Fantastic answer... to the wrong question.

Equality is central to who I am and what I do. In my development thinking everyone, not just the poor, are better off in a more equal society, a more equal world.   With any project I work with  I strive for equality and justice. In this website equality appears in my values,  under my what I offer tab and many of my posts…. So of course this headline in Duncan Green’s well known development blog caught my attention :

A new Index to measure whether governments are serious about reducing inequality.

I  automatically clicked the“read more” button which led to a fascinating Oxfam project, highly nuanced and complex, to gather data. make sense of it and display which countries are serious about inequality. Their 7000 + data points n 152 countries  cover taxation, talk about how that money is spent, look at labour policies and much much more. In their summary league table (they know it simplifies and omits lots, its just an overview) Sweden is, unsurprisingly, first. Japan is high, and India, home to 20% of humanity staggers in, 132nd out of 152. That’s not surprising either. India is a "tower of hierarchies with no staircases"  (read Arundathi Roy's brilliant analysis of this here). This country is built on caste, religious discrimination, gender disparity and overt racism towards indigenous people, even those with dark skin. Of the little tax collected hardly any is designated for schools and hospitals, and of what little is much is corruptly siphoned off. India has one of the world's highest GINI coefficients (top 20% income/bottom 20% income). Alongside its appalling rates of illiteracy, communicable diseases, open defecation and poverty the nation boasts nuclear weapons, Bollywood, IPL cricket and some of the planet's richest individuals. It's hard to argue that India is serious about reducing inequality, and this data proves it.

The map. Europe bulges out proudly, Brazil, India, Russia China and most of the rest shrink back in shame

The map. Europe bulges out proudly, Brazil, India, Russia China and most of the rest shrink back in shame

 Their creative interactive map grows or shrinks countries according to their overall commitment to inequality. Play with it here.  India is skewed and shrunken, deservedly, so. Actually much of the world is shrunken and distorted- humans are experts at inequality-  but one can't help noticing Europe, top centre, just like in the colonial days, bulging proudly out. Nearly all if its governments are serious about inequality says the data. ( Australasia looks good too)…Is this real?  Are Europeans really leading the world in commitment to reducing equality, or is this an artifact? 

Top of the Table- the countries most committed to equality.

Top of the Table- the countries most committed to equality.

Lets think of alternative explanations. Belgium, Britain, France and Spain introduced conquistadores and concentration camps to the world in the days they lorded over empires on which the sun never set. They stripped countries of their resources (including Human Resources, aka slaves) and grew wealthy. They globalized inequality! Now, after raping their colonies, they're addressing inequalities within their borders. The other table-topping countries may not all have been colonial powers but are all experts in the neoliberal game of extracting resources from less savvy countries. The data does not explore history, it only looks within national borders today. The researchers are not asking my question- How can global inequality be addressed? They are asking "which countries are looking after their own?"  What I seeis even in those countries ever more disparate Indivudual wealth- if considered globally.  Oxfam itself published data showing 8 people now own as much as half of humanity. The previous year it was 62. Even if Europe is working on inequality inside  national borders, if it is simultaneously facilitating its citizens and corporations to exploit the rest of the world I say "So what?.

In the big picture I don't care much about ranking countries based only on what they do within their borders. I care about what the elite world is doing to reduce global inequality. I want to see questions like: Who is taking refugees? Who is reducing tax on their richest individuals and companies? Who is meeting aid targets? Which nations are not curbing their carbon footprint?  Many of the very countries that top the league in commitment to equality are creating an international context in which such obscene inequality is not only possible but increasing. Four of the top ten are "tax havens" which I describe as places people who rob the planet can hide their takings. Come to think of it, maybe that describes all rich countries?

  Despite purported commitment to equality by most of Europe, global inequality has increased. How? Why? Wy does this research not comment?Could the boundaries within which they ask their questions be wrong? ( wrong for me, that is. It might be the right question for them) 

I think so.  I’m worried about inequality on all levels from global to local. For me the world is a fractal (self-similar copies on different scales). Inequality cascades through the system from within families (e.g. Indian families often give the best food and education to their sons not daughters) to communities, to regions, states, nations, and ultimately to the planetary scale. Every level informs and influences the others- its multidimensional, complex.  This research looking only at nation states is unidimensional and complicated. The answer to the narrow question " which countries are dealing  with inequality within their borders?" is almost meaningless to me.

 Some obvious things not factored into the graphs are CO2 emissions per capita. If exploiting other’s resources and throwing pollution back were defined as inequality  Britain, Australia and New Zealand would shamefacedly shrink into a corner.  Bangladesh, 141st in the current league of shame might rise ike. Its sea level. On inequality index surely it should get some compensation for the  floods cyclones and salination inflicted by all those countries supposedly seriously tackling inequality.

Labour laws are one of  principal measures used in this study. Rightly so- it is hard to promote equality if employers (usually rich and powerful)  can easily  exploit (much more vulnerable) workers. Great. But who buys all those textiles Bangladesh produces in its infamous sweat-shops. And the running shoes, and the environmentally destructive coffee? Consumers, mostly in those 'equality centred countries. Their governments might be trying to reduce inequality within their borders but their citizens are promoting it outside their borders (Its called the global economy, stupid).  Asking about what the‘good’ west is doing locally but not globally makes this look Eurocentric: western researchers drawing their boundaries around a strictly defined enquiry, asking their questions inside those boundaries and finding their bounded answers. 

The "Hall of Shame" according to this study, where  India, Bangladesh and Pakistan all languish

The "Hall of Shame" according to this study, where  India, Bangladesh and Pakistan all languish

The authors have not factored in production or use of weapons of mass destruction which mostly happens by massive investment in war hardware by the very governments that come out yellow (high commitment to equality) in this map.The British government cares about inequality according to this data. Yet it has sent soldiers to Iraq. They call locals towelheads and shoot unarmed men-then are acquitted (put "Iraq soldier murder acquitted" into Google. Scary) Britain also invests obscenely in all manner of highly civilized, grotesque weaponry. Tridents are not for use witin Britain (inside its borders  the government is  working on equality says the data). Tridents are for threatening and killing outside its borders, “securing energy" (an euphemism for neo-colonial war)...Tridents are for keeping Britain rich and able to worry about inequality in the Homeland. These researchers do not ask equality questions about weapons, threatening and invasions. Proud Britain would shrink if nuclear weapons or global bullying were factored in. Nor  do they ask who used a veto to block the UN from progressing global equality. If these questions were asked USA might disappear altogether….  India would not look so bad.. But all that is outside these researchers' boundaries.

The research is focused on intra-country equality. But in the modern world there is another major unit of power- corporations. Many corporations are economically bigger than small nation states. It is a major hole in the research that they do not analyze corporations nor ask which courntries facilitate corporate power. It is another boundary decision- what is in and what is out of their research- and I narrows the relevance of their findings. 

I am not only negative- this deep research is treasure trove of information and alalysis. If, say, I am doing a job in Afghanistan I will be able to find a snapshot of the national mechanisms for equality around me and how they play out. That will help me know what is possible for the project I am working with, what opportunities might exist, what the roadblocks are. Yes, heres a fabulous album of micro-level snapshots but  but its not the place to look for answers to my macro-question- "How to tackle global inequality?"  There are too many unasked questions, too much of a present day, Eurocentric focus. This is asking safe questions today, getting safe answers.  Yes this is a great answer but to the wrong question (for me). They have asked what shows whether countries are serious about reducing inequality within thier borders but ignore what they do beyond their borders. In a globalized and interconnected world that’s not a big enough question.

 For me in a globalized world all levels of this interconnected issue are important, and decisions at one level ripple up and down to levels around them. A powerful nation undermining the UN is more important for global  equality than what it is doing in its borders.  I want researchers to ask “what steps are people, communities, districts, nations and the world taking to promote equality?” I want to know if countries are only trying to keep their own citizens rich or make the world more equal. I am particularly interested in organizations (from family to nation ) that try to influence the proximate level to more equal, more just- for instance a family trying to build equality in its community or a nation trying to make the world more equal. For me rogue states that take other countries resources, exploit other countries labour and return their pollution are not promoting equality, even if the lucky few inside their borders become relatively equal with each other. I want research at that level.


[This piece, entirely a personal response to this research, finds it does not answer my questions about global equality. I am not saying it is bad research. Though not very relevant to me it may well be answering the researchers' question. This critique is similar to my response to research purporting to show that life is getting better for humanity]