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A moment of truth in Davos: Address inequality now

The 2017 World Economic Forum has to some extent had a moment of truth: Economic globalization has created many problems and even conflicts that are now worrying for “the state of the world”.

20 January 2017

The problem of inequality is related to deep structures of difference and division related to class, race, gender and more. What we know for sure is it is not true that all children are born with the same possibilities, and particularly not in a country like the USA, where this has been a slogan so often. On the day of the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA, elected by strong support from those afraid of losing their white superiority and privilege, there are many who wonder what the new administration of the most powerful nation will do in this respect. This is the time to give a clear message from all sectors of US society and in the whole world that neither the USA nor the world at large need more separation, more gaps, more people left behind, or excluded from economic development. It will increase the risks for all.

When the financial architecture does not hinder those who practice exploitation, corruption and tax evasion, something is seriously wrong. Even more problematic is that the existing economic systems generate widening gaps of inequality even when the actors follow the legal rules.  We see that the present globalized economy generates ever-increasing returns for billionaires and millionaires – even as it fails to feed, shelter and clothe nearly a billion people. This is dysfunctional. More than this, it is immoral.

A newly released report from Oxfam estimates that today the richest eight men in the world possess the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population. Three years ago we were already shocked at the number of 85 people having the same wealth as over 3 billion people. The same report notes that, since 2015, the richest one percent has owned as much wealth as all people in the world combined. This is only the top of the iceberg that is a huge risk for all: Inequality.

This widening socio-economic chasm between the rich and the poor is a continuing indictment of our global economic system and of national financial architectures. Global inequality is a significant problem, but also within all countries. It creates many other problems of social injustice, unrest, and criminality. It has been proven by some of the most outstanding economists. This year I have heard a growing consensus that this cannot be ignored any more by responsible political leaders. Many business leaders as well who have spoken at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum recognize that this is a problem for the whole economy, not only for those who are at the bottom of the scale. This has long been pointed out by many leaders and groups in the ecumenical movement, and others in civil society.

We believe that God has created us to promote justice and life-in-fullness for all, not just for the one percent or perhaps for some more. Now, more than ever, churches and people of faith must heed the call of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace to call for an economy of life that embraces and cares for all human beings, especially those who have been pushed aside: the impoverished, many women, children, and migrants. In the Holy scriptures, God expresses a preferential option for the poor, over and over again.

In concrete terms, this means that all in power along with responsive and responsible leadership should contribute to the sustainable development goals by addressing inequality. This means to advocate and work effectively to change the dysfunctional systems so that the economic development is shared, particularly benefiting the poor. Then there has to be fair financial regulation, just trade policies, fair national taxation, international cooperation against those who escape taxes, social protection for the most vulnerable and more and alternative measures of socio-economic progress. Such policies will not only help to redistribute resources more evenly, they will ensure that “no one is left behind”. Promoting economic justice also strengthens community and social cohesion, paving the way for more harmonious and peace-loving societies.

The 2017 World Economic Forum has to some extent had a moment of truth: Economic globalization has created many problems and even conflicts that are now worrying for “the state of the world”. This common understanding has to be addressed now in terms of systemic change. This is the moment to see that justice must include economic justice, and that the accountability of business leaders and politicians must be much wider than to the shareholders and their own voters. This is the moment to put inequality at the top of the agenda and of actions, not only talking about it.

 

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary

World Council of Churches