Comment from Davos: End the billionaire bonanza

The head of Oxfam in India, Amitabh Behar, was to meet NZ Trade Minister David Parker at the invitation-only World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland. In this piece for Newsroom, he writes about the very inequality he's witnessing at the summit, and how governments - including ours - are the key to change.

I arrive in Davos optimistic that things are about to change.

Not out of some rose-tinted view of decisions that our leaders have been making. Far from it.

I am optimistic because with each passing day, our world of extremes created by the super-rich and pliant politicians, is being rejected. That the lies that uphold our unjust system are no longer being believed. That people know their own power to create something better.

Consider how Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and millions of brave school children have shaken humanity awake to the climate emergency. Consider the students in the streets of my own country fighting to protect the idea of an inclusive and secular India. Or the women standing up to end injustice and inequality that has been passed down generation after generation.

Imagine you had saved $10,000 every single day since Tutankhamun and the building of the pyramids. You would still own only one-fifth of the wealth of one of the five richest billionaires.

Consider that as I write, people are hitting the streets in thirty countries this very week as part of the Fight Inequality Alliance demanding an end to extreme wealth. Protests are growing around the world. In Chile a million people took to the streets to protest inequality, risking their lives in the process. This brave activism gives me hope.

New Oxfam data out this week shows that the world’s billionaires have more wealth than 4.6 billion people. Bloomberg have just shown how 500 people got over a trillion dollars richer in 2019.

How rich is billionaire rich? Imagine you saved $10,000 every single day since Tutankhamun and the building of the pyramids. You would still own only one-fifth of the wealth of one of the five richest billionaires. Does anybody need to be that rich?

This in a world in which nearly one in two of us is trying to survive on $5.50 or less a day. In fact, after years of declines, extreme poverty is now rising in many countries. Look at Latin America and the Caribbean, look at sub-Saharan Africa and India too.

Ours is a system designed to enrich a wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary people. Can it be any surprise that many people are the world are questioning if billionaires should even exist? Demanding that we abolish billionaires?

Oxfam's India chief executive Amitabh Behar

Oxfam has been raising the alarm on the extreme inequality crisis for years. But we’re learning more too. Our research now exposes a hidden injustice hardwired into our global economy – something that keeps all our economies, businesses and societies moving – robbing agency and opportunity from hundreds of millions of people.

It’s the exploitation of the labor of women and girls. Our data shows that women and girls will put in 12.5 billion hours of unpaid care work just today – and won’t be paid a cent or a rupee for it. Then there’s countless more work done for poverty wages, so often in slave-like conditions.

This unpaid care work contributes to the global economy at least $10.8 trillion a year. That’s three times the size of the global tech industry. Done for free. Until we rid the sexist injustice at the root of our global economy there can be solution to the inequality crisis.

At Davos I call upon leaders to commit to meet this crisis of extreme inequality that robs people’s dignity and burns our planet – with the serious urgency of resolve that it deserves.

A little change to economic behavior here, a little more innovation there, fostering a little more purpose in business – these are the kinds of solutions we constantly hear glorified in the halls of power. Useful as they may be, let us be under no illusion that they are enough – or can create some new utopian era of happiness for humanity.

No, be serious now. And while responsible business must play its part, it is governments – accountable to us as citizens – who must boldly act.

Serious solutions are “taxes, taxes, taxes”: corporations and the rich paying their fair share of tax, as even the IMF – hardly a bastion of left-wing activism – is now advocating. US billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than ordinary working people now, a trend taking place around the world.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers a speech during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos. Photo: Getty images

Serious solutions include wise investment in infrastructure. In childcare, health and education for all – among the most powerful equalisers our world knows to give ordinary people a chance at a life of true freedom to thrive.

It includes tackling the huge amount of care work done by women and girls – as a top priority for government. It’s about a radical rethink of work itself so those who do the most vital jobs in society – like caring for our kids and the most vulnerable – are paid at least a living wage.

It includes creative action to break up the rise of new (and old) monopolies. And to drive exciting new equitable business models that go beyond serving rich shareholders.

I could go on; the world is not short of solutions or imagination. But most of all we need a fundamental shift in recognition by leaders. The economic model they chose that gave us the billionaire bonanza must now come to an end.

This model has failed us – as people around the world are screaming from the rooftops. It is time governments did their job to build the more equal and more human economies that humanity now urgently needs.

Amitabh Behar is chief executive of Oxfam India.

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