Sustainable inequality looms over Rio+20

Two triple-A speakers in successive prime time plenary slots on the subject of global inequality at a conference sponsored by natural scientists! Planet Under Pressure 2012 just keeps getting better.

I whistled up my core concerns on the issue in readiness for enlightenment. Why is current anxiety about inequality triggering little political response? Where is the fresh resolve to end absolute poverty in low income countries?

Is the current boom in economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa coupled with equity? Is it pro-poor growth or just another elite scramble for African resources?

I listened to two probing, stimulating and important presentations. But my questions remained unanswered. It seems that even those who have climbed the greasy pole can sometimes overlook the words printed on the programme.

We forgive them of course, not least because the Twitter-sphere doesn’t really bother to connect outcomes with expectations.

Professor Richard Wilkinson has perfected a schoolmasterly tone of declaiming surprising facts as though they are obvious, somewhat reminiscent of a Stephen Fry soliloquy. But the ideas of The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone, the 2009 book that he co-authored with Kate Pickett, do not fully embrace the advertised topic of Societal equality and global sustainability.

We’ve known for a long time that the Scandinavian socio-economic model delivers impressive indicators of well-being; that its governments commit to more foreign aid and support multilateral environmental agreements.

“Getting more and more of everything makes less and less difference,” said Professor Wilkinson. Quite so, but why does the Thatcher/Reagan pact persist despite its divisive results? Why are we not emigrating to Sweden? English is widely spoken and the universities are free.

Equity and development in the 21st century was the brief, but not the topic, for Dr Mamphela Ramphele, a development specialist and well-known political activist in South Africa. She spoke powerfully about the damaging impact of post-conflict trauma and gender violence on the capacity for good citizenship.

I’m not sure how I should position Dr Ramphele’s ideas in the context of insistent western media reports that Africa has become a magnet for foreign investment. Only this morning a Guardian article offers “concrete proof of the economic revolution in Mozambique.”

There’s no question that an investment beehive is buzzing around the continent. But there’s a very real data deficit on poverty. The quinquennial household survey programme is years behind in many countries.

Those surveys of poverty reduction that have been published recently show mixed results – quite good in small dynamic Rwanda but desperately awful in Nigeria, one of the countries touted as a hotspot for investors.

“South Africa is poster child of inequality and its costs,” said Mamphela Ramphele. But I’m not sure that South Africa is a template for the region because it has already industrialised. Countries such as Ghana, Angola and Tanzania may be on the cusp of transition – how will their rural economies look when these countries emerge?


this article was first published by OneWorld UK