The Rich and Poor are Not Sailing in the Same Boat
By Jaya Ramachandran
NEW YORK (IDN) – UN Secretary-General António Guterres has in a surprise dramatic move, castigated a series of “fallacies and falsehoods” perpetrated particularly on the deprived of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed all lies such as the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat”.
Exposing this misleading myth, he says: “While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris.”
These remarks stood out in a hard-hitting speech as he was delivering the 2020 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, held online for the first time, in light of the ongoing pandemic. The lecture series organized annually by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, on the birthday of the African icon and first democratically-elected President of South Africa, aims to encourage dialogue by inviting prominent personalities to discuss major international challenges.
Global risks ignored for decades – notably inadequate health systems, gaps in social protection, structural inequalities, environmental degradation, and the climate crisis – have been laid bare, he said. The vulnerable are suffering the most: those living in poverty, older people, and people with disabilities and pre-existing conditions.
Mr Guterres pointed out that inequality takes many forms. Income disparity is stark: the 26 richest people in the world possess as much wealth as half the global population. On the other hand, life-chances depend on factors such as gender, family and ethnic background, race and whether or not a person has a disability.
Everyone suffers the consequences, because high levels of inequality are associated with “economic instability, corruption, financial crises, increased crime and poor physical and mental health”.
Turning to inhuman colonialism, the UN Chief said that today’s anti-racist movement points to that historic source of inequality: “The Global North, specifically my own continent of Europe, imposed colonial rule on much of the Global South for centuries, through violence and coercion.”
This led to huge inequalities within and between countries, including the transatlantic slave trade and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and left a legacy of economic and social injustice, hate crimes and xenophobia, the persistence of institutionalized racism, and white supremacy.
Elaborating racism and the legacy of colonialism, the UN Chief noted that the anti-racism movement that has spread from the United States around the world in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing is “one more sign that people have had enough: enough of inequality and discrimination that treats people as criminals on the basis of their skin colour; enough of the structural racism and systematic injustice that deny people their fundamental human rights”.
Africa has been a double victim, stressed Mr Guterres. First, as a target of the colonial project. Second, African countries are under-represented in the international institutions that were created after the Second World War, before most of them had won independence.
Referring to inequality in global governance, he said: The nations that came out on top more than seven decades ago have refused to contemplate the reforms needed to change power relations in international institutions. The composition and voting rights in the United Nations Security Council and the boards of the Bretton Woods system are a case in point. Inequality starts at the top: in global institutions. Addressing inequality must start by reforming them.
Touching the sizzling issue of patriarchy, UN Chief said: “We live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture. Everywhere, women are worse off than men, simply because they are women. Inequality and discrimination are the norm. Violence against women, including femicide, is at epidemic levels.”
Mr Guterres, who described himself as “a proud feminist”, said he was committed to gender equality, and has made gender parity a reality across senior UN posts. He also announced his appointment of South African international rugby captain, Siya Kolisa, as a global champion for the Spotlight Initiative, which aims to engage men in fighting violence against women and girls.
The heavily male-dominated tech industry is not only missing out on half the world’s expertise and perspectives. It is also using algorithms that could further entrench gender and racial discrimination. The digital divide reinforces social and economic divides, from literacy to healthcare, from urban to rural, from kindergarten to college.
He commended who, he said, are on the frontlines of the fight against inequality, and called not only for climate action, but also climate justice. He urged political leaders to raise their ambition, businesses to elevate their sights, and people everywhere to raise their voices. “There is a better way, and we must take it.”
A New Social Contract within societies will enable young people to live in dignity; will ensure women have the same prospects and opportunities as men; and will protect the sick, the vulnerable, and minorities of all kinds. He pleaded for education and digital technology which he said must be two great enablers and equalizers.
Against that backdrop, Mr Guterres called for a New Global Deal to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly at the international level. A new model for global governance, he said, must be based on full, inclusive and equal participation in global institutions. In a clarion call, he held a strong plea for the developing world to have a far stronger voice in global decision-making.
Turning to contemporary inequality, Mr Guterres said that the expansion of trade, and technological progress, have contributed to “an unprecedented shift in income distribution”. Low-skilled workers are bearing the brunt, he warned, and face an “onslaught” from new technologies, automation, the offshoring of manufacturing and the demise of labour organizations.
Meanwhile, he continued, widespread tax concessions, tax avoidance and tax evasion, as well as low corporate tax rates, mean that there are reduced resources for social protection, education, and healthcare – services that play an important part in reducing inequality.
Some countries have allowed the wealthy and well-connected to benefit from tax systems, but “everyone must pay their fair share”, said Mr Guterres, and governments need to tackle the “vicious cycle” of corruption, which weakens social norms and the rule of law, and shift the tax burden from payrolls to carbon, which would help to address the climate crisis. [IDN-InDepthNews – 19 July 2020]
Photo: UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivers the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 19 July 2020.
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