Extreme economic inequality is out of control and getting worse. Within two years and, given current trends, the wealth concentrated in the hands of the richest 1 per cent will be greater than the wealth held by the remainder of the planet.
The very richest of the top 1 per cent — the billionaires on the Forbes list — have had their wealth grow 46 per cent to $1.9 trillion in the four years since 2010, while the poorest half of the world’s population has seen its wealth decrease. The 80 billionaires at the top now have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion.
Some critics say that to focus on the gap between rich and poor is the politics of envy, that we should celebrate the success of the rich rather than decry it.
But this is not about envy. It is about some very difficult facts. Facts that are so hard, with edges so sharp that, if they continue to be ignored, will tear the fabric of societies from Ghana to Germany and from Senegal to Spain.
They are fueling conflict, damaging economic growth and threatening to set back the fight against poverty by decades. As the gap widens, instability increases, and those left behind stop feeling they have a stake in society. That, no matter how hard they try, the game is rigged against them.
Then there are the pessimists in the debate, the people who say that nothing can be done to change deeply embedded economic structures. But such defeatism is unjustified, and often self-serving. Policy can be reshaped to once again mitigate rather than encourage inequality.
Extreme and rising economic inequality — along with climate change — is fast becoming the most pressing issue of our time.
World leaders — US President Barack Obama, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde and Pope Francis among them — have highlighted the scale of the challenge. Words of agreement now need to turn into genuine change and concrete policies agreed to combat this blight.
One reason for urgent action is that extreme inequality has begun to seep out of the economic sphere, poisoning other areas of our lives and posing a direct and silent assault on the democratic freedoms of millions around the world.
Extreme economic inequality is breeding political inequality, with rules being set to suit the interests of those at the very top.
Inequality rises when tax rules are unfair. The rules need to change to prevent corporations and many wealthy individuals from dodging the taxes they owe and to give governments the resources they need to tackle poverty and fight inequality.
This year needs to be the year that world leaders rewrite global corporate tax rules so they no longer unfairly benefit the people at the top.
This needs to be a year that sets the future of international cooperation on tax, with both rich and poor countries shaping policy.
For this reason, Oxfam is calling for a world tax summit in 2015, to implement and arbitrate fairer international tax rules.
By 2016, the top 1 per cent — that’s the world’s 70 million richest people — will have more wealth than the rest of the world’s 6.93 billion people put together.
This is not an unhappy accident or the result of some inevitable law of economics, but the result of deliberate policy choices and, increasingly, of powerful vested interests seeking to keep a larger slice of global wealth for themselves.
Last year, Oxfam launched a global campaign to tackle inequality, Even It Up, which pledged to campaign for years to come on a plan to close the gap between rich and poor, focusing on measures such as public financing for free health and education, to decent work and wages and wider political participation.
I encourage global leaders — not just politicians, but industrialists, financiers and the media — to agree action, before we sleepwalk toward a world in which rules are set exclusively by the rich, for the rich and from which there is no return. Democracy, peace, security and the very source of economic wealth depends on it.
Winnie Byanyima is the executive director of Oxfam International. She also co-chaired this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.