I’m running with my daughter Sharhirah through rhododendron forest with Edmund the dog happily investigating all the interesting smells around us. The Himalayas stretch out languidly in the sun, a long white line on the horizon. Magic!
Out of nowhere Shar asks "What really is equality?”
I explain that equality is not everyone being the same, it is everyone having equal access to resources and opportunities. No one should have different prospects in life because of where they happen to live, what social group they belong to, their gender, their political beliefs, a stigmatising medical condition etc. Easy so far but we're surely going further.
Lungs, heart, blood and muscles working in miraculous cooperation we ran on wordless, each absorbed in their own physiology. On the road Eddie loping along beside us clack -clacks a background cadence with his claws on the road. The mountains just look on, mildly interested. Silent.
Shar breaks the spell “I know that equality is fairer, more just, but why is it good for everyone?”
Shar knows I believe strongly in equality (check my values in this site), knows that's because of justice but also because I believe distributing resources benefits everyone. This was empirically proved for me in the best selling book "The Spirit Level " by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, two epidemiologists who rigorously explore the relationship between equality and various social indicators. Their conclusions are huge: all social indicators correlate directly and positively with equality and equalising a society benefits everyone, not just the disadvantaged. For more see their Equality Trust website.
Why is equality better even for advantaged elites who control and deliberately maintain unequal societies? Even while running my answer came easily. I explained that every nation’s most important resource is its people. Equal access to healthcare and education (practically this means governments investing citizen’s money in schools and hospitals/health posts) may be perceived as equality by individuals but for the nation its developing and maximising its human resource. Well educated, healthy citizens contribute more ideas and social and economic activity to their communities, their nation. Everyone does better. Obvious really.
Similarly supporting housing, communications and transport is a no-brainer. At least to me. Why would you not want your primary resource to be well fed, comfortably housed, connected to each other and the world and freely mobile? "Doh!" (Simpson 1995) Yet extraordinarily we structure our world very differently. I am reading Harsh Mander’s convicting book “Looking Away” in which he points out various forms of structural discrimination built into this nation and quotes Ambedkar's rapier sharp metaphor of Indian society:
"...a multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody has to die in the storey they were born in."
[see Arundathi Roy's essay around this: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/essay/doctor-and-saint ]
A multi-storeyed tower without entrance or staircases? Crazy. But true.
“Multi-storeyed tower without staircases” accurately describes Indian society but also the world's social architecture. In our brutal economic caste system human trajectories are pre-determined by wealth and status at birth. Medical school was accessible to me because I grew up in New Zealand. A Delhi bustee child is lucky for a few years in a poorly resourced school-. high school is inconceivable let alone medical school for six more years. Kathmandu street kid's can't ever climb Mt Everest yet I once worked as expedition doctor for a company which puts rich westerners atop Sangamartha. They don't need climbing experience, just one or two hundred thousand dollars to be guided on lesser expeditions and many thousands more to be told how to put one foot in front of the other all the way up Everest. Oh, and maybe another $20,000 for "Max Ox" (tank oxygen carried up by sherpas). The modern climbing apprenticeship is not a lifetime of climbing mountains, it is learning the skills to reach the top of the human pyramid. With no staircase to climb up there a Kathmandu street kid's highest aspiration might be to become a migrant labourer in the 'Gulf'. In 2022 we residents of our multi-storey world's upper apartments will tune in to the Soccer World Cup in Qatar. The air-conditioned stadia in which games will be played will serve as places of worship for a modern world that did away with temples long ago. Those Qatari cathedrals are being built now by migrant Nepali's (and others) enslaved on construction sites with inhuman work safety. Many die, poor lower storey souls ending their lives on the floor of their birth. So it goes.
We run on past Kaplani. Washed with recent rain and buffed with the monsoon's last ragged clouds this crystal October morning is so clear that the Himalayas perforating the horizon seem within reach. Luminous.
“But if equality is better for everyone why is the world so unequal? How do we equalise it?” asked Shar.
Ah, the kids' killer question. Obvious and unanswerable. We turn around and start for home. Why indeed? We know its is better for everyone, but its too hard for us on the top deck to lose a little power and privilege to get us all to that good place. There’s the rub. Power! Equality threatens securely powerful people. We prefer control over justice, take power over happiness. It's a paradox I discussed in my "Choosing to Hunt Stags" blog post : For full control over a tiny carcass people will chose to hunt rabbits alone rather than cooperatively hunting stags and sharing mountains of meat. Crazy. But true. Sharing power is too hard.
However now its not a choice. Equality is a desperate necessity. Humanity's ship is sinking. If we stay in the deckchairs rather than roll up our sleeves and bail alongside our under-deck crew it's not only the lower deck that sinks. We'll all go down. Along with the many other reasons for equality we need seven billion of us in miraculous cooperation- full planetary participants creating and experimenting with ideas to stabilise climate, share water resources, maintain biodiversity, resettle migrants, manage fisheries and forests ... We also need seven billion to buy in to solutions (e.g. collective carbon emission agreements). Yet we bask in the deckchairs of a sinking ship with no staircase, keeping our salvation locked in the airless galley under us.
Human development might be just like property development after all, an attempt to change the social architecture of our tower without staircases. On community, regional, national or global level development should connect people who are divided and facilitate them (i.e. us) to find solutions together. Lets build staircases (i.e. relationships) where there are none.
But Shar asked "How?". How do we get to that nirvana of equality? How do we convince those who hold power that sharing it actually benefits them as well as everyone else?
We run on. Eddie crashes down through the trees after a barking deer...a shy kaleej pheasant scurries away as we round a corner... the last uphill from Jabarkhet tests aching legs.... leaping out across a hole in the canopy a langur hangs still against the sky, tail streaming out... And, after 16 magical kilometres, we're home! Exhausted and energized.
Langur-likeShar's question "How do we get to equality?" hangs still in the treetops of my thoughts. Unanswered.
p.s.. in October 2016 I was delighted to get a piece on equality published by the British Medical Journal. It's not medicine, just the planet's biggest health issue. Part of my reason for the piece was to bring poverty up to the top deck, a discussion topic for deckchair-wallahs blithely diverting ourselves with other things. See: blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2016/10/06/jeph-mathias-the-human-face-of-inequality/