Inequality and inclusion in the new era of capital

Published on 20 July 2016

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Violet Barasa

Temporary Senior Tutor

On 6-7 July, I attended the IDS 50th anniversary conference ‘States, Markets and Society’. I was one of five early-career researchers that were rapporteuring for the event; each of us taking notes and reporting back on the core themes of the conference. Here, I reflect on some emerging insights from the conference stream on ‘Inequality and inclusion in the new era of capital’.

Where is the ‘power’ in empowerment?

Professor Diane Elson of the University of Essex, one of the panellists in the gender and sexuality session challenged us to rethink and reframe gender, not as individuals but as states, markets and institutions, and to see labour markets as ‘bearers of gender’ rather than being ‘intrinsically gendered’. She argued that women’s empowerment has been too simplified, and often taken-for-granted, particularly in development practice. Panellists frequently stressed how development professionals are failing to ask key questions such as: who is being empowered? Individuals or communities? Or which society is being empowered and for what? Attention was drawn for instance to development practitioners who approach communities as homogenous entities, disregarding the huge differences in vulnerabilities, in terms of; gender, age, sex, ability, etc., that abound in any given society. Evaluating the impact of development for individual women and/or larger groups ought to go beyond ‘adding women with an asterisk’ to actually interrogating the power relations and structures of inequality.

Sexual rights are diminishing

While the power of states and markets have increased, individual rights are diminishing including minority sexual rights. Many states view gay people as vectors of disease, and a public health threat.  Panellist Wanja Muguongo gave an example from Kenya, where a court recently upheld a public health directive that required homosexuals to undergo compulsory anal testing. Similarly in South Africa, ‘corrective’ rape – which involves heterosexual men raping lesbian women to ‘correct’ their sexual ‘anomaly’ – is commonplace.  This is partly because the dominant masculine narrative plays into the market image; where women are seen as consumers and men as market drivers, despite increasing evidence of women heading households in all parts of the world.

Towards meaningful gender equality and inclusion

The panellists inspired us all to harness the resources available to challenge existing inequalities by:

  • Increasing the current focus on care – both paid and unpaid – and the willingness of the states and markets to invest in care. This will free up time for women and girls, who bear the greatest burden of unpaid care, to stay in education, have greater choices within the labour market, etc.
  • Document the evidence of the price of inequality – from the impact on markets, states and societies (Brexit is an example). Everyone suffers when there is inequality of any form.
  • Reclaim the language of ‘rights’ and ‘gender justice’, rather than ‘equality’.
  • Harness the influence of faith leaders. Religious leaders can reach many people and influence policy.

Entrepreneurship is not a solution to youth unemployment in Africa. Structural reform is.

Entrepreneurship has been seen as a solution to youth unemployment, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where unemployment rates in countries such as Zimbabwe stand at 80 per cent. Although access to education opportunities in the continent has improved for young people, the transition into the labour market is difficult. However, as Meredith Lee, Deputy Director of Youth Livelihoods and Financial Inclusion at the MasterCard Foundation noted, without vision and structural reform of the state to make it play an activist role, entrepreneurship offers little hope for youth unemployment. Entrepreneurship in Africa is fragmented, very micro-level and has high failure rates due to a lack of access to roads, markets, capital, etc.

State investment to expand the labour market, and training young people in relevant skills that match market demands is seen as a sustainable pathway to livelihoods. However, as Lee noted, even when young people have the necessary skills, insecurity in many different aspects of life such as, death of parents, lack of housing, illness, etc. can prevent them from venturing into or sustaining a business.

Social Protection: Whose Responsibility?

Social Protection is arguably one of the success stories of development. However, panellists were wary of cuts in welfare budgets as part of austerity measures in many countries at present. Isabel Ortiz, Director of Social Protection at the International Labour Organisation gave an overview of the ILO’s 2014/2015 Social Protection report that showed that social protection budgets have been cut in 132 countries! The State, squarely responsible for providing social protection has failed, and private insurance companies – catering mainly for the rich – have taken over. The commercialisation and marketization of welfare has taken the centre stage in many countries, and the vulnerable people face a bleak future of increased poverty

However, there is some good news. Austerity cuts can be challenged and states can be taken to court, as has happened in Portugal and Greece for example. Mongolia has restored universal child tax credits, and Lesotho pays a universal pension to all pension-age people.

Social protection must be rooted in the conception of justice and human rights and not in mere state benevolence or benign therapeutic acts. Further, states must be held accountable by the citizens.

Does inequality and exclusion lead to conflict?

Oxford University’s Frances Stewart presented findings from her research that showed that economic inequality has increased in at least two thirds of countries across the globe since the year 2000. There is a link between inequality and conflict and it is not a coincidence that conflict also increased during the same period. Ethno-political horizontal inequality is associated with propensity for violence. This was further qualified by IDS’s Bruno Martorano whose study revealed a connection between welfare cuts and increased protests in Latin America.

Tying it all up together…a new triad?

Inequality and exclusion is squarely a development issue. It is unjust. It leads to conflicts, civil wars, and the rise of extremism. It results in unsustainable growth. As keynote speaker Sunita Narain argued, growth, urbanisation and industrialisation has to be inclusive and affordable, and only then, can it be sustainable.

Across all conference streams and panels, the message was clear; that states and markets have turned their backs on society and especially those groups that cannot play by the rules – powerless men, women, trans-gender people, the elderly, the unemployed youth, and the landless.

This contemporary juncture in the development epoch calls us all to turn inward and challenge the dominant neoliberal forms of accumulation that exclude others. Perhaps as IDS’ director Melissa Leach suggested, we need to replace the states, markets and society triad with a new triad; equality, inclusivity and environmental sustainability.

Violet Barasa is a PhD candidate at IDS.


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