Opinion

Looking for leadership on inequality at Davos? Try looking elsewhere

Published on 18 January 2017

Image of John Gaventa
John Gaventa

Director of Research

The helicopters and private jets carrying the world’s richest and most powerful are descending into Zurich and Samedan airports for the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The mission? “Improving the state of the world”. The big theme? “Responsive and responsible leadership”. On the agenda? Inequality, or to be more specific income inequality, which the WEF’s 2017 Global Risks Report highlights as an area of urgent global action.

Graffiti on a wall of children looking up

But can much needed action and leadership on inequality come from those gathering in the mountains of Switzerland? Or should we be looking much closer to home – whether that’s in New York or Lagos, Rajasthan or Fortaleza – for local initiatives that are already happening and demands that are already being made to make the world a more equal place? And shouldn’t we be thinking about inequality not just in terms of incomes but also in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, culture, environment and political voice – as well as who gets to determine how the challenge of these inequalities is defined, framed and addressed?

Inequality on the global agenda – a lot of talk but where to from here?

Inequality has been on the global political agenda for some time (pdf), and we already know a lot about its negative consequences. From Oxfam, we know that eight billionaires own the same wealth as half the world’s population. From Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett we know that inequalities impact negatively on health and social outcomes, and IMF that it has a negative impact on growth. And from the recent World Social Science Report, we know how many kinds of inequality intersect and effect people unequally, and unless addressed will keep us from addressing other global challenges of conflict, sustainability, education, migration, women’s empowerment and more (pdf).

What we know less about is how we move from talk to action. We cannot simply rely on those in Davos to come up with a solution. Especially when they have framed the problem too narrowly as one of income inequalities, failing to take account of many other forms of intersecting inequalities – political, economic, social, cultural and environmental. As a recent IDS Bulletin on power and inequality points out, economic inequality breeds inequalities of political power, and letting the rich set the rules of how to fix the problem they have helped create is unlikely to get to the solutions we hope to see. More importantly, it misses a trick by not looking at the many pathways towards a more equal world that already exist – often outside of formal institutions, frameworks and spaces.

Leadership and action doesn’t just come from the top

The 2016 World Social Science Report provides plenty of examples (pdf) of these pathways and the social, political and economic action that has been led by citizens in response to the inequalities they face on a day to day basis in their own lives. This includes youth revolts across Africa, the Occupy movement in the United States and globally, food riots in Bangladesh and India. It also includes affirmative action taken by groups such as Self-Reliant Action through Joint Action (Srijan) in India which works with lowest caste, below-poverty-line (BPL) women who organise in self-help groups and as a result have become producers and shareholders in a dairy company and better positioned to advocate for basic services from the state. Citizens are innovating to organise local economies and societies in more equal ways, while also pushing for change.

These activities and initiatives are not just inspiring in themselves, but offer a timely reminder that transformative change requires action and ideas from below as much as it needs national policies and global frameworks. Such efforts from below may start small, but they may also multiply, spread and scale up to have large-scale impacts.

Global leadership on inequality still essential

National policies and global frameworks remain a critical part of the equation, however. Policies on trade and aid, adequate financing to resource the SDGs, policies on work and decent pay, national frameworks that distribute income, wealth and assets more fairly, legal changes to widen access to services and reduce discrimination, and international frameworks that create a fairer tax system that deals with tax havens and promotes greater information and transparency sharing across nations are just a few examples that the WSSR points to.

Indeed the problem is less that the policy measures to reduce inequality are unknown, but that they are not applied sufficiently, consistently or in an integrated way. This requires leadership, politics – and challenging vested interests, alongside new economic models taken forward in new arrangements between governments, business and society.

But we must recognise that responsible and responsive leadership and the action goes that with it isn’t the preserve of the rich and powerful, especially at a time of growing antipathy towards the establishment. We need to acknowledge the existing pathways to a more equal world, sometimes well beaten, some just emerging, which offer an exciting and very real vision of a different future.

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