Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, USA
It is such a pleasure to be here, for the 30th in a remarkable series of events led by the Community of Sant’Egidio. I cherish the courageous witness, the bonds of friendship, and the common commitment to peace, justice, and care for neighbor. But equally vital is the commitment to truth and to integrity: we hear prophetic voices here, sharing insights and speaking truth to power. These meetings are a miracle of renewal and inspiration.
The topic of inequality is one of most fundamental and most difficult facing humanity. It is at once a philosophical and theological issue and one with immensely practical implications. It is a simple matter of fairness and justice and a highly complex puzzle of economics, sociology, psychology, and faith.
Inequality in its different forms is a grievance that links angry people across societies. The perception both of wide gaps in welfare and still more opportunity fuels rage. It lies at the heart of both populist backlash and fundamentalism in its many forms. Inequality, corruption, marginalization, violence, and terrorism are threads that are tightly knotted and intertwined.
Inequality has layers of contradictions and questions that are difficult to answer. Any solutions must confront the tensions and contradictions.
Inequality is ancient and human – there are, we should recall, large inequalities within families and the privileges of the wealthy and powerful have marked civilizations across the ages. Its visibility is a modern feature: Mario Giro highlighted at a meeting some years ago that what is new is that it is “in your face”. The raw gulfs in lifestyles are visible to people in the far corners of the earth, each and every day.
But the hope is that with what Andrea Riccardi has called “modern miracles” of technology but even more human development and education the ancient scourges can be addressed in new, creative, and just ways.
“Development is the new name for peace”, and at its core is the challenge of equality and equity. The challenge is part of rhetoric today. However, it tends not to be on the everyday agendas of those making policy and program decisions. It needs to be.
What are the contradictions and puzzles?
First are widely different views about what constitutes inequality. They start with the basic questions of what we mean by inequality, with stark differences in answers to the question and whether it is it getting worse or better. It matters whether you take countries as comparators or entire populations. Comparisons like the Oxfam 2014 report that the richest 85 people on the globe share as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion present one picture. Many economists, however, argue that overall global inequality is declining though they agree that inequality within countries are increasing.
Second, there are ambiguous arguments as to whether inequality is unjust and dangerous. Does it matter? Why do some argue that it does, others that it does not? At a very personal level I can find no argument that justifies the vast differences in opportunity between children in the Sahel who attend a poorly run school with over 100 children in a class and children in my family. Inequality is an evil and a cancer that erodes trust and common commitment. The arguments “for” inequality argue that it is linked to freedom and entrepreneurship, that it spurs creativity and positive competition.
What can be done about it? What are the tools? Some are obvious: confiscation and redistribution, land reform, and taxation. Philanthropy is another route. There are sound arguments for focusing more on improving the opportunities and welfare for the poorest segments of the population than on a Robin Hood solution of taking from the rich to give to the poor. We need a strong commitment to raising the “poverty line” to a level that is truly a standard for a decent life. But we also need an appreciation of a “greed line”: a level of income and lifestyle so far misaligned with the common norm that it undermines social peace.
Focusing on equity rather than equality answers some but by no means all of the challenges. “Equality” suggests that welfare can and should be “the same” whereas “equity” suggests fairness and balance. Thus cultural differences and different choices are acknowledged. There are, however, pitfalls. The most common to my mind are arguments that weaken commitment to appreciating the equal dignity of all people and above all between women and men. Women’s rights are severely compromised by any “separate but equal” thinking.
Development, we know, is the new name for peace. While conflict retards development and destroys what has been achieved, failures of development are behind most if not all conflicts. Development is the path towards an equitable understanding of justice and fairness and towards societies that are grounded in a belief in human potential and human freedom. Thus we need look to basic answers to the puzzles around inequality in development as we move forward. What matters is what we understand by development – its objectives and the standards by which we judge ideas and policies - and how we go about it. I suggest eight areas of focus:
- Human development: education and health are the true heart of development because they allow for the development of human potential, unleashing new ideas, and sparking creativity. “Education for all” and “universal health care” are global goals, agreed to last year by all world nations at the United Nations, and they deserve the intelligent support of everyone here.
- Culturally appropriate development. “Multiple modernities” acknowledges that different paths and styles make eminent sense and are feasible. Different approaches need not be inconsistent with core human values. Taking into account spiritual dimensions can and should open new paths, not limit them.
- Transparent, understandable development means dialogue and open discussion about everything from economic models to school curricula. It means tackling the evil cancers of corruption that undermine sound projects and public confidence. This vital if nasty topic - fighting corruption – needs to be right at the center of interreligious engagement and I hope that it will be a focus at the next Sant’Egidio meeting.
- Just, rights-based development means keeping the principles and details of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the center. What is meant by the right to food and water and what needs to be done to make it more than an abstract notion? When we focus on specific questions we have a better chance of finding specific and lasting solutions.
- Equitable approaches and inclusive development calls us to focus sharply on those who are most excluded and vulnerable. That means, notably, religious and other minorities, and those left behind by technological change. Inclusive development is a leading difference between nations and communities that succeed and those that fail. It means above all women’s engagement because they are still excluded in many regions and spheres.
- Balanced development means both geographic balance and avoiding the fads and fashions that tend to distort a coherent and continuing dialogue.
- Sustainable and resilient development calls us to take environment into account in everything we do, from refugee support to energy project analysis and school curricula.
- Timely development and creative approaches. There is no time to lose. Every day lost is a missed opportunity. The refugee crisis highlights the daily suffering and waste of human capacity that failures of development bring with them. New and creative solutions are on the horizon. We need an open and creative and an urgent commitment to unleash the human potential that we know well is there.
Equality and equity are intertwined in each and every one of these dimensions of a modern vision of development as peace. The grievances that drive anger and conflict are linked to deep questions about what is fair and just. We need to work together to respond to those questions. If every person is equal in the eyes of God but also in the finest principles of mankind, the raw injustice that fate is determined by where you are born, and what opportunities are open is unacceptable.