Addressing inequality is at the heart of meeting the SDGs, advocates say

An ActionAid photo stunt shows the imbalance of power between the world's rich and poor. (Credit: Stephanie Diani/AP Images for ActionAid)

This is a part of a series of dispatches correspondent Tom Murphy is writing from New York during the U.N. General Assembly and all the related events.

NEW YORK — Achieving the ambitious goal of ending extreme poverty and the other targets set out for the next 15 years by the Sustainable Development Goals requires tackling the issue of inequality, advocates say. Doing so requires a shift from the overwhelming power held by the world’s wealthiest people and countries to the poor.

“The Sustainable Development Goals are a step forward as they identify the causes of poverty, but unless we change the rules that govern the global system, the same players will keep winning,” said Adriano Campolina, chief executive for ActionAid. “We need to build a more just future for all people and the planet where it’s no longer just money that talks and the gaps in society are narrower.”

An event hosted by ActionAid in New York late last week brought together advocates and organizations to rally against inequality and push for action. On the same day, Pope Francis argued that inequality contributes to the problem of poverty and allows it to persist.

“Even in the developed world, the effects of unjust structures and actions are all too apparent. Our efforts must aim at restoring hope, righting wrongs, maintaining commitments and thus promoting the well-being of individuals and of peoples. We must move forward together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good,” the pope said in his address to Congress.

Earlier in the day, ActionAid held a photo stunt to illustrate the imbalance between the rich and poor (photo at top). The world’s poor, dealing with issues of hunger, poverty, disease and debt, cannot overcome the wealthy fat cats, smoking cigars and enjoying champagne, in the tug-of-war for equality. The campaign asks, “What if the rules were fair?”

ActionAid estimates that the richest 200 people in the world have more money than the entire wealth of Africa. A similarly striking statistic from Oxfam finds that the richest 85 people have as much as the poorest 3.5 billion.

“Inequality is something we deal with on a regular basis,” said Theo Sowa, CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, at the event. “The real challenge is how we move from rhetoric on inequality to action.”

Fellow panel members, including Oxfam International head Winnie Byanyima, also discussed the need for discussions on inequality to transition to action. But few tangible steps were offered. Latin American feminist activist Marisa Viana and Sowa each stressed the importance of grassroots-led change. Both argued that changes are not going to come from the top-down, nor through massive NGOs.

“Our perceptions of African women and children fuel inequality,” said Sowa. “As long as we see them as victims we undermine our own efforts.”

Recent campaigns by ActionAid, Oxfam and others have focused on financial flows, specifically tax avoidance. Developing countries are losing out on as much as $160 billion per year in revenues due to steps taken by corporations and individuals to avoid paying taxes. That money could go to pay for public services such as hospitals, schools and roads.

Those countries recognized the problem. An attempt to include strong global rules on taxes as a part of the U.N. Financing for Development Conference in July failed. The event in Ethiopia was a crucial moment for securing money to pay for the Sustainable Development Goals, but the opportunity close tax avoidance loopholes was squashed by Western countries.

In closing remarks at the event, South African activist and audience member Jay Naidoo delivered an impassioned rant aimed at the world’s most powerful and the panel.

“Let’s not be sentimental about organizations. Some should close down,” he said.

Naidoo said that activists and NGOs failed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. It provided an opportunity to make structural changes, but things largely remain the same. He called the current moment an “organizer’s dream” because of the opportunity for progress and the wide range of problems around the world. And like others, he too said meaningful steps have to be taken to deal with the problem of inequality – including NGOs themselves.

“Just putting someone from the South in a position of power does not make it OK. That is tokenism.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.