The diversity of humanity is perhaps one of the most valuable characteristics of our species. Over millions of years, we have grown into a gamut of cultures, abilities, intellects and personalities. “… inequality is the only bearable thing [in nature],” wrote Francis Picabia “…the monotony of equality can only lead us to boredom” This view of diversity is however, purely aesthetic and philosophical. The reality is that human society has created conditions whereby practically every dimension of difference becomes a tool to unify groups against each other.
History is littered with battles where the marginalised fight for recognition and equality in the face of others. Battles of gender, race, and religion have bloodied our collective hands with the lives of hundreds of millions; many of these fights still rage on today.
This century has also seen inequality manifest in profoundly deadly form- economics. We are living in a world where the top 1% of the world’s population own more of our planet’s wealth than the bottom 95% combined. We live in a world where billions exist in abject poverty without access to the basic food, water, shelter which the rest of us take for granted. We live in a world where hundreds of thousands of people die- of economically preventable causes- each and every day. These are not just developed vs. developed world issues, but inequalities which exist in the social-strata of every single nation, along with the physical-distances between them.
We talk of inequality as a natural phenomenon, but the truth is that it is the product of our own political, cultural and social ideals. We have in effect, sanctioned these vast gulfs to exist; albeit often we have been selectively-blind to the effects they cause. The past half-century of advance now means that our blindness may not be selective. Society is sensorially immersed in the abhorrence of inequality in all its forms. We must therefore understand not just why inequalities exist within our society but what we can do about them.
In this exclusive series of interviews from 2015-today, I spoke with the world’s foremost experts on inequality: Kate Gilmore (United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights), The Rt. Hon. The Lord Bird MBE (Founder & Editor in Chief, The Big Issue), Harry Leslie Smith (1923-2018 Activist, Survivor of the Great Depression and WWII RAF Veteran), Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson (1944-2017, Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford), Professor David Hulme (Executive Director of the University of Manchester Global Development Institute) , Professor Sir Michael Marmot (Director of the Institute of Health Equity, University College London), Baroness Onora O’Neill (Former Chair of the Equality and Human rights Commission) and Prof. Richard Wilkinson (Co-Founder of the Equality Trust). We discuss the fundamental question of why inequality exists in our society, the impact it has on our world, and what we can do to fight it
Kate Gilmore was appointed United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights on 1st December 2015.
She brings to the position diverse and longstanding experience in strategic leadership and human rights advocacy with the United Nations, government and non-government organizations.
Prior to joining OHCHR, Ms. Gilmore was Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director for Programmes with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Previously she was National Director of Amnesty International Australia and then Executive Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International.
Ms. Gilmore started her career as a social worker and government policy officer in Australia. She helped establish Australia’s first Centre Against Sexual Assault at Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital and her work over a number of years focused on prevention of violence against women. In Australia, she was granted honorary appointments to provincial and national public policy and law reform processes, including membership of the country’s first National Committee on Violence Against Women.
Ms. Gilmore holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of New England and postgraduate degrees in Social Work from the University of Melbourne and Community Development from RMIT.
John Bird, in his own words: “Today, I’m ‘The Rt. Hon. the Lord Bird MBE’. But I was brought up in an orphanage and served time in a young offenders’ institution. During turbulent times, I also slept rough as one of London’s homeless. Thinking back, I was very much a part of the problems of society.
Early on, I realised that the only way to get out of the destructive circle into which I had grown up was to give myself a hand up, rather than wait for others to give me a hand out. Settling down in my 20s, I held down jobs in factories and, eventually, as a skilled printer. But I never forgot the hardship of my youth and the ways in which deprivation afflicts thousands of others in similar positions at the bottom rungs of society.
Twenty-six years ago, using my experience of the print industry, I co-founded (the now world- famous) The Big Issue. The weekly magazine achieves its mass circulation by being sold on the streets by vendors who are homeless or vulnerably accommodated. The deal is simple. Proceeds of each copy sold are split equally between vendors and the publisher. Reflecting my own philosophy, the deprived and under-privileged are given a hand up through earning their money, rather than waiting for the hand out which may do little more than trap them in poverty from which many crave escape. The Big Issue, and similar magazines, is now published in 35 countries across the world, always with the aim of helping those struggling for a break in society.
Although strictly non-partisan, I have been consulted by leaders, governments and Prime Ministers about how best to lift people out of poverty through harnessing their own energies. In 2017, as an independent Crossbench Peer, I’ll continue to dismantle poverty through social opportunity from the UK Parliament.”
‘As one of the last remaining survivors of the Great Depression and the Second World War, I will not go gently into that good night. I want to tell you what the world looks like through my eyes, so that you can help change it…’
In November 2013, 91-year-old Yorkshireman, RAF veteran and ex-carpet salesman Harry Leslie Smith’s Guardian article – ‘This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time’ – was shared almost 60,000 times on Facebook and started a huge debate about the state of society.
Now he brings his unique perspective to bear on NHS cutbacks, benefits policy, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education – and much more. From the deprivation of 1930s Barnsley and the terror of war to the creation of our welfare state, Harry has experienced how a great civilisation can rise from the rubble. But at the end of his life, he fears how easily it is being eroded.
Harry’s Last Stand is a lyrical, searing modern invective that shows what the past can teach us, and how the future is ours for the taking.
Harry Leslie Smith is a survivor of the Great Depression, a second world war RAF veteran and, at 91, an activist for the poor and for the preservation of social democracy. His Guardian articles have been shared over 60,000 times on Facebook and have attracted huge comment and debate. He has authored numerous books about Britain during the Great Depression, the second world war and postwar austerity. He lives outside Toronto, Canada and in Yorkshire. Follow Harry on Twitter @harryslaststand and on Facebook here
Sir Tony Atkinson was Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. He was previously Warden of the College. He is Fellow of the British Academy, and has been President of the Royal Economic Society, of the Econometric Society, of the European Economic Association and of the International Economic Association. He is an Honorary Member of the American Economic Association. He has served on the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, the Pension Law Review Committee, and the Commission on Social Justice. He has been a member of the Conseil d’Analyse Economique, advising the French Prime Minister. He is a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
He is author of Unequal Shares, The Economics of Inequality, Lectures on Public Economics (with J.E. Stiglitz), Poverty and Social Security, Public Economics in Action, Incomes and the Welfare State, Poverty in Europe, The Economic Consequences of Rolling Back the Welfare State, and Social Indicators: The EU and Social Inclusion (with B Cantillon, E Marlier and B Nolan), The Changing Distribution of Earnings in OECD Countries and Public Economics in an Age of Austerity. He has published articles in, among other scientific journals, the Review of Economic Studies, the Journal of Economic Theory, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Economic Journal, the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, and the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. He was the editor of the Journal of Public Economics for 25 years. Sir Tony Atkinson died in Oxford on 1st of January 2017.
David Hulme is Professor of Development Studies at the University of Manchester where he is Executive Director of the Global Development Institute and CEO of the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre. He has worked on rural development, poverty and poverty reduction, microfinance, the role of NGOs in conflict/peace and development, environmental management, social protection and the political economy of global poverty for more than 30 years. His main focus has been on Bangladesh but he has worked extensively across South Asia, East Africa and the Pacific. His recent books include Should Rich Nations Help the Poor? (Polity, 2016), Global Poverty: Global Governance and Poor People (Routledge, 2015), Governance, Management and Development (Palgrave, 2015), and Just Give Money to the Poor (Kumarian Press, USA, 2010).
Professor Sir Michael Marmot is currently Director of the Institute of Health Equity and MRC Research Professor in Epidemiology at University College London (UCL). Sir Michael Marmot has made seminal contributions to epidemiology by establishing hitherto unsuspected links between social status and differences in health and life expectancy. He has initiated the era of social epidemiology and paved the way for the development of a wholly new concept of preventive medicine.
He has led a research group on health inequalities for the past 30 years. He has been invited by the Regional Director of WHO Euro to conduct a European review of health inequalities. At the request of the British Government, he previously conducted a review of health inequalities, which published its report ‘Fair Society, Healthy Lives‘ in February 2010. He was Chair of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health set up by the World Health Organization in 2005. He is Principal Investigator of the Whitehall Studies of British civil servants, investigating explanations for the striking inverse social gradient in morbidity and mortality. He leads the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and is engaged in several international research efforts on the social determinants of health. He chaired the Department of Health Scientific Reference Group on tackling health inequalities.
The daughter of Sir Con Douglas Walter O’Neill, she was educated partly in Germany and at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London before studying philosophy, psychology and physiology at Oxford University. She went on to complete a doctorate at Harvard University, with John Rawls as supervisor. During the 1970s she taught at Barnard College, the women’s college in Columbia University, New York City. In 1977 she returned to Britain and took up a post at the University of Essex; she was Professor of Philosophy there when she became Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge in 1992.
She is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge, a former President of the British Academy 1988–1989 and chaired the Nuffield Foundation 1998–2010. In 2003, she was the founding President of the British Philosophical Association (BPA). In 2013 she held the Spinoza Chair of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Until October 2006, she was the Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, and she was chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission until April 2016.
Professor Richard Wilkinson has played a formative role in international research on the social determinants of health and on the societal effects of income inequality. He studied economic history at LSE before training in epidemiology. He is Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham Medical School, Honorary Professor at UCL and a Visiting Professor at the University of York. Richard co-wrote The Spirit Levelwith Kate Pickett which won the 2011 Political Studies Association Publication of the Year Award and the 2010Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. Richard is also a co-founder of The Equality Trust.
Q: What is the link between poverty and human rights?
[Kate Gilmore]: By birthright, all human beings – thanks to our inherent equality – are entitled to have what we need to live a life of dignity – we have rights, defined by international standards, to shelter, housing, employment, food, education and health, for example, as well as rights to non-discrimination, to express ourselves, to fair trial etc.
So, the first link, from a human rights standpoint, is to understand that poverty as a driver of indignity works in a direction precisely opposite to the realization of rights. Furthermore, when the fundamentals required for a dignified life (your human rights) are eroded or not realized, then your rights also create obligations on the part of your government to help you.
Around the world, the evidence is quite clear that poverty continues to drive indignity because of choices – not those of the impoverished but those of duty bearers; policy choices by those with the power to also make very different policy choices. The evidence already shows that extreme poverty and crises such as famine are preventable: they can be anticipated, predicted, alleviated and addressed by the right public policy choices. Poverty is the product of man-made circumstances and it can be man unmade.
Q: How has poverty shaped your life?
[Lord John Bird] I’m a son of poverty, and poverty has been my opportunity; as it has been for so many people who’ve made their way in life.
Poverty is often seen as a stumbling block to achievement, but if you look at the lives of most people that are self-made, they (or their parents and grandparents) came from humble circumstances.
The worst thing about poverty is if you’re stuck and can’t get out of it, or if you get government commissioned poverty meaning that your circumstances are poor, you may get social security at a level where you lose the will to move forward.
I could never get social security (though I tried desperately hard), the best I could do was get a few weeks here and there; those were the laws at the time. Thatcherism opened the sluice gates to mass-use of social security. Closing the factories, mines, ship builders, and many other industries led to the mass use of social security, giving us an underclass of people who live a state-sponsored poverty.
Poverty never goes alone, it’s always accompanied by a poverty of spirit, a brokenness, defeat and sense of depression.
My parents were very poor and used to think poor. When I was growing up, they taught me to hate. They taught me to hate Black People, Jews, Arabs and many other groups. I didn’t realise it at the time, but for many poor communities, their sense of identity is defined by the groups they hate; and this results in communities in need ultimately hurting each other.
The metropolitan poor of Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom have found their status enshrined by the receipt of state-benefits, delivered not as social opportunity, but as social inopportunity… ‘take this and piss off…’
Q: How has poverty changed in your lifetime?
[Harry Leslie Smith] Poverty has changed a lot in my lifetime, though there are certain similarities and echoes which have always carried through.
The poverty I experienced in my youth during the 1920s and 1930s was much more extreme than most hard-pressed people will endure today. We lived in appalling conditions; in doss houses in a rough neighbourhood of Bradford.
There was no welfare state, homelessness was rife, and the poor lived in a libertarian dystopia where assistance was minimal, and misery was all encompassing.
There was no NHS (National Health Service) which meant that if you couldn’t afford healthcare, you died sooner, and generally with a greater degree of anguish than someone in the middle or upper classes.
Poverty today is all around us. Although it may not be as extreme as the 1930s, I fear it is heading that way because of 7 years of austerity which has gutted the welfare state. I am starting to see a similar type of meanness towards low-income workers and the poor that I witnessed during the great depression. There is a feeling today, like in my youth, that this will not end.
It’s my responsibility as an eye witness to history, to tell people the anguish of poverty can be eradicated, but only through action and political change- and that starts with voter registration. We have to get people out to vote more.
Q: How are families being affected by poverty and our economic crisis?
[Harry Leslie Smith] The only thing that helps us survive, is our family. We will deprive ourselves in order to ensure they have enough to eat, we will fight for their education and their rights.
There is a brutality to the way financial hardship affects a family. Parents just cry day in and day out because they can’t give their children the life they should have…
Things were so bad with my family, that my Mother – although she loved my father – one day said to him, “Albert, I can’t…. I can’t keep the children, we’ll have to go… I’ll have to find a Man that can provide…” My father was injured in the mines and he couldn’t work. He moved to lodgings across the street, and another man came into her life and ours. This was a tragedy.
Parents get exhausted trying to provide for their families and themselves. This is the sadness of the life that many have been condemned to.
Q: What is the cultural context of poverty?
[Kate Gilmore]: All cultures seem to hold certain threads in common when it comes to poverty – seeing aspects of poverty in a similar light. There is, in many places, a convenient social function played by the fiction that somehow people are always to blame for their own poverty. This is heard in much of the public narrative hinting – when it is not asserting it more directly – that somehow the poor are those most responsible for poverty. There is a companion piece to this fiction – one even less often challenged – which is the fiction that those who are extremely wealthy arrived there by merit: that they are rich because they deserve to be; that wealth is in and of itself a meritorious state.
Such fictions play important societal functions. By blaming those in poverty for their own plight, it makes us all feel more comfortable with doing so little for them and so little about poverty. Further, the idea that wealth is somehow always meritorious is also enticing. We then can imagine that if we too work hard, our meritorious effort will (always) be rewarded with greater and greater wealth.
There are also deep links between poverty and discrimination. Poverty is often more intractable in minority communities. It is much more difficult for people to move out of poverty if they are subjected to discrimination as immigrants, as refugees; as people with disabilities, people of African descent or as members of indigenous communities. The fact that communities who face identity based discrimination are on the front lines of poverty reveals much about the toxic moral fabric of our societies that binds people at birth to the “fate” of their identities, rather than joining them to the essential services, infrastructure and dignity they need (and to which they are entitled) in order to fulfill their potential.
In other words, without the human rights framework firmly in place, few people can readily shift their socio-economic situation upwards. It is only when discrimination in access to opportunities is reduced and an equality of minimum and protected access to quality education, work, justice and health is established that upward shifts in circumstances become more probable and more inclusive.
Likewise, the overwhelming majority of us will never accumulate wealth of the order of that owned by the top 1 per cent. That top 1 per cent holds assets equivalent to that owned by the bottom 50%. This degree of inequality – the sheer scale of this span of inequality – is not sustainable, as constituencies the world over are demonstrating in every poll and at every ballot box. What makes this pattern of wealth distribution unsustainable is not the “jealous” resentment of the 50 per cent but the unchallenged greed of the 1% and of those approaching that echelon. Individual hyper-wealth accumulation has grown since the 2008 financial crisis at direct expense to the public purse, with trillions being held in secrecy jurisdictions’ tax havens. The economic fabric of our more global world is narrowing access to wealth: wealth is concentrating not spreading; inequality is deepening not reducing, even though the total amount of wealth in the world has never been greater.
From a human rights standpoint, there is grave injustice in these man-made, systemic and structural barriers that prevent the overwhelming majority of those who have the least from changing their circumstances. We must call into question the politics and policies that produce and reproduce poverty. We must reform the political economies that underpin poverty; that tolerate the “poor” as almost a transaction cost of the “way we do business”.
Q: Why do poverty and inequality exist?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] Even when in the past people set out to settle a new land, there were differences in what they brought with them: skills, past experience, tools, and family and other groupings. Over time, these differences would be accentuated by differences in luck and fortune. Some would find fertile land, or supplies of natural resources; others would see their crops die or their mine fail. Some would fall sick or would have no children. Differences in rank may have been left behind, but differences in economic circumstances would emerge. For these reasons, inequality is a long-standing feature of society.
In today’s societies, an important goal is to secure equality of opportunity, but a level playing field does not imply equality of outcome, and inequality of outcome leads to inequality of opportunity in the next generation.
[Professor David Hulme] Poverty and inequality are closely related, but you must also define what you mean by each of the terms. Nowadays, in developing countries, when we talk of poverty, we are still very much focussed on absolute or extreme poverty. In OECD countries we tend to think of relative poverty- based on 60% of median-income; and that does make things very different… .
If you look at relative poverty, inequality is central to that concept. If you look at absolute poverty, then certainly some people would see it as unrelated to inequality. There are two main factors here. Firstly, scarcity of resources and secondly, the way those resources are distributed. With the absolute poverty measure, it may be possible- in some circumstances- to argue that there is a scarcity of resources. Over the last 60-90 years that argument has become more difficult to support as we are trading globally… we have more food than we could utilise… we have access to cheap medicines that treat most diseases and so on.
Poverty now can be seen as a problem of distribution… Some people are demanding more than their fair share of the world’s resources.
Q: What does inequality reveal about a society?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] There is no reason to suppose that a market economy, even well managed and without market failure, would lead to a distribution of income and wealth that is egalitarian. “Perfect competition”, as in the economic textbooks, is consistent with quite extreme inequality. So the existence of inequality does not imply market failure. At the same time, there is no such thing as “the” market economy. Markets can be organized in different ways, and the legal framework within which they operate can profoundly affect the distribution of income: for example, the nature of property rights enforced by the courts.
Where market failure enters the story is that it means that government intervention can then improve both efficiency and equity. We can achieve both a more efficient and a more equitable society. In the case of the largest market failure of all – human-induced climate change – mitigation policies can be undertaken that also benefit poor countries and place the burden on the older generations (leading to greater inter-generational equity).
Q: How has austerity impacted society?
[Harry Leslie Smith] Austerity is as profound and destructive to society as cancer is to the individuals within it. It destroys and saps energy. It debilitates communities, and can lead to death.
Austerity can destroy the elements that bind a nation together.
Let me be clear. The end of World War 2 in Britain was through austerity. We were bankrupt from the cost of a brutal war. During that time of austerity, the Labour government built the foundations of the welfare state, created the NHS, made higher education free, cleared slums, and ensured workers were paid a fair wage through the nationalisation of key industries.
Austerity today however, wasn’t about saving our nation from bankruptcy. It was about enriching the 1% and corporations by granting them tax cuts while ordinary workers endure flat wages, housing crises, education crises, NHS crises and an overall lowering of their standard of living. The amount of personal debt floating out in the world terrifies me.
This must stop. When the music stops I fear there will be a horrible economic calamity that will make the Great Depression seem like a slight correction…
Q: What is the true nature of equality?
[Baroness Onora O’Neill] Equality is a difficult concept and extremely abstract. It often helps us to think about it in the plural, i.e. as ‘equalities’. After all, there are many conceivable equalities that we can imagine: equal length of life, equal income, equal educational attainment and so on. To talk of ‘equality’ as if it were a mass-term is unfortunate. To talk of the concept in the plural also allows one to think through which of the equalities that one might think about is fundamental.
I don’t think we can have any serious discussion of equalities, let alone human rights, without beginning from a very abstract yet fundamental equality, namely that people should have equal recognition, i.e. everybody should count . That’s a fundamental premise for discussions on human rights or equality.
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] I am concerned with income inequality and the effect it has on society. There are very important reasons to give priority to the measurement of material inequalities as I feel that status hierarchies such as class and so on; are largely earned, and their link with animal and dominance hierarchies are about privileged access to resources.
When people talk of inequalities of status, power, wealth and so on… I think that in terms of our evolved psychology, they are basically the same thing. If you think of the status hierarchy amongst monkeys; power is about physical strength and is about the strength held by privileged access to resources. It’s not chance that status, wealth and power come together in human societies. To understand equality therefore, you have to understand monkeys and our evolved sensitivities rather than Marx.
Status is simply recognition by subordinates that you are stronger than them.
Q: What is the impact to an individual [or community] of poverty and inequality?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] At $1.25 a day, the issue of poverty is that of physical survival, but in richer countries the concern is that of the ability to participate in the society in which one lives. The goods and services required to participate depend on the prevailing living standards, as may be seen by comparing the consumption baskets drawn up when investigating poverty in 1900 with those that would be relevant today. It is for this reason that the European Union refers to “poverty and social exclusion”. A simple example is provided by the fact that a person in Europe today would it hard to get a job if he or she did not have a mobile phone. Potential employers expect to be able to contact people.
Q: Is inequality inevitable?
[Baroness Onora O’Neill] It’s inevitable that there will be inequalities in society. Perhaps your hair and my hair are not equally long… but it is unimportant to have equality in that regard.
When people say that it is inevitable that society will be unequal, they often have in mind a pretty vague, undefined set of equalities that they think could be important- and this may differ from the list of inequalities that others may consider important.
However, while equal recognition or equal respect for all persons is the most basic equality, it’s not uncontroversial to state this. Some people think this claim is not morally sustainable. They may think that other sentient animals have equal rights to human beings. So asserting that human beings and only human beings have equal moral standing or status is not uncontroversial.
The situations we are putting aside in focussing on the equal standing of human beings are some that existed in the past, and still exist today in some parts of the world, in what anthropologists or sociologists would call ‘status societies’ where the assumption is- to paraphrase George Orwell – that all human beings are equal, but some are more equal than others. Status societies assume that people of certain lineages, be it race, caste, class or gender, are going to be superior to people of other lineages.
This claim about the equality and respect we owe to all human beings is therefore a non-trivial claim.
Q: What is the role of social action in eradicating poverty?
[Kate Gilmore]: There is a rising tide of social disquiet within communities impacted by austerity, inequality and by the relative unaccountability of the elites, as the recent Gilets jaunes protests – a French spring, you might say – exemplify. People across the world are fed-up with inequality and fed up with a narrative of public policy austerity that fails to take into account their pain and despair and yet justifies somehow greater wealth for the wealthy and impunity for those who drive financial crises.
Some of this disquiet is manifesting in “rapid onset – rapid fade” and rather leaderless social movements whose desired direction is difficult to identify, whose forward movement is hard to sustain and for which a negotiating interface with the State is almost impossible to establish. The quintessential traditional democratic path – such as, for example, from labour movement to labour parties to labour governments – is breaking down.
Nonetheless, people are taking action. The vote to Brexit; the vote to reject the hard-won peace deal in Colombia; the recent election results in Brazil, like the protests of Gilets jaunes and the Arab Spring of some years ago … all issue tough messages to prevailing political and economic systems. They also tell us that people have lost trust in public institutions. In each instance, their alternative pathway into the future is unclear. It is not clear how bet in a globalized world to channel such energy constructively towards more equal, just, inclusive and prosperous societies. It certainly seems that we are lacking the leaders who are willing and able to set out such paths; ones that lead away from the populist dead ends of “them versus us”, of “it’s all the outsiders’ fault” of “deeper borders and higher walls are the answer”.
The solutions to poverty do not lie in nation-state answers alone. A global political economy in which U$30 trillion each year is hidden from taxation in secrecy jurisdictions beyond the reach of any state; when U$2-3 trillion is lost to corruption (more than 10x the total official development assistance spend, globally), you know the answer to poverty is not more hard work by the individually poor. The answer lies in system reform. That requires leadership: leadership for rules-based reform of the global financial systems and leadership that is capable of making competent policy decisions and implementing sustainable solutions accountably. For this cadre of leaders to emerge, we must encourage a rallying call for a stronger rules-based global system. And we also need to invest in production of knowledge, identification of solutions and more cooperative and collaborative leadership across, not merely within, borders.
Q: How do we define equality in the context of human rights and justice?
[Baroness Onora O’Neill] The equality of standing of all human beings is the presupposition of human rights. Human rights belong to everybody. This is an ancient idea. We have St. Paul saying “There is neither Greek nor Jew, Slave nor free…” and in many other traditions also stress the idea of the equal standing of all human beings (albeit it is often not the dominant idea).
I think, however, that it is a mistake to state there is a ‘right to equality’. I have yet to establish what this phrase means or is supposed to mean. Human rights, however, suppose the equal moral standing of different human beings.
Then you turn to the human rights themselves. These are an extremely difficult claims, and differ from claims about equality- although a few of them could equally well be phrased as commitments to certain equalities. The ones I have particularly in mind are the right to a fair trial and equality before the law- those could be equally well seen as as equalities. Most human rights are expressed as claims, without consideration of whether everybody has the same claim. They are often therefore quite neutral on specific equalities and- indeed- sometimes, if paradoxically, assert privileges for some persons. If we use the example of The Convention on the Rights of the Child, it starts in the preamble by saying that “mankind owes the child the best it has to give”. If you took that literally, it perhaps suggests that mankind doesn’t owe anybody else anything! I don’t suppose it’s meant that way… All the same, it picks out children as having special claims, and many other documents state other such claims and priorities. More generally the human rights documents do not require very many specific equalities, and that’s why I think that in the modern period, people have thought that it is often important to say something more specific- if one can- about equalities.
The full range of human rights are a second stage that we reach after acknowledging the fundamental point of equal respect or recognition for all persons. This acknowledgement points in the first place to basic procedural rights– such as the right to a fair trial- and then to the great slew of human rights, which is being elaborated all the time!
Suppose we had to break it down into steps. We have to first be clear about which equality we’re talking about. Once you get past the fundamental respect of all human beings, this is not obvious. Some of the equalities that are talked about are much more difficult when framed as human rights, and God knows human rights are difficult enough! They’re difficult because- as we know from the mathematical origins of the word ‘equality’, equality is a comparative notion. If we seek equality in some social or economic matter, we’re not merely looking at an individual to see if they’re getting equal share: we have to look at everyone else too to make the relevant comparisons. We can tell that a person’s right to not be tortured is being respected regardless of what is happening to other people’s right to not be tortured.
But we cannot tell whether substantive a right to equality in some matter is being respected without looking at all other persons to whom that right applies.
Q: What is the current state of income inequality?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] We know a great deal more today about the scale of inequality and poverty than we did 50 or 100 years ago. The earliest poverty studies were based on household surveys, and such surveys are now almost universal. The figures for the number living below $1.25 a day, or the number living at risk of poverty and social exclusion in the European Union, are based on such surveys conducted regularly in nearly all countries. In my judgment, these numbers are sufficiently reliable to provide an indication of the scale of the problem.
At the same time, we are also increasingly aware of the limitations of such instruments. It is not easy to compare the living standards in different countries. There are problems in reconciling the information from household surveys with that contained in the national accounts. Household surveys are not a good instrument for measuring inequality at the top. The wealth of the super-rich is not easily estimated, and their geographic mobility means that national statistics may be of less and less relevance.
A revealing statistic is that there is (broadly) the same number of people living on $1.25 a day or less as there are people living in the aid-giving OECD countries. This underlines both the scale of global poverty and the fact that the size of the transfer required ($1.25 per person) is not beyond our means.
In the same way, the measures required to reduce inequality within countries do not require massive redistribution; they do however require the political will to tackle inequality and poverty.
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] In many societies including Britain and the United States, you have seen similar patterns during the majority of the 20th Century. High inequalities in the early party of the century, followed by declining inequality starting in the 1930’s, a pattern which continued through to the 1960’s- bottoming out in the 1970’s before inequality began to rise again.
In many societies, we are now back to levels of inequality that existed in the 1920’s. All the progress we made in terms of greater social mobility and being less class-bound has been largely undone.
Q: How does inequality impact community life and social relations?
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] More unequal societies tend to have higher levels of violence, greater prison populations, less social cohesion, weaker community life, lower levels of child well-being, more drug problems, more mental illness and more. This has all been empirically proven.
People often find it surprising that so many seemingly different problems are connected to inequality. What we’re really saying is that problems related to social status in our society get worse as you increase the social status differential in society. The surprising thing is that it doesn’t just get worse amongst the poor but rather across the vast majority of the population.
Inequality weakens the social fabric of society and damages the quality of social relations, it also makes social status more important. In a society of inequality where some people are worth everything, and some people are worth nothing; conceptions of self-worth are heightened. We are all more worried about how we are seen, judged and how we fit into society. Class, status, status insecurity, status competition; all of these matter in a more unequal society.
Q: Why are the right-wing movements growing so much at the moment?
[Harry Leslie Smith] The growth in extreme right-wing politics has a lot to do with the war on terror and the banking crisis of 2007-2008. These events have created political and economic instability that we’ve not seen since the 1930s.
Ordinary people’s expectations of a good life have been short-changed by our political and economic crises. The middle and lower-middle classes have grown fearful and angry that they are being left-behind or ignored by government.
Instead of directing their rage correctively at the corruption of our political structures by big-business through demanding tax hikes for corporations and the 1% to pay for a just society; they blame immigrants, refugees and those on benefits for their bad luck.
It amazes me and frightens me when I look at how brilliantly the right-wing media have been able to frame their arguments while the left has been unable to galvanise the people.
Q: What are your views on our political leadership?
[Harry Leslie Smith] We simply don’t have the right political leaders to give society the change it needs. We have so many things to correct in government; democracy has changed a great deal since I first voted in a general election back in 1945. In those times, I had a reasonable expectation that my vote counted for something, and that I would be able to change the course of history. Now? I think most people have become less aware that democracy only works if you participate in it…
Democracy is not expressed just by voting when there is an election, but by being active in your community and being aware of events that are happening, and shaping your present and future.
Until people understand poverty is political, it will never be controlled or eliminated. We have forgotten the lessons my generations learned through enduring the great depression and fighting great wars.
Life is a struggle, not just to survive, but to create a better society and planet.
In many ways, I think people have confused consumerism with democracy. They believe the ability to choose between many products is freedom; when freedom is actually the responsibility, and ability, to build a just society.
We have to change our system of government if we want to see change. We have to end our first past the post selection system, and we have to ensure lobbyists are taken out of government circles. It’s a crime that we allow lobbyists to have the ear of government, and not us. The lobbyists are there for the good of privatisation, the people who are selling our country off piece by piece- not just the physical items we own, but even our services like the NHS; which is being nibbled away bit by bit. We could easily get to a situation once again, where if you have the money? You live… if you don’t? well, that’s too bad…
Q: How do politics and commerce contribute to inequality?
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] If you look at the ‘U-Shaped’ curve in inequality through the 20th century- you can see that politics is behind this. The strength of the labour movement, social democratic parties, and any countervailing voice in society was strengthened during this period. Roosevelt himself said that we must reform to preserve.
There was a sense of society and an economic system under threat. The way forward was to move to greater equality. As that voice weakened from the 1970’s onward, the income differences widened again. CEOs, bankers and so on had no real democratic constraint on what they did; and there were no countervailing voices keeping their incomes in check.
Q: How does income inequality impact social mobility?
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] It’s ridiculous to think you can create a classless society without reducing the material differences that give rise to social distances, and the cultural markers of status differentiation. The French sociologist Bourdieu, describes how people use their money for social differentiation.
It’s very clear that social mobility declines and slows in more unequal societies with higher inequalities of income; this has been empirically proven with independent data in a number of countries.
In a more unequal society, the rungs on the social ladder may be steeper.
Q: Is our tax, welfare and safety–‐net system working for society?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] Over much of the twentieth century, OECD countries saw a decline in income inequality, and one of the important factors accounting for this decline was the development of the welfare state. The welfare state has taken different forms in different countries, but the social protection systems have worked to allow income poverty to be substantially reduced, both among the working population and among the retired. Moreover, the system coped well with the rising inequality of market income, as the population aged and as unemployed increased.
The problem is that since 1980 there has been an unwinding of redistributive policies in OECD countries, with adverse distributional consequences. The OECD Secretary-General in the 2011 report, Divided we stand, spelled out that this was sometimes the main source of widening household-income gaps. The income tax system has become less progressive; pensions have been scaled back; unemployment insurance coverage has been reduced. All of these measures have reduced the effectiveness of the welfare state.
Q: What is the relationship of equality to trust between citizen and state?
[Baroness Onora O’Neill] It seems to me that the promise (not always the achievement!) of modern conceptions of the state is it that the citizen is indeed seen as subordinate to the state, but equally subordinate with all other citizens. That is to say that the state exists so that nobody shall be above the law. The issue of nobody being above the law, and everybody equally under the law, is a fairly straight-forward corollary of the concept of respect for all persons. There have been many societies that have different laws for different sorts of people. The modern world has vestiges of that, for example the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia (albeit you see it in many other places too…)
The question is… does there have to be subordination to the state? You then get deep into political philosophy… What are we saying when we say that we are ‘equal under the law’? If we are to have law there must be enforcement, so there has to be an enforcing agent or body.
The state is a very distinctive enforcing agency because of its territoriality… However, it’s quite difficult to imagine dispensing entirely with agencies that have a territorial basis.
What we need a state to do, above all else, is secure the rule of law. I think the rule of law is even more elementary than human rights, for it means that nobody is above the law. The first challenge for states is what has been called ‘the problem of the over-mighty subject’, and it is a problem that recurs in different forms. There are many states in which individuals or groups have carved out positions that mean that they are in effect above the law. An example might be drug cartels or warlords within certain states, and wherever some are above the law there is a fundamental threat to other citizens.
Q: How does poverty manifest in the developed versus developing world?
[Professor David Hulme] If you look at poverty in a very poor part of Africa or South Asia, you are seeing catastrophic malnourishment… people whose mothers and grandmothers were underweight and undernourished; passing on that genetic heritage of problems. If you look at the UK, USA and elsewhere- malnutrition in such extreme forms is much less likely, albeit there will be some people who simply may not be able to access services to help them.
Developed and developing world poverty are also connected through phenomena such as migration; a fact that becomes awfully clear with incidents such as the 300 bodies of African migrants washing up at Lampedusa, after they had tried to cross the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe.
Q: How has urbanisation impacted poverty and inequality?
[Professor David Hulme] In most of the rich-world, we are 90-95% urbanised. Poverty in those societies is largely concentrated into urban areas albeit when you look there are discrete forms of rural poverty- often from populations that have been left behind and may not be connected to the modern economy.
In developing countries, you have high rates of urbanisation but great differences. Latin America is majority urbanised, South Asia less so, and Africa much less. South Asia and Africa are urbanising quickly, and the poverty in urban areas is very different and must be measured and understood differently. Many people in urban areas have access to higher incomes, but the costs of things like water, transport, accommodation and so on are much higher.
The thing that bothers me about the urbanisation of poverty is that most of the ideas, policies and data we have are based on rural poverty. That’s the way it used to be! It’s rapidly urbanising now, and many of our ideas are no longer appropriate for those changed environments.
It’s very sloppy that we still use phrases like developed and developing world. I’ve been working in development for almost 40 years, and while early in my career I could see the distinction; now it’s not so clear. Where would you place China and India by those measures? The differences are also visible within countries. In a recent book byAmartya Sen, he described India as ‘islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa….‘ I’m not sure that’s right, and it’s rather pejorative of Africa… but some parts of India such as central Bangalore or Hyderabad could well be anywhere in the rich-world, albeit with Indian cultural features. When you get further out into Uttar Pradesh for example, a Dollar could be a lot of money for someone… In the US you see similar patterns. In a place like Washington DC, you find areas that are the capital of the most powerful country in the world; with everything a member of the elite could want. A block or two later, things are very run-down.
You will find people with real problems, just a hundred yards away you are in a different world.
Q: How do events such as financial-crises, climate change and so on impact poverty and inequality?
[Professor David Hulme] Climate change events are certainly having an impact on poverty. I work with Bangladesh a lot and although you can’t link any event…. we can say that climate variability has increased and the frequency of catastrophic events like cyclones are no longer once or twice in a lifetime, they may be three, four, five times. That’s a big difference, and can wipe out entire communities and prevent them rebuilding.
Financial crises are also catastrophic, but they impact in different ways. In many ways the 2008 collapse knocked Europe much more than parts of South Asia; they were insulated by virtue of not being as integrated with the global economy to the same degree- certainly financially.
Q: How can social entrepreneurship end poverty?
[Lord John Bird] If social enterprise was scaled-up, it could have an enormous impact on poverty. In the UK, we have around 70,000 social enterprises; the majority are more social, and less enterprise- they’re not sustainable, and often built around one individual (without whom the entire enterprise would collapse).
We have the potential for social entrepreneurs to take-over a large part of business, commercial and social world (and probably do things better than business or government), but they’re not as sustainable as they should be… and because they’re not sustainable, they don’t scale-up and survive the early pioneering stage.
I was involved in the creation of the first bottle of water in the U.K. where all the profits went to water projects in the developing world. The idea was that you took all your costs out, and what was left- instead of going to the gated communities, went to real communities. There were people who took that business model and executed it better, and so while the sector grew- our part of it didn’t, even though we’d been the pioneers.
Looking at the Big Issue too, the business scaled to a point, but you must remember that it’s based on a workforce who are- at best- in the middle of crisis. Because it can’t scale, we’ve had to develop other things, like Big Issue Invest, to prevent the next generation of Big Issue vendors. We now handle around £200 million of HNWI funds, and invest that money into social businesses that are a preventative method.
To scale-up Big Issue, we’ve had to move away from selling papers. Now, we’re in the process of building a social Amazon; becoming an enormous platform where people buy stuff from us (instead of traditional online retailers) meaning the profit from their transactions go to social good.
Q: What is the investment case for social businesses?
[Lord John Bird] There’s a knock-on effect that happens in social investment.
For a profit-making business, one inevitability is taxes! By reallocating profits into social-investment, that business will not just make a social-impact (generating a social return) but will also reap benefits in terms of company image, and even make a real financial return.
At Big Issue Invest, we don’t take hand-outs from other people- we get investors to put money into our fund, which then creates and supports businesses. The profits from this activity is then shared with our investors.
Where Big Issue Invest is really leading the field, is in the creation of new ways for HNWI and investment institutions to make money socially, and for the community.
When we’re looking at social investments, the first thing we look for is sustainability. The business has to be built around the charisma of an individual, has to be scalable, has to be commercial and has to make real social change.
There will come a time where social investment funds don’t have as much of a ‘social echo,’ but we hope these investments will generate even more income for us to invest in other projects.
Social enterprise is an important form of prevention, it can prevent people entering poverty, and can stop intergenerational and multi-generation poverty that’s blighting our world. We have to stop another generation of people falling into poverty.
Social justice and trade, not aid, will end the scourge of poverty in our world.
Q: What are the greatest challenges and opportunities for poverty reduction?
[Professor David Hulme] When you look at poverty in a global context, you see two very different narratives. The first being that things are very bad… particularly in Africa and South Asia… children are going hungry and so on. If you look at the data however, you see the second narratives. Things are getting better… and have been getting better. If you look at the agricultural sector, things have been getting better for most of humanity. In the past 30-40 years, life expectancy has also been improving. In Bangladesh where I do a lot of work, the country was previously seen as a ‘basket case’. Life expectancy has been increasing by 1-2 months a year, that’s phenomenal.
The concerns come from the fact that we now have enormous technological and organisational capability, which simply did not exist in the past. If one applied those resources in only a marginally different way; perhaps just re-applying 1-2% of global GDP… you could reach those bottom 1-2.5 billion people. You could improve their lives quite markedly.
The people who control resources in the world… the world’s most powerful people… tend to be reluctant to see things renegotiated. A good example of this can be seen in the pharmaceutical industry. Firms are beginning to be more reasonable now, but the fact is that hundreds of thousands of people died in the developing world simply because of the insistence of these firms to hold onto patents in ways that made drugs inaccessible. Perhaps if they had different business models, they could have made drugs more accessible and even made more profit along the way.
In those parts of the world where you have the greatest concentrations of poor people, you also tend to be able to do the least about their situation. You are faced with bad governance, weak states, poor public service delivery and more. It’s very difficult to get states to function effectively and even harder to improve public service delivery. Where you most need poverty reduction, it’s the most difficult to actually do it!
[Baroness Onora O’Neill] We have made tremendous progress, and we will make more, but one has to go about it very carefully.
Discrimination is an interesting concept in this regard. Discrimination is making a decision on the basis of irrelevant considerations. For example, if you are an employer and you give a job to somebody because you like their looks or because they’re your cousin- that consideration is not relevant to their likely job performance, and the decision is one that is based on unlawful discrimination. We often call it nepotism in the latter case.
Discrimination is always based on using an irrelevant basis to make a decision. In this country we’ve picked out certain characteristics as a focus for specific equality duties and reminded ourselves that it is particularly wrong to discriminate on the basis of those characteristics. They include gender, age, race, disability, sexual orientation and so on. These are not of course the only irrelevant characteristics by which people discriminate. For example, if you were interviewing to fill a job and thought “hmm… he’s a Yorkshireman, I’m not hiring him!” – that would be discrimination and… by the way… unlawful discrimination.
When we talk of discrimination, it’s important to recognise the lawful discrimination that you and I practice every day, and how it is different from unlawful discrimination. Unlawful discrimination is making a decision on the basis of something that is irrelevant. When you appoint to a job, and look at competence and experience and other characteristics that are relevant to the job… but not at the gender of your applicant, their ethnic origins, age and so on…you are making a decision on the basis of relevant characteristics, and that sort of discrimination is lawful.
I’m old enough to remember advertisements that would say, “Wanted! Van Driver! Male, between 20-30…” It sounds quite funny now…
Q: What is the role of government in the eradication of poverty?
[Lord John Bird] To understand poverty, you have to understand the role government money has played. Our taxes have been invested into social security mechanisms which at best have become a form of hand holding.
Social security, when it was first invented, was there to help people through a tough time and to move them on to success through training and provision. That was social opportunity hidden within social security legislation.
In today’s world, social security warehouses people and because it’s warehoused people for so long, when the government tries to make changes- they’ve already sowed the seeds for their own destruction. They’ve harmed the normal acquisition of skills people need to provide for themselves, their families and their children. Government has destroyed the impetus for people to become entrepreneurs, and to build skills.
As a young man, I was in the prison system, and I met so many entrepreneurial people who would have come out, been given some sh** job or ended up on social security and rotted. In an ideal world, you would be going into prisons to find the next generation of startups; there’s a lot of people there who have the skills and abilities- but who got buried in a gang or illegal practices.
People still see ‘the poor’ as another species. If you scrape the surface of most white middle-class liberals in the U.K. who are doing quite well out of society, you will find some generations ago, there was an individual who sowed the seeds of getting that family out of poverty. It may have been a grandfather who learned a new skill, or who was committed to start a business. A generation later, that entire family no longer had to know about poverty!
We have to be very astute about how we use government money when it comes to poverty alleviation. Governments give social security without giving social support or- indeed- conditions. The person receiving the money can literally do whatever they want in many cases. For many of these individuals, life is very grim, and so guess what- they may waste a sizeable chunk of it on poor-food or poor-stimulants like cigarettes and drinks.
Poverty of spirit, poverty of mind, poverty of ambition…. These are the things that mean you’re more likely to end up smoking, drinking, looking for palliatives and looking for ways just to get through the day.
Q: How is healthcare policy impacting poverty?
[Lord John Bird] I entered the House of Lords a year ago in order to dismantle poverty, and to prevent poverty happening. There are very, very few people who are doing that successfully. I’m not saying that I’m doing it successfully, but I’m raising the fact that if we don’t prevent and dismantle poverty, that we’re screwing the world up.
Take the example of the NHS (National Health Service). I argue regularly with people who say we don’t have enough doctors. Here’s the thing, maybe we’ve got too many patients…. Maybe we have too many patients because we’re not passing over to those patients, responsibility for their own health.
It took me a long time to get into the middle classes from the underclass, the criminal class. Here’s what I found out, they [the middle class] are f*****g thick, they don’t stop to think. I’m talking to a doctor who says, ‘we need more hospitals…’ I’m saying, ‘what happens if, through social medicine, we actually helped people to eat better, to get more exercise, to drink less, sleep well, avoid drugs, and stop smoking?’ the doctor says, ‘…that’s not my job, I’m there to help when the sh** hits the fan…’
The National Health Service is an appalling example of the crisis of modern thinking. We have to change the way we educate our children so that we educate them out of destroying their bodies.
Q: What is the link between equality and health?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] We see big inequalities in health within and between countries. Within countries; inequalities in health are shorthand for the systematic differences in health between social groups. If those groups are defined by some measure of socio-economic position such as education, income, occupation or the socio-economic characteristics of where they live, then those social inequalities relate to people’s socio-economic position.
The worse health of the poor, disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised groups is exactly what we mean by health inequality. It’s not that these groups are impacted by health inequality but rather that their worse health is- to some extent- the definition of health inequality.
Within a country, health follows a social gradient. It’s not only the poorest that have the worst health, but in fact ; the lower the status- the worse the health. It’s a gradient that runs from top to bottom. When people think about inequalities in health they usually think of disadvantaged, poor and marginalised people having worse health- and indeed they do. The gradient shows that it’s not confined to that. The greater the degree of advantage, the better the health and the greater the degree of disadvantage, the worse the health.
This is important; it changes the way we think of our explanations. If you think poverty is the problem, you will deal with poverty. If inequality is the issue, so that people in the middle of the social hierarchy have worse health than those above and better health than those below… that’s not poverty, but- I would argue- that it is due to social conditions not limited to poverty.
Inequalities in health are the result of social and economic inequalities in society.
Q: How does health inequality manifest within society?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] Life expectancy is often used as a shorthand for this. We plotted life expectancy in England by local area, and found that within one London borough (Westminster); there is an 18 year gap in male life expectancy between the worst off part of the borough and the best off part of the borough.
In Glasgow, there is a 28 year difference in life expectancy between those in the poorest and richest parts of the city. In the USA, there is a 20 year difference in life expectancy between the worst and best off counties.
In England, we have also analysed life-expectancy and disability-free life expectancy. The social gradient for disability free life expectancy is much steeper than life expectancy on its own. In other words; the disadvantage of quality of life increases more than length of life as you descend the social hierarchy. It’s morbidity as well as mortality that we must look at.
In the developed countries, for most specific causes of death (with a few noble exceptions such as breast cancer which appears to be more common in higher status groups, and colon cancer which appears to have very little socioeconomic distribution) the lower you are, the higher the risk.
Q: What are the economic and social impacts of health inequality?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] Health and health inequality are a manifestation of the way a country organises its affairs. For example; when we first looked at health across Europe and examined the communist countries of Eastern Europe versus the non-communist countries of Western Europe, the gap in life-expectancy between them was increasing. After the collapse of communism, there was an 18 year gap in life expectancy between Russia and the richer countries of Sweden, Israel, Iceland and so on. That’s a manifestation of economic and social realities in countries.
There’s also an enormous cost associated with health inequality and people becoming prematurely ill and dying. This occurs in the form of real costs such as healthcare costs, lost taxation, lost productivity and so on. This is quite apart from the theoretical costs of lives lost and so forth.
Q: What are the key challenges and opportunities in health inequality in the developed and developing world?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] There are six domains which are the key causes of health inequalities and in which action could reduce health inequalities. These are:
1. Early child development
2. Education and lifelong learning
3. Employment and working conditions
4. Everyone having the minimum income necessary for a healthy life
5. Healthy and sustainable places to live and work
6. Taking a social-determinants approach (pricing of cigarettes, alcohol and so on)
There are barriers all the way through these factors. In early child development; poverty causes a massive adverse impact. In some countries, we’re simply not reducing child poverty as much as we should. We see that if you use the fiscal system of transfers and tax, you can have an enormous impact on child poverty. The decision not to use taxes and transfers to reduce child poverty has enormous negative impacts on society. We also know that a key determinant to the outcome of education is what happens before kids get into school.
Countries like the UK and USA as recent OECD figures show, do very badly in terms of maths, science and so on at ages 15/16. Employment and working conditions are important too. We are seeing a hollowing-out of the workforce with people having well-paid jobs in the financial and digital sectors, and then low-paid menial jobs in the service sector. We have to answer the question as to whether we care enough to do things differently… A minimum income for healthy living is critical. Look at a country like Britain where a majority of people in receipt of housing benefits are in work. They are not paid enough to rent accommodation! They’re not paid the minimum to live a healthy life and they wouldn’t be able to do so unless they got housing benefits. We have to organise our affairs to enable people in low paid jobs to rent their accommodation. This does not have to be done by the tax payer through the benefits system.
In the developing world, all six of these areas are highly relevant. If you take some of these however, you must understand the context. If you take the need for healthy living and working conditions, in the developing world we’re still talking about having clean-water and shelter. In the developed world, that’s not the conversation anymore. We also know that in the developing world, one of the best interventions to improve child-health is the education of mothers. We talk of education in rich countries… but in poor countries the importance is no less vital.
We have to decide that organising our social and economic affairs to promote the well-being of the whole population is a priority.
Q: Is access to healthcare a basic human right?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] Access to healthcare is absolutely vital for any society. Not only is access to healthcare a basic human right, but health itself is a human right. The highest attainable standard of health is a human right; and that will only be determined to some extent by access to healthcare.
It’s not a lack of healthcare that determines inequalities in health, that’s down to social and economic conditions. It’s a lack of healthcare that determines what happens when you get sick. We don’t want to add the insult of a lack of healthcare to the injury of getting sick in the first place.
Q: To what extent business and commerce impact health inequality?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] The New York Times recently did a series where they compared the cost of a hip replacement in Boston and Brussels. It was several times higher in the US than Belgium! These are both developed countries with high-quality medical care, and- in fact- surgeons were using the same bit of hardware! To the extent to which people must bear the costs of their own healthcare, factors like this will be barriers.
More generally, corporations are vitally important- and for at least three reasons. Firstly.. they produce things! Let’s say for example you’re a food company, you can produce healthy or unhealthy food. We all have to eat, and the majority of the world’s population now live in cities. We are therefore absolutely dependent on the quality of the foods produced, marketed and sold by the food industry. Second… they’re employers. When a factory collapses in Bangladesh, you have a very dramatic manifestation of the fact that industry has a responsibility to the health of its workers; the nature of working conditions really matters.
Thirdly… Industry is a stakeholder in society. They can have a positive impact in terms of employment and so forth, or they can be bad by polluting and so on.
Quite apart from the healthcare sector producing drugs and diagnostic equipment, wider industry plays a critically important role in health.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing health inequality in the future?
[Professor Sir Michael Marmot] Good health, bad health and health inequalities are manifestations of the way we organise societies.
If you look at the global financial crisis and how countries have or have not responded to it, we can see an amplification of what was going on pre-crisis. The hollowing-out of employment for example; we don’t manufacture in rich countries anywhere near to the extent we did, we have exported those jobs… and have exported them with adverse working conditions. Those of us lucky enough to live in rich countries get cheap clothes and cheap consumer goods precisely because the people producing them are being paid very little and work in adverse conditions which will damage their health.
A major challenge is to figure all this out! How do you make the good side of globalisation become a greater force for good than the bad side of globalisation is a force for not-good. These are major challenges we face in the future.
Q: How can economic growth be more inclusive?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] All our political leaders are calling for “inclusive growth”, but they are not spelling out specific policies that would achieve such an end. Specific policies are required, since past experience shows that growth alone does not automatically “trickle down” to those who are on the margins of the economy.
Nor can it all be achieved solely by redistribution. Redistribution through taxes and social transfers is an essential part of an equitable growth strategy, but it cannot be the only component. We have to consider the growth in market incomes and the way in which this impacts on different groups in society. In both advanced and developing countries, a key element is the balance between capital and labour. The distributional effect depends on how far growth is associated with the generation of employment.
It is indeed the case that British colonialism meant that some former colonies, such as the Seychelles, inherited a highly unequal distribution in terms of top income shares, although pre-independence development in other African colonies had been associated with declining income concentration.
Q: What is the impact of the politicization of inequality?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] The important development that we have seen is that poverty – about which there has been long-standing concern – is now being seen as part of the wider issue of inequality.
Q: What are your views on the concentration of wealth in society (and the redistribution of wealth)?
[Professor David Hulme] Lets remember, the mega-philanthropists such as Bill Gates only find themselves in the position to give so generously because of the extraordinary concentration of resources and wealth they have been able to amass.
There are two angles to look at situations like this. The first is to make a case to the self interest of those who are doing extremely well, and to make them realise that it is in their interest to consider whether or not those concentrations of wealth are giving them (and particularly their children and grandchildren) the world that they want. When I speak to the very wealthy, they are often horrified at the idea of leaving or giving enormous sums of money to their kids. They see that as being incredibly damaging and disempowering, they often feel that it can cause a lack of focus and drive in their lives… You can also look at what societies the wealthy are creating for themselves. If we look at the USA, UK and Latin America, you are seeing the emergence of gated communities- and one has to ask the residents if this is the sort of community they really want to live in. Wouldn’t they rather be in a more open and friendly community? It’s a bit like the Truman Show… it’s a very heavily managed world, and misses the best parts of life.
There is also a moral and norms based argument for wealth redistribution which looks at the fact that the economic system we’ve set up is allowing certain people to have excessive access to resources. Yes you should be rewarded for patents, breakthroughs and so forth… but not by concentrating so much wealth in the hands of so few.
Most of the growth in the past 20 years of the USA hasn’t been concentrated in the top 5% or even the top 1%, but rather the fraction of a percent of individuals who are not only able to get these assets under their control, but also to get laws changed through lobbying to enable them to do so, and to reduce their taxes.
When you’re looking at the finances of what reduces poverty, the real secret is domestic tax. If you look at the poorest African countries and see what we need to get them working; you see AID projects, philanthropic projects and more… but the real task is getting the taxation system working so that the country has resource to pay for education, infrastructure and health itself, but while also giving a political settlement whereby the elites take on some responsibility for taking their nation and society forward.
Q: How effective are our current development and poverty reduction paradigms?
[Professor David Hulme] There’s a real need for innovation as our existing paradigms are not working well. They are very much focussed on AID; which has two fundamental problems. Firstly it is effectively the rich giving to the poor- creating a subordinate relationship… and secondly, it’s very short term and unpredictable. The important tasks such as state-building are long-term jobs. They require relationships that are developed over many years.
We’ve known this for 20-30 years. The idea of 3-5 year programmes when it comes to getting governments working, tax systems working, people working…. simply cannot work. We must move to 15-20 year frames of thinking.
Q: How do forms of wealth re-distribution such as charity aid in the fight against inequality?
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] Society shouldn’t’ depend charitable giving. It’s never enough to deal with the problems of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, poor healthcare and so forth. To combat these problems we have to have a system where we all contribute proportionately to our incomes. That’s ultimately what the tax system is for, and it’s quite wrong to depend on charity in this regard.
We shouldn’t be thinking about whether inequality is good or bad for things like that. We must provide together for these things. We mustn’t depend on the good-will of a few people to keep other people from being homeless.
Q: What is the role of business and economics in creating an equitable society?
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] You can reduce income differences either through redistribution (taxes and benefits) or by reducing income differences before tax; I think you need to do both.
On the taxes and benefits front, the most urgent thing is to deal with tax avoidance and tax-havens; both by businesses and individuals. If an individual or business creates financial arrangements for the sole purpose of avoiding tax, then those arrangements should not be allowed.
On the income differences before tax, we see the runaway top incomes and income ratios within companies have expanded enormously. If you take the biggest 350 American companies, the ratio of incomes of CEOs to production workers were 40:1 in the late 70’s and 80’s. By early this century it was 200-400:1. That is a lack of democratic constraint, and we have to build that in.
The next great project for the emancipation of civilisation is the democratisation of the economic sector. We must back all forms of greater economic democracy whether this is in the forms of mutual, employee-cooperatives, employee-share-ownership social enterprises and more. They cannot be token things, but they have to allow real power.
Companies do the essential work of providing goods and services, but also quite unnecessarily become systems of concentrating power and wealth quite undemocratically. Many of our world’s companies are bigger than countries in terms of their economic turnover, and the power they exert on the global stage.
It looks as though more democratic companies work at least as well, if not better than their less democratic counterparts. There are other benefits too. More employee engagement turns a company from being property to a community, and allows for more even redistribution of wealth- and not just income.
In the future I hope we even have more consumer and community representation in companies. There is no reason why companies should be systems to concentrate wealth and power so undemocratically.
Q: What are the best examples of countries that have tackled inequality well?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] First, it is important to remember that almost all countries have seen periods when inequality fell. Income inequality in the US in 1945 was significantly lower than it had been in 1929. Almost all European countries saw major reductions in income inequality and income poverty in the period from 1945 to 1980. In my book, I argue that we can learn from these episodes. During the period when inequality was reduced in Europe, we saw the expansion of the welfare state, a rising share of wages in national income, the reduced concentration of personal wealth, and the reduced dispersion of earnings as a result of government intervention and collective bargaining. And the main reason that equalisation came to an end appears to be that these factors have gone into reverse (welfare state cutbacks, declining share of wages, and rising earnings dispersion) or come to an end (the redistribution of wealth).
In more recent times, we have witnessed an important recent episode of falling inequality and poverty in Latin America in the 2000s. From this too, we can learn: inequality reduction was achieved by a combination of changes in market incomes and of expanded redistribution..
Q: What are the measures we need to take to build a more equitable society?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] The two key take-away messages are: (1) that taxes and transfers are an essential part of any set of measures, but they cannot be sufficient on their own, and (2) that we need to address the distribution of market incomes, and in particular the balance between capital income and wage income. The second of these implies that we have to question the direction of technological change and ensure that a powerful corporate sector is counter-balanced by representatives of the interests of consumers and workers. A clear contemporary example is that the negotiations concerning TTIP need to involve workers and consumers, as well as corporate interests and the government.
Q: What do you think the future of poverty will be for the United Kingdom?
[Lord John Bird] A few days ago I had a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May and told her that we have to get into prevention. You put a fence at the top of a cliff, you don’t just put a load of ambulances at the bottom (which is what happens now). We’re very good at emergency, but not so good at prevention.
You have to shift people’s mind-sets and make them realise their own personal entrepreneurial, and enterprise, skills. More than 50% of the jobs we have today will disappear in the near future; accountancy, law, civil service, manufacturing and more. What will these people do in 10-15 years when their jobs have been taken from them because of robotics, computing and artificial intelligence? Thinkers are already conjuring fascinating solutions to this, Bill Gates for example, said that robots should be taxed in the same way workers are– with that money invested straight back into the community, to skill-up the workforce that robotics has displaced.
Our innovations in manufacturing, logistics, robotics and processes are not social, they’re anti-social; they’re driven by people who want to put profit before humanity. Investors are saying, “Why would someone invest in a business that only generates £1m a year and employ a thousand people when I could invest in another business that would deliver £100m a year without the associated costs of employment… of labour”
People are getting excited about technology and change, but it’s coming at an enormous social cost, and that will come back and bite us.
Q: How successful has the world been in fighting poverty?
[Kate Gilmore]: Extreme poverty has been slashed by 50% over the past 15 years, partly thanks to the concentrated efforts of governments and civil society under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Rates of polio have been slashed while malaria and TB have been tackled with some remarkable successes. More affordable anti retro-viral drugs have spread for those living with HIV/AIDS. Under five infant mortality has been more than halved. Maternal mortality from preventable causes has been halved. It’s quite apparent that when governments and civil society sit around a table of common intention, when they must account for measurable progress, and when governments do dedicate resources appropriately, transformations can take place. The UN’s Sustainable Development Agenda to 2030, if supported by human-rights based implementation, will enable further such achievements.
However, we are also at risk of leaving the deeper questions unanswered. There is a problem in where we see problems and where we don’t! We have rightly made a problem, for example, of extreme poverty; it is after all a disgrace that anyone in this world should languish without enough food to eat or with inadequate shelter and no access to decent health care. But, isn’t strange that we have not made a problem of extreme greed.
Let me explain what I mean: Following 9/11, a global project emerged out of efforts to address violent extremism; a project in which countries worked together across borders in pursuit of greater security, including at and within their own borders. Yet, following the financial crisis of 07/08, which affected millions the world over, we have not made anything like a global project to address extremist greed. If anything, since the crisis, celebration of greed has been elevated.
From a human rights standpoint, both these responses are problematic. Let me be totally clear, the ongoing toll exacted on people’s daily lives from acts of terrors and extreme violence is unconscionable. However, in the absence of human rights based implementation, under what is now the hyper-securitisation policy paradigm – off spring of the so-called “war on terror” – citizens are paying a huge price, to the extent that in many countries today surveillance and other hyper-security measures are deeply encroaching on civil freedoms, constricting civic space, eating away at freedom of the press, freedom of association, and threatening even the independence of the judiciary and of universities.
What is arguably just as dominant a policy approach, is that which emerged in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 07/08. Following the crisis, caustic policies of extreme public austerity were introduced that today even the IMF and World Bank recognise have gravely exacerbated inequality. Austerity measures have seen those with the least even further deprived of access to basic services while in precisely the same period, the wealthy became even wealthier. As UN human rights experts have noted, some reports suggest that 82 percent of all wealth created in 2017 went to the top 1 per cent, while the bottom 50 per cent saw no increase at all. These public policy responses in the aftermath of the financial crisis have eroded economic and social rights. Specifically, the failure to call-out greed, the failure to address the impunity of those responsible for the crisis and the failure to tackle the enormous untaxed financial flows that now lie effectively beyond the reach of our traditional governance systems, means we have also failed to balance our economies for greater fairness.
Q: What would be your message to the next generation in their attempts to make our world more fair and equitable?
[Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson] The main message I would give to the next generation is that they should question the accepted wisdom of my and earlier generations. We are all too often prisoners of accepted orthodoxies. Vested interests, notably in the media, are always anxious to close down the discussion, and to narrow the agenda. Politicians are reluctant to leave their comfort zone. In my book, I have tried to widen the agenda, and to put on the table ideas that are missing from the current political debate.
[Professor David Hulme] You have to be optimistic. If you look short-term at the world’s problems, it’s easy to despair…. You have to look at the longer-term data. Incomes are getting higher, even the poorest parts of the world are seeing less children dying, lives getting longer, and more.
You have to think of those technical skills and political ideas that will allow you to contribute to the world, and your own society.
Your values will tell you how to piece the challenges together, and optimism will give you the energy to continue.
[Baroness Onora O’Neill] The most important thing to think about is how to link your ideals to your judgement of what’s feasible. It’s not enough to have noble ideals if you don’t work out who will have to do what for whom.
If we’re to have an effective and realistic translation of equality and human rights into life, we have to answer this question at each stage. You can’t just wave the banner of ‘Equality of X’ unless you’ve worked out who’s going to have to do what….
It’s about the actions you take, not simply the attitudes you have….
[Professor Richard Wilkinson] Increasingly people feel that we are here to serve the economy, rather than the economy being here to serve us. We have to think very hard about the society we want to move towards; and how we can guarantee a higher quality of life and greater sustainability.
People often regard consumerism as a sign of the basic acquisitive desire of humans, but it’s not. It’s a very alienated social desire. What we’re trying to do with consumption is speak well of ourselves to other people. It’s about identity, self-image and so on; and how you paint self worth in other people’s eyes. We express it in terms of money and consumption because we’ve lost those face-to-face community relations. Even in the last century, there were very settled communities, but recently we’ve seen these relationships break down. We’re now meeting more and more people each day, and are faced with this background zeitgeist that some people are worth so much, and others so little. This creates a recipe to exacerbate social anxieties about self-worth, confidence, self-esteem and so-on. At the other end you also get the problems of narcissism; the social-evaluative threat, the rise of greater self-enhancement and self-engrandisment…
I do often feel that the reason that kids drink before the go out, take ecstasy, and so on is to enable them to relax with friends. The anxiety of whether you’re dressed right, or whether you’ll be able to say anything interesting to the people you’ll meet is real; it makes social contact an ordeal and not a pleasure
We’ve got to the end of what increased material consumption can do for the quality of our lives and we have to now think about our social environment.
It’s inevitable that if you have 200 years of economic growth, that at some point it will have done its job…. In the developing world, they still need that economic growth but for the rich world, increasing growth is not bringing us any greater quality of life- some may even argue it is following the law of diminishing returns.
Q: What are your fears for the future of our society?
[Harry Leslie Smith] During my lifetime, we’ve had war after war and so many social upheavals. We had the Great War, World War 2 and a series of small conflicts; and I’m sad to report that this may start all over again.
The people who have the ability to change things are too happy with their large incomes and they feel that anything that happens now can’t touch them. Unfortunately, they’re wrong. They will get affected by a huge war, just as anyone else. A war that happens today will be far greater than anything we’ve experienced in the past.
Politics discourages anyone who tries to form a just society and negating this fundamental principal of human rights only throws us further towards anarchy.
Humanity cannot survive when its leaders are only concerned with the profits or losses of its most affluent constituents and not with the well being of the average and marginalised citizens.
Q: What keeps you hopeful?
[Kate Gilmore]: I’m not hopeful. We have not yet earned optimism. Until the world assesses the problems we face more comprehensively and diagnoses their root causes more bravely, we will not start working towards the best solutions. Only solutions offer hope and we simply cannot ground our hope in the hopelessness of others.
What we need first and foremost is courage. There is a saying, ascribed to the Talmud, which advises thus, ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief but do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’
We are not free to walk away from what is needed to erode poverty, to stymie hate and foster greater mutual respect. But we must do more now. Do more justly now. We must be courageous now, and then, in this effort, we must also be as stubborn as hell.
Since society became sentient to the cultural phenomenon of political ideals, there has been an intuitive sense that equality is worth fighting for. We are acutely aware that logically equality does not exist apart from the abstract realm of mathematics; but something tells us that intrinsically equality is a good thing. Whether this is part of our natural human condition, or something ingrained in us by culture is a matter for debate- but many of the most profound unifications of people for a single purpose have been manifest in the name of equality.
World War II was the most widespread war in history, involving the vast majority of countries in the world. In 1943,at the height of this epic battle, Sister M. Jane Frances Ferguson submitted a profound dissertation on, The Philosophy of Equality, seen through the lens of a conflict that had the real potential to end the world. “In the midst of a war whose fundamental issue is proclaimed to be the survival of democratic society, an examination of one of the basic concepts of that society is not only timely, it is imperative…” she wrote, continuing that, “…a war that engulfs humanity has justification only if it touches humanity at its very core. Equality, being one of those essential human relations of which democracy is conceived, an attack upon the latter is not merely an attack on a method of government, it is an attack on something fundamentally human.”
Sister Ferguson also noted the profound significance of equality as a socio-political concept. “The conception of men as individually equal has repercussions in the whole of social life…” she wrote, “So profound is the influence of this notion that we do not hesitate to say that it has shaken to its very foundations the whole structure of the state. Indeed, any permanent and durable structure is impossible in the presence of a principle which, emphasizing the absolute character of the individual to the neglect of this social structure, destroys the basis of fraternity and extinguishes any true liberty…. society, whatever else its character, has an intrinsic urge to achieve an ordered and unified whole. It is possessed of something more than a herd instinct, something nobler than mere arithmetic union, something more rational than blank uniformity. It demands organisation, and whatever involves organisation, involves in turn a structural or hierarchical order, a subordination of the less to the greater, of means to an end: and wherever there is subordination there is bound to be inequality.”
Her observation of subordination is significant. Much like the moral and philosophical precepts of good and evil, one must measure relative to the other; insofar as intuitively we know what is good, by knowing what is equal and vice versa.
To put this in context of equality, we are not stating that all things should literally be equal- as that would be a fallacy, as by any measure- we are all- by our diversity- unequal. Equality in a human context is more of a moral concern; it is a statement of what differences we do or do not decide are morally permissible in society.
By any measure it would be hard to argue that equality has not become a platitude in our world, perhaps because it is easier for us to deal with it in that context. The fact remains however, that while differences will always exist… it cannot be morally permissible for a society to exist where each individual who is born does not have equality of consideration and opportunity. If people are at least given that benchmark, they can then as holders of individual agency, decide how they flourish from there.
As John F. Kennedy once said, “…if we cannot end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.“