequality within countries that is rapidly snowballing. This video from The Rules is also worth watching for an insight into our now mindboggling global wealth inequalities, with the richest 300 people on the planet holding the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3 billion. This video was made in 2013; Oxfam calculated in 2014 that the richest 85 people own as much wealth as the bottom half of the global population.
Inequalities beyond income
But this is not only about income. Just as poverty is multidimensional, inequality means gender injustice, it means social exclusion, racial discrimination, isolation of the old and the young, marginalisation of people with disabilities and much more. At the recent Beyond 2015 conference in Copenhagen, 170 representatives from 46 countries came together to discuss inequalities and the post-2015 agenda. The resulting statement, Equality at the core: a call for a strong commitment to tackling inequalities through post-2015, recognises the need for a holistic approach that integrates different aspects of inequality.
Because no aspect of inequality is separate from its other manifestations. Even Bill Gates recognises that “high levels of inequality are a problem – messing up economic incentives, tilting democracies in favour of powerful interests, and undercutting the ideal that all people are created equal.”
Making post-2015 meaningful: tackle inequalities
If the MDGs had captured the spirit of the age, they would have included inequality front and centre. As it was, they addressed the symptoms of poverty and injustice without meaningfully tackling the root causes.
We have an opportunity to right that with the post-2015 agenda. If we want an agenda that is ambitious, then inequality should be at the core. If we want an agenda that will be relevant in 2030, then inequality needs to be the core. If we want an agenda that is universal, then inequality must be at the core.
And if we want an agenda that speaks to my generation and those who will follow, inequality must be front and centre because we simply can’t accept that 300 people control the same amount of wealth as 3 billion.
This is the time for the United Nations and its member states to make a strong commitment to tackling inequalities. It is not the time for them to back down in the face of vested interests. We are clear – we will not let the richest 10% get richer at the expense of the other 90%. We will leave no one behind.