Power, Poverty, Gender and Injustice: The local impact of inequality

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 - 15:07

Much of the recent debate on inequality has focused on the big picture of how a few individuals (62, in Oxfam’s January paper) have the same wealth as half the world’s population. As usefully provocative as these findings are, ActionAid wants to be sure that we also focus on the lived experience of inequality at the local level. Although we have victories against inequality, this piece aims to highlight how in our work we have witnessed the impact of the excessive power of the wealthiest, of transnational corporations, of large-scale farmers and other elites devastating the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged people.

Inequality is about power and the domination it allows. Such domination is common at the global, the national, the community, and the household levels, perpetrated by both local and global actors.

Customs and threats keep women unequal

Women work long hours to provide numerous services in their homes and communities, including preparing food and taking care of children as well as of the sick and elders. Families and societies could not survive without these services, but they aren’t recognized as economicactivities, meaning that women are simply expected to do them, robbing them of other opportunities. Hundreds of millions of women and girls are denied their basic rights to education, healthcare, decent work and leisure time. This robs people of decent lives, perpetuates gender inequality, reinforces gender norms and keeps women and girls in poverty.

Cambodia is an example of a country that has long been plagued by high levels of violence against women. A UN study showed one in every three men in relationship committed violence against women. Gang rape has even been described in some discussions with men as a “recreational” sex activity. The threat of violence whenever women leave their home (and too often within their home) forecloses their economic, educational, and social opportunities.


Outcast groups sentenced to lifetime poverty & exclusion

In India and Nepal, the caste system creates an unequal society that discriminates against individuals from lower castes throughout their lives. They are excluded from virtually all social, economic and political opportunities. Nearly half of Nepal’s Dalits (“untouchables”), who remain landless, live below the poverty line. Dalits’ life expectancy is lower than the national average, and so is their literacy rate. They are usually denied access to religious sites, face resistance to inter-caste marriages, refusal by non-Dalits to use water they’ve had contact with, and many other forms of discrimination.

The International Dalit Society Network published a story of Gore Sunar, 55, a Dalit bonded labourer in Western Nepal who had worked without a salary for 25 years. He worked for four landlords to avoid repayment demands of loans. The caste system is sanctioned inequality, with those on the bottom condemned to lives of misery.

Landless Dalit women are worse off. When employed in India as farm labor they are paid less for longer hours of work, and often face sexual harassment. Many are kept as bonded laborers without any wages at all, and are unaware of ways to receive legal help to overcome their situations.


Control of land guarantees power & wealth

In Pakistan just five percent of farmers control over fifty percent of agricultural land, which gives them immense power not only over small scale-farmers and workers but also in the political and economic power hubs of the country. They have successfully evaded various land reforms. Besides, their influence over local irrigation departments, the police force, and land and agriculture authorities deprives smallholder and landless farmers from their rights to land, water, credit, and genuine political participation. The pattern is thoroughly ingrained: large landowners are always in power, whether in a period of democracy or dictatorship.

The recent increase in the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few globally did not cause these different local social inequalities but it has exacerbated them. Rather than undermining old inequalities as was once hoped for by the advocates of liberalization, the current global power dynamic reinforces them. It is not just hereditary landowners who monopolize power and resources; governments are now actively seeking corporate partners, and promise them land regardless of who is already using it. These companies then enhance their influence by winning over local and national politicians and government servants.

In August 2001, the Ugandan authorities violently forced more than 2,000 people off their land in the district of Mubende. This land was then leased to a subsidiary of a German coffee company. The land was used to establish Uganda's first large-scale coffee plantation. The evictees have neither been compensated for the total loss of their land and properties nor for the hardship which they had to face after the eviction. In Kenya, a US-based company displaced thousands of people from their farm land, polluted their water and sickened their animals by grabbing 17,000 hectares of land in western part of the country.

The liberalization of investment in land spreads inequality at the local level, mostly in favor of the richest people. For example, the establishment of a hunting ground by one of the richest families of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Liliondo, Tanzania resulted in violation of human rights of the local pastoralist people. Local and national government authorities pursued illegal prosecution, humiliation and harassment of local leaders, and denied the population’s rights to health, freedom of expression, and free movement.

Land is not just an issue for farmers and rural populations. Inequality between rich and poor is also obvious in favelas of urban Brazil. These settlements are not recognized as neighborhoods, even not existing on the maps of the city. A recent operation is threatening the existence of the favelas, which are home to 1.1 million poor people. The favelas are close to the residences of wealthy people who are keen to evict the poor from their homes. Although officials are citing a variety of reasons, including environmental protection, land ownership disputes and the safety of those living in the hilltop, Jose Nerson de Oliveira, vice president of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, has said: "It isn't about land or trees or anything like that. The simple fact is they don't want the poor close to them."


Organizing can defeat inequality

And yet against this we are seeing some successes, driven by people’s organising to strengthen the power of ordinary people. Victories are being achieved. We’ve seen glimpses of what is possible, of what progress in the fight against inequality already looks like: a community organization’s successful halting of a Swedish sugar plantation in Tanzania that would have left thousands of farmers landless; the mobilisation of a million farmers in Uganda against taxes on agricultural inputs; the ending of VAT on bread in Zambia; the resignation of the President of Guatemala after mass protests over several months against corruption; the handing back of land illegally acquired in Cambodia; the expansion of primary education across Africa as a result of mobilization by parents and teachers, and advocacy with policy-makers to remove onerous school fees; the growing challenge to austerity in Europe; the resurgence of activism in the US led by the Black Lives Matter movement; the G77 standing together in Addis for a global tax body; developing countries insisting that compensation for loss and damage - to property, territory, lives and livelihoods that would not have happened without climate change - be part of the deal on climate change.

These struggles would be strengthened by the alliance of international organisations and social movements against inequality. It includes ActionAid, Oxfam, ACT Alliance, Amnesty, Greenpeace, Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), CIDSE and CIVICUS. This is high time to join hands to fight inequality!