The David Morrison Lecture, held in the name of Dr. David Morrison, founding chair of what is now the International Development Studies Department, has brought an array of globally distinguished scholars and notable personas to speak on topics related to Development.
This year, the David Morrison Lecture was hosted by Ms. Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam
International. Ms. Byanyima’s lecture, titled “Rising Inequality and the Need for an Economy That Works For All”, challenged the current economic system and explored solutions that would generate fairer, more equal outcomes.
Ms. Byanyima packs an impressive history. She was the first female Ugandan to receive a degree in aeronautical engineering, a combatant during times of political strife, Uganda’s ambassador to France, and later the Director of the Gender Team in the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Program.
Today, Ms. Byanyima is a globally recognized figure in the struggle for women’s rights, social equality, and peace building.
Dr. Akram-Lodhi, Chair of the Department of International Development Studies, introduced Ms. Byanyima and attributed the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” to Ms. Byanyima more than any other person.
“University is where I really became a serious activist and a feminist – I am a feminist.” Ms. Byanyima began by recalling her time at Manchester University as one of debates, movements, and a process of learning to organize for change.
She argued that the role of universities is to form creative and political citizens; “Yes, I said political.”
Ms. Byanyima then addressed the problem with our current economic system. She argued that the space of global economic and political thinking is confined to a few elites who “pretend to have the answers.” And yet, we are experiencing inequality at unprecedented levels. The 1% has more wealth than he rest of the world combined.
So far, the argument has been rooted in the notion that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that economic growth will trickle down and will eradicate poverty. Ms. Byanyima argued the contrary and challenged economic measures of development.
She presented the cases of Nigeria and Bangladesh, whereby Nigeria went through a period of dramatic and sustained economic growth, while at the same time living conditions and poverty levels remained unchanged.
On the other hand, Bangladesh, a poorer nation by measures of GDP, possessed a more equal population. Despite Nigeria’s higher GDP, its child mortality rate was three times higher than Bangladesh’s. She argued that solutions do not lie in economic growth, but in addressing inequality.
Ms. Byanyima argues that inequality affects us all. It undermines social mobility, safety, and democracy. It touches a moral nerve. And yet, rising inequality has been justified as a necessary byproduct of economic growth.
According to Ms. Byanyima, “the current economic model is broken. It doesn’t work for women and neither is it developing stable economic growth.”
She argues that at the root of the problem of persistent and rising levels of inequality is power, which necessarily requires a discussion on gender.
“Everywhere, where there is power and wealth, you will find that women are underrepresented.” Ms. Byanyima exemplified how women do not benefit from the economy as men do by providing statistical figures of lifetime income gaps.
In Germany, for example, the lifetime income gap between men and women is 49%, which means that over the course of a lifetime, women will earn half of what men do. Additionally, out of all billionaires in the world, 11% of them are women.
Out of those 11%, only 25% are self-made billionaires.
Household work, an occupation traditionally filled by women, is excluded from the economic sphere.
Because it is invisible in terms of the economy, household work is not seen as valuable. However, Ms. Byanyima argues that the value of this invisible work amounts to $23 trillion per year.
She challenges the notion of the ‘homo-economicus’ by questioning: “Who cooks his meals? Who washes his clothes? And who cares for his children?”
Why, then, has such a flawed economic system survived? For Dr. Byanyima, the answer lies in wealth. Because power translates into money, wealthy individuals and corporations “hijack democracy” through lobbying, corruption, and financial influence.
Much of the lobbying and corruption occurs with the purpose of influencing tax structures. Corporations all over the world evade taxes by employing a number of different tactics.
In Africa alone, $11 billion were denied from public resources in the form of tax evasions. Corporate tax evasions hinder the provision of public goods and services, which directly affects women, as they tend to take the place of the government when these services are lacking.
Ms. Byanyima argues that we need a “more human economy,” one whose policies are open to morals and compassion. She proposes three pillars for transforming the current system into an economy that works for all:
The first pillar consists of addressing taxes. She argues that the burden of taxes should be taken off the poorest and enforced on corporate interests. A more fair, global approach to taxes is necessary to ensure that adequate resources are directed towards public services.
The second pillar is one of redistribution. The money from fair tax regimes should be invested in health, education, and other public goods to eradicate the poorest of the poor. Dr. Byanyima views redistribution as a pro-growth policy, and states that social protection is a safety net that should be the responsibility of governments. This approach to redistribution, she argues, makes society as a whole more compassionate and less focused on individualism.
Additionally, redistribution through public services also addresses an aspect of gender inequality.
“When you ensure that families don’t have to pay for education, you don’t make them take difficult choices,” explains Ms. Byanyima. Often, it is girls who are disproportionately affected by the lack of basic services.
The third pillar consists of valuing all contributions that people make, especially those of women. This pillar involves redistributing household responsibilities and ensuring equal opportunities for all.
Before sharing inspiring words with students and community members alike in the ensuing reception, Ms. Byanyima left the stage with some final words, asking us to rethink our role in perpetuating or alleviating global inequality:
“In my view, we all face a choice. We can either walk a path that elites have paved for us, or we can choose a far greater journey.”