Solutions to inequality
A blog series bringing together inspiring policy ideas and initiatives delivering greater equality from around the world. Don’t accept it when people tell you that change isn’t possible!
In a past life, I spent a lot of time knocking on doors talking to people about potential ideas and policies that could address growing inequality and divisions in the UK. On the doorstep, I made an argument for fundamental change in our policy approach — one that emphasized community and the climate, shared prosperity, and the redistribution of wealth to correct for the past forty years of the rich taking a growing share of the pie. The basic gist of the response I got was, “I agree with you, but all those nice things you talk about — a green new deal, more investment in public services, affordable housing — those things are just not possible.” After so many years of things moving in the wrong direction, people couldn’t imagine an alternative. They simply didn’t believe change was possible.
A year ago, I was asked to run a global program looking at what was being applied or could be applied to address inequalities between rich and poor, ethnic or racial groups, those with and without disabilities, and genders. A group of high, middle, and low-income countries, as diverse as Sweden to Indonesia, and Costa Rica to Sierra Leone, had signed up to raise their ambition and take action to deliver greater equality. These countries had decided change was possible. This is not to say these countries are perfect, or get everything right, but the efforts and innovations do give you some inspiration and ideas of how any country could at least start moving in the right direction. Since then, after decades of talking about progressive policy, I’ve actually got to see them in action — a Green New Deal in South Korea, solidarity wealth taxes in Uruguay, community justice workers in Sierra Leone, even kindness and well-being at the center of the policy making in New Zealand. It is not just that seeing is believing, but that at a time when all we seem to hear is bad news, it’s good for your mental health to know there are solutions to the problems we face!
So, this year, our third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no doubt another year where they will be a lot to complain about, I’m going to write a regular blog on the ideas changing the world, including the political and communication strategies used to get policies through political processes, and the social movements ultimately agitating and bringing about the much needed shift in power from elites to everyday people. Real change is ultimately not just about piecemeal solutions, but the structural change that allows for more just systems of wealth and power to take hold. Understanding the mechanics of that process is what is key to delivering equality all over the world.
Today I’m starting with a broader question — is it even possible to reduce inequality? Given that all we ever seem to hear is that things are getting worse, it may feel like equality is an impossible challenge. And indeed, it is hard, in part because tackling inequality and discrimination means challenging elites who are invested in the status quo. But it does happen.
We explored the countries that saw declines and increases on different measures of inequality (using measures of the Gini, share of GDP held by top 10 percent earners, and top 1 percent earners). The pie chart below summarizes the results we got with the top 10 percent measure. Notwithstanding data limitations, we found that between 2001–2020, over a third of the 155 countries for which there was data have seen a consistent reduction on this particular measure. 36 percent of countries have a mixed track record over that period with the measure oscillating up and down. 30 percent of countries worldwide have experienced a consistent deterioration during the past two decades, meaning that the share of national income collected by the 10 percent richest citizens kept growing.
Figure 1: Changes in the share of national income held by top 10 percent earners’ across countries between 2000–2020
What can we take from these numbers? Well, if you are a glass half empty kind-of-person you will conclude that given so many countries saw either an outright deterioration or a reversal of earlier progress, it is rare to achieve and sustain improvements in inequality. However, if you are more of a glass half full type, you will notice that the data overall shows that the majority of countries saw improvements in at least one of the decades between 2001–2021. That is to say — lowering inequality is possible.
Countries seeing progress over the decades include countries like Botswana, Bolivia, and Sierra Leone. In our flagship report cataloguing policies from around the world, From rhetoric to action, we found that three key areas of policies were fundamental to explaining trends — the amount of effort to deliver visible change in people’s lives through initiatives such as universal healthcare and social protection; solidarity building between groups to overcome historic or emerging grievances; and, policies that help to secure credibility and trust in government through addressing corruption and financing for policies.
Many of the countries that saw a prolonged period of inequality growth are countries where there has been conflict, or rich countries where a mixture of weakened trade unions, financialization, technological change, and globalization have driven inequality. But there are no absolute rules. Countries can progress on inequality regardless of their income level because policies actually do make a difference. Some may suggest that different country contexts makes it hard to borrow policies from others, but as you will see in this blog series — there is a lot we can learn from each other.