Time to Rewrite the Rules – For The 99%

Winnie Byanyima – Executive Director at Oxfam

And so the year begins to close with much to reflect upon.

Did we expect all these “crises” we’re now facing — and if not, why? What caused them? How do we engage with them now?

Personally, I was surprised at the collective shock at the

year’s big moments — Brexit, for example, or the US presidential election. We tend to view these events through a Northern prism.

Globally, these moments I feel were just the latest in a series of events stemming from a thirty-year economic orthodoxy.

In fact, many of us from the South still in the struggle for democracy and human rights have long wondered why so many in the North took so long to see the political capture in their own systems that pushed back ordinary people — until now.

We must link together, globalize even, our world’s similar struggles — those within rich countries, and those between the rich North and developing South.

The 1% Are Writing the Rules

From Durban to Dallas, our economic model marches to the beat of those with extreme wealth. It has enabled 62 billionaires to accumulate as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people (watch this space for our latest research come January). Decades of progress in the long fight against poverty and gender inequality are being held back.

Pointing to Oxfam’s statistic, President Obama was right to say that A world in which 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99% will never be stable.

This is a world in which big business and wealthy elites are now very openly writing political rules to their favor: be it lowering their own taxes, or forcing austerity, whilst expecting bailouts as we saw in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Some of Oxfam’s most recent research shows how the most powerful US companies collectively received $130 in tax breaks for every $1 spent on lobbying.

Democracy or Inequality: Your Choice

I find the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ words here to be prophetic: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.”

Faced with this, governments face a choice: either reduce inequality, or reduce democracy.

Around the world they are repeatedly opting for the latter. The International Trade Union Confederation, for example, finds a 22% increase in restrictions on the rights of voice and assembly in its latest survey of 141 countries — that is developed and developing nations.

Within this increasingly fraught, political and contested space, the power of people is being decimated. Citizens must dig deep to amplify their voices together. I fiercely believe that current events only heighten the importance of civic space, for citizens to be able to advocate and influence.

Amidst these rising anxieties, we would be wise to learn from the triumphs by citizens around the world. These victories are happening and often do not make headlines. Take the ‘Civil Society Platform on the IMF Bailout‘ in Ghana, of which Oxfam was a part. We won the arguments to ensure the IMF’s bailout did not cut but instead increased social spending – by 30%!

A genuine discussion is necessary. We must not tinker at the margins but honestly seek to address the causes of inequality.

Fundamental is the Protection of Rights

Fundamental is the need for governments to protect the space for citizens to claim their rights, organize and express themselves.

The people standing up most strongly for our democracies should be celebrated not prosecuted — be it those countless human rights defenders who defend all our rights, or the brave whistle-blowers who expose tax dodging.

Vested interests thrive in the shadows. Citizens need to know how their countries are being run so that they can hold governments and big business to account. .

Yet it is ever more apparent to me that by themselves, civic space and transparency are not enough.

They do not fight inequality; people do. And so the process of public policy itself requires recalibrating — putting people at their center — to deliver better policies, continually improve services, and build trust.

Power to the People

Governments must reimagine the way in which they foster citizen participation in decision-making. It is essential that they engage more meaningfully with the voices of marginalized and least represented people, for example women who are unable to participate in policy consultations because they do most of the unpaid care work.

The Open Government Partnership (OGP), which has engineered ambitious and innovative ways to make governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens, has proven that better engagement pays off: the more civil society is involved, the likelier that policy commitments will be ambitious and delivered.

I am particularly eager for governments to also lock-in policies that respond to the real needs of citizens. Some examples of “feedback loops” exist already: a citizen complaints portal in Bojonegoro in Indonesia that insists governments must respond to citizens within five days, to “Check My Services“ in Mongolia which sees citizens score over 84 public services — that affect over 45,000 citizens- from universities and hospitals to street-lights and waste disposal.

These exciting initiatives shift power to people.

Let’s Rewrite the Rules

Change is necessarily complex and, even at best, drawn out.

But in many ways, inch by inch, policy by policy, the movement for open, responsive, accountable governments distils democracies to what they should be.

Let us continue to rewrite the rules so they work for all of us, not an elite few.


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