‘Inequality is plural’: Day two at the EFC Conference, ‘Égalité’ Plenary


Amy McGoldrick


‘Today we’re talking about inequalities – plural. We have stories about ourselves in Europe about how we think equality is going… and that story can vary significantly,’ began Zohra Moosa, the executive director at Mama Cash.

Speaking at today’s ‘Égalité’ plenary were Ghada Hatem (La Maison des Femmes), Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (Oxfam GB) and Lionel Zinsou (Terra Nova, and former Prime Minister of Benin).

Inequality in Europe necessitates an interrogation of terms. Which country in Europe are you talking about? Which group of people? At what point in time? As Moosa put it, ‘what’s it like to live as a person like me in Spain, Sweden or Serbia? Or within Spain, Sweden or Serbia?’ Moosa pointed out that just last year as a woman, she would not have been able to access basic reproductive healthcare in Ireland. Twelve months later, she could – and it’s about to be free. 

26 of the world’s richest men own more wealth than half of the world’s population put together

Hatem spoke of her creation of La Maison des Femmes, and how the societal and financial cost of sexual violence against women is huge. Her perspective on inequality aligns most closely with women’s rights. In Europe alone, there are 500,000 victims of female circumcision. Access to sexual health in France is easier than in Ireland, said Hatem, but remains complicated. The fight is also not over, as recent decisions in Georgia and Alabama demonstrate.

Sriskandarajah’s focus was very much on economic inequality. ’26 of the world’s richest men own more wealth than half of the world’s population put together,’ he exclaimed. He went on to elucidate that that poorest half has decreased in wealth by 11%, whilst those billionaires increased their wealth by $2.5 billion per day.

Yet it’s not necessarily about apportioning blame; it’s about finding ways of making serious inroads into social justice when we’re on the cusp of a global emergency, said Sriskandarajah. Europe’s biggest gains, such as the welfare state, stand to be undermined, and done so through the rise of populism, nationalism and exclusionary systems.

Zinsou spoke of the situations he has recognised in both France and across Africa. In the former, he spoke of how inequality has changed over the last 15 years. ‘Poverty has become more of a feminine issue; where once it would strike men with lower qualifications of a certain age, it is now hitting women and young people.’ Zinsou gave the examples of inequality in access to healthcare and single parent families, which often overlaps with gender inequality. ‘All of our parameters are shifting, and public policy needs to adapt to the situation.’

Zinsou also referenced that whilst France’s inequality levels are ‘shrinking’, the perception of inequality does not reflect this. The most vulnerable in French society are not necessarily able to claim their rights, or access their social rights, due to bureaucracy, or being ignored on a state level. There is also an inequality of chances, said Zinsou. In comparison to the 1960s, society today has an ‘inability to self-replicate, and refuses upward mobility’.

Is it possible to both be proof of a problem and yet still be an agent in transforming the problem?

Zinsou also spoke of Africa’s average growth, which is higher than its demographic growth (5-6 per cent), four times higher than in Europe. Yet this growth does not redistribute to the people, and contributes to the increasing poverty of the people compared to the growing wealth of the continent’s billionaires.

Moosa brought the conversation back to philanthropy. There are those who rely on philanthropy to solve and remedy the very issues that philanthropy manifests. ‘Is it possible to both be proof of a problem and yet still be an agent in transforming the problem?’

Hatem asserted that without philanthropy, her program would never have existed. The difficulty in France, Hatem stated, is not in the country’s healthcare system, but in the availability of doctors, nurses and medication. When she created la Maison des Femmes, the government refused to ‘give a penny to it’, so Hatem turned to private foundations. This allowed her to build, to hire carers, and to allow them to show their worth – to go back to the government having already demonstrated change.

To Sriskandarajah, philanthropy is clearly implicated in inequality. ‘Private philanthropy has an obligation to tackle the causes of inequality.’ In his view, the Anglo-Saxon world has levels of inequality which rival the 1920s and 1930s, and whilst that era had big philanthropists like Rowntree, Ford and Mott, Sriskandarajah is unconvinced that the next generation of philanthropists is similarly concerned with addressing root causes rather than just alleviating them. ‘People making their money from Uber today don’t have the same social contract with their community.’

Private philanthropy is better placed than other actors to address systemic change, said  Sriskandarajah. He pointed out that governments are either unable or unwilling, and that it could be argued that it is not the ‘place’ of the private sector. This is in contrast to philanthropy, which can think long-term, has freedom, risk appetite and bravery. Philanthropy, Sriskandarajah argued, needs to ‘think about tax systems, social norms and the public tolerance of inequality. Fund the research that finds the best interventions to this inequality era.’

Zinsou pointed out that African governments draw from the economy between 15-20 per cent in GDP, in terms of obligatory payments. The rate is 40 per cent in OECD countries. ‘With 15 or 20 per cent, you cannot provide infrastructure, or fight malnutrition. Philanthropy is therefore much more important in Africa than anywhere else.’ Zinsou stated that the ‘poorest of the poor’ are farmers with tiny smallholdings, and that this is in fact 50 per cent of the active population in Africa. He went on to say that “the poorest person in the world is a landless woman in Africa,’ reiterating again the importance of framing gender when we talk about inequalities.

Tax again came back as an important topic for the panel. Sriskandarajah told the audience that ‘on this continent, the average rate of corporate tax has halved, from 40 per cent to 20. The highest rate of personal income tax has hovered at 60, 70, 80 per cent, and even 90 in the UK in the 1970s. Yet political parties get heated up in a race to the bottom to lower it.’ A robust and well-funded welfare system is vital to ensure that the state can do its job, said Sriskandarajah. Foundations need to work on tax justice, something he argued is done by relatively few and is very underfunded.

As long as inequality among the sexes is not remedied, equality is an empty shell.

Zinsou agreed that working on tax justice is important, and the imbalance is true in all continents. ‘You can reproduce or increase inequalities if you don’t fix them.’ Multinationals have massive tax exonerations, said Zinsou, and if you don’t deal with this, the state won’t have the money to look at vital social contracts such as a viable health system, education for girls, and so on.

Zinsou referenced Germany as a country where foundations help trade unions to flourish. ‘Democracy is from the grassroots up’. States can be complicit in their own inequality, argued Zinsou, and power also needs to be given back to civil society.

Hatem stated that ‘as long as inequality among the sexes is not remedied, equality is an empty shell.’ She agreed with Zinsou in that the poorest are women, migrant women and single parent families.

Moosa closed the ‘Égalité’ plenary by asking the audience to be honest about themselves and their impact. It is vital for philanthropy to keep on, to make mistakes and not fear them, to keep ‘participating in the social project as a sector, and to take risks.’

Amy McGoldrick is the Marketing & Advertising Officer at Alliance magazine

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