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Asia at a Crossroads on Inequality

The big news in Asia this week has been the visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. In both countries, he was welcomed by millions of people who heard him speak about truth, reconciliation, concern for the environment, corruption and inequality. An influential global figure, Pope Francis earlier on said, “Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that create huge inequalities.”

Meanwhile, in Davos, the richest and most powerful people from government, business and the academe are also gathering for the World Economic Forum to discuss the global economy. It too has said that along with climate change, inequality is the top global threat to economic growth and prosperity.

In Davos and in Asia, Oxfam is laying out the cold facts that have led to a world where the combined wealth of the richest 1 per cent will overtake that of the other 99 per cent of people in two years unless the current trend of rising inequality is checked. In Davos, Oxfam’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima is co-hosting the summit and will be pushing Oxfam’s message and call to action.

In Bangkok, Oxfam is launching its report Asia at a Crossroads: why the region must address inequality now to peel back the gold leaf that has covered Asia’s economic success story for the longest time, and expose the fact that almost half a billion people continue to live in abject poverty, leading lives untouched by the booming regional economy. Alongside Asia’s economic growth is a sharp widening of the gap between rich and poor. Almost every Asian country has grown wealthier since 1990 yet in the same past two decades the Gini coefficient (standard measurement of economic inequality) for the region as a whole increased an astounding 18 percent. And while China and India now have 1.3 million millionaires between them, together they still have 300 million people still living in extreme poverty. In cities from Mumbai to Bangkok, state-of-the-art condo and office towers stand alongside shantytowns where people live with no basic services and little protection from the elements.

But Asia is known for civil society movements who press hard for solutions to poverty and inequality, moving governments and businesses to take action, and many have set initiatives into motion. But if solutions are limited to economic measures, efforts will fall short because inequality is not solely about income. Inequality is also about discrimination, exclusion and marginalisation, and powerlessness. The growing gap between rich and poor across the Asia is exacerbated and driven by longstanding discriminations – against women, ethnic minorities and lower castes, among others. Women and girls represent two-thirds of all people living in poverty in Asia. More than 260 million people are affected by caste discrimination worldwide and the majority of them live in South Asia. Limited economic opportunities and exclusion from political power can trap marginalised groups at the bottom of the ladder.

Inequality is not a natural outcome of development. Deliberate policy choices have fostered the extremes of wealth and poverty seen across Asia today. But deliberate choices can also turn things around. Oxfam recommends that an Asian approach to tackling inequality should prioritise five inter-reliant pillars which will start to move us all towards a future of health and education for all, fair access to land and other productive resources, living wages and fair taxation. For these measures to work effectively they must be accompanied by greater attention to the needs of disadvantaged groups and must explicitly promote women’s equality and defend women’s rights.

If Asia’s policymakers hold tight to yesterday’s truths, hoping against hope that an expanding economy will trickle down to all, they will put everyone’s welfare at risk. But if there are courageous leaders, willing to tackle inequality head-on, they can ensure continued progress toward an inclusive and sustainable development for all of Asia’s people.

Lilian Mercado & Sophie Freeman

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