Published: Bangkok Post, Opinion
7 Jun 2013 at 00.00 TST
The report fails to challenge the world’s biggest problem: the world’s economic systems are designed to channel the world’s wealth, resources and power to a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority.
In an entire year a Bangladeshi garment worker will make less than one of the world’s wealthiest people, Gina Reinhardt, makes in one single second. Six people in the Walmart family own more wealth than the annual budget of Bangladesh’s government. One percent of the world’s population owns more wealth than the bottom 95% and the global financial crisis has increased inequality even further.
Last Friday a group of UN appointed ‘eminent persons’ presented UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, with a report that could have provided bold and desperately needed solutions to shift the perverse wealth differences that currently exist.It could have aimed to redistribute some of the world’s resources topromotedignity for the 40% of people who exist on less than $2 per day. Instead the High Level Panel presented the report “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development”.
The report outlines possible new development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015. The report recommends 12 laudable goals that aspire to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and incorporate sustainable development, governance and some human rights.
But what would these goals mean to women working in the garment industry in Bangladesh working 15 hour days, separated from their children, subject to fires, building collapses and stifling conditions to make the cheapest possible clothes for Northern consumers. What would these goals mean to indigenous communities evicted from their lands to make way for more extractive industries, eroding their lands for generations. What would these goals mean for migrant domestic workers, denied wages, time off, personal space and subjected to harassment? And what do these goals mean for the obscenely rich, earning more in one second than those who have been ‘lifted out of extreme poverty’ earn in an entire year.
I’m sorry to say – very little.
The report fails to challenge the world’s biggest problem: the world’s economic systems are designed to channel the world’s wealth, resources and power to a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority. The report ignores the calls of civil society to urgently address wealth inequalities. Instead the major theme of the report is that free trade and economic growth will provide for all with a little nudging and guidance. This is the model promoted by the World Bank and other financial institutions for the past 30 years that allowed the wealthiest 1% to grow richer while real wages and income fell.
The report aims to eradicate extreme poverty but continues to measure poverty at the obscenely low rate of $1.25 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) per day. This amount measures how much could be purchased in the US with $1.25 and translates it to local consumption. World Bank conversions amount to (THB 22.8, Bangladeshi Taka 38.8, INR 9790, 56 Nepalese Rupee, 28 Indian Rupee, 31.6 Philppine Peso, 1.6 FJD). This is not a poverty rate, it is a starvation rate. No-one can live even close to dignity on this amount which includes food, water, clothing, energy, health, education and other services. The rate effectively calculates how many people are at risk of death from starvation, exposure, lack of health care.
Not surprisingly there is good and bad in the report. For women’s rights movements there appears to be good news. A stand-alone gender goal was included as well as disaggregated indicators in other goals. Eliminating violence against women and ending child marriage are included as indicators and the panel has gone beyond previous commitments to recommend universal access to contraception. While these are significant, the report fails to fully recognise that women constitute the majority of the world’s poor, make up the majority of workers in the most vulnerable sectors: domestic workers, garment workers, subsistence farming and suffer disproportionately from climate disasters that they are least responsible for. Women need more than non-discrimination measures. They need real economic transformation, redistribution and justice. They need to have a genuine say over development, their bodies, their communities and global systems.
One of the most alarming parts of the report is the suggestion that the Decent Work agenda of the ILO (already agreed by governments, employers and trade unions) is aiming too high for developing countries. Rather than Decent Work the panel suggests that developing countries can make do with ‘good jobs’. Good jobs are defined glibly as ‘fair pay and security.’ We’re left wondering what fair pay might look like – is it simply more than $1.25? APWLD and other civil society groups, as well as at least one of the panel members, argued for the inclusion of a living wage as a target. A living wage would make a genuine difference to garment workers, to domestic workers, to agricultural workers. But rather than aspire to really transform the lives of workers the report promotes labour force flexibility and productivity and ignores the fact that wages have effectively decreased while profit has risen.
Landlessness is increasingly recognised as a more meaningful measurement of poverty than income. But land-grabbing and forced evictions to make way for development are increasingly making poor people landless. More than 80 million hectares of land have been grabbed by corporations and governments, most in the past three years. The report recognises land as a key development issue but wrongly ascribes security of ownership as the only factor.
Goal 1.b) Increase by x% the share of women and men, communities and businesses with secure rights to land, property, and other assets
The inclusion of ‘businesses’ reduces what could have been a meaningful goal to one that can be easily distorted and enable land-grabbing and forced evictions to follow. Measuring the distribution of land and resources and aiming for more equitable distribution amongst people, rather than corporations, would be meaningful.
The panel suggests the World Trade Organisation (WTO) “is the most effective tool to increase the development impact of trade” and needs to play a greater role. But civil society has long criticized the WTO for its bias in protecting large corporations and wealthy industrialised countries and this recommendation speaks to the central narrative of the report as promoting existing models of economic growth.
Throughout the report there are some laudible inclusions but little to ensure accountability of governments or the private sector to make change. The existing target of keeping global warming to less than 2c is included but no targets for countries to cut carbon emissions. The report includes the aspiration to reduce violence and increase peace but no targets to reduce military spending or measure militarism. It includes addressing tax evasion butdidn’t propose concrete ways to ensure accountability for the $32 trillion dollars in off-shore havens carefully guarded by the super-rich.
In short, the authors of the report failed to utilise the opportunity to provide a new vision, a fairer world, a more sustainable world and instead hope to make the existing world a little more palatable to the 99% without rocking the yachts of the 1%.
By — Kate Lappin, Regional Coordinator, Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD).
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 1.25 represents 2005 purchasing power. Exchanges rates are current and conversion is based on 2011 World Bank percentage.