In times of austerity, can we afford to care about global and intergenerational inequality?
To give a dual perspective on the central issue of inequality, two speakers shared the platform in the fourth event of the Murray Edwards lecture series exploring Capitalism on the Edge.
Ben Philips, Director of Policy, Research, Advocacy and Campaigns at the international NGO, ActionAid, discussed global inequalities; campaigning journalist, Rosamund Urwin, followed on to focus on the impact of intergenerational inequality in the United Kingdom.
The global perspective
Why is the issue of inequality so crucial? - and why does the type of capitalism we have matter so much to the poorest people in the world? Ben Philips, working in the field of international development, confronts the answers to these questions on a daily basis.
First, to put his views in context, Philips clarifies his position on capitalism. “I am a capitalist,” he proclaims. “A lot of what NGOs do is about helping people to make money.”
He cites a group of people he met recently in Kibera – the biggest slum in Nairobi, and home to one million people – who were transforming old bones from butchers’ shops into jewellery. “There are amazing stories like that from all over the world, of people trying to make money. And that’s a good thing,” he says. “A lot of market systems have been able to deliver for poor people.”
Much of the progress we have seen since the end of World War 2, and since the independence of many former colonised countries, has been related to economic growth, he says.
“But, what we’ve seen increasingly, especially in the past 20-30 years is a de-coupling of economic growth from social progress, so we now know that economic growth alone is not enough.”
Philips says his views are in line with the likes of philanthropist George Soros who describe today’s capitalism as “market fundamentalism” and call for a return to a more balanced, more managed form of capitalism. “So that’s where I stand in the discussion,” he says. “I think capitalism right now is very much on the edge.”
Through his work, Philips has amassed a collection of encounters and images from around the world which convey the extent and scale of inequality.
He shows a photograph of a slum abutting a luxury high-rise apartment block, complete with balcony swimming pools on every storey. “It happens to be Sao Paulo,” he says, “but it could just as easily be Nairobi, or Delhi or Bangkok or Islamabad or Lagos or Jo’burg; they all look as divided as this.”
The rich and poor live cheek by jowl, yet separate. And it’s not just a money separation, says Philips, it’s also a physical separation, and a social and cultural separation.
He dips into a long list of statistics, throwing up similar examples of inequality from different continents. In Pakistan, half the population has no land, while just 5% of landowners have two thirds of the land; in the cities, the top 20% of the population accounts for 61% of earned income, while the bottom 20% makes do on just 3%.
Angola has had a staggering growth rate of around 25% and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. Papua New Guinea has had the highest growth rate in the world, and yet is the only country that has not met a single Millennium Development Goal.
In the US, the richest 10% of the population has captured all the growth since the recession. In fact – it’s worse, says Philips; “the rich captured more than all the growth and the other 90% went backwards.”
The good news, says Philips, is that it doesn’t have to be like this.
And that is why Philips believes it is important to talk about different forms of capitalism. He looks to Brazil, where he says the poorest 10% have grown their incomes at a faster rate than the richest. The richest have still made more money, but the poor are growing faster. “In Bolivia, even more progress being made, even faster. It is possible for things to be different.”