The Multiple Dimensions of Inequality

October 2020

Confronting inequality requires taking its various manifestations into account. Read the perspectives of Branko Milanović, Jenny Ricks, Emilia Roig, Catherine Mulligan, Galip Dalay, Firoze Manji and Kristian Parker on one of the defining challenges of our age.

Adobe Stock / Olivia

Introductory remarks by Sandra Breka, Member of the Board of Management of the Robert Bosch Stiftung

Ever greater wealth disparity fuels popular unrest; deep inequality within societies as well as between countries threatens social cohesion and thus undermines the legitimacy of political institutions. The call for social justice grows louder as persistent discrimination based on race, gender, and other social categories limits many people’s access to a life in dignity and prevents them from reaching their full potential.

Inequality is closely linked to other pressing challenges of our time such as technological change, the climate crisis, and migration, which amplify injustice. Solutions to these global challenges require a global governance model that enables inclusive participation in our institutions.

Robert Bosch’s legacy is exemplified in his quote “be human and respect human dignity”. Based on this legacy, the Robert Bosch Stiftung is exploring how to address inequality. Creating a more fair and equal society requires political will and action, but it also requires a better understanding of its underlying causes, dynamics, interconnections, and consequences. It requires a profound understanding of the concepts and approaches that promise the greatest impact. Furthermore, inequality is not a one-dimensional phenomenon: its manifestations are intertwined and influence one another. Inequality is deeply rooted in the structures, narratives, values, beliefs, and power relations that shape societies, and often condition people’s lives from birth.

We will focus on identifying and promoting effective systemic approaches to addressing inequality that take into account the relationships between different forms of inequality and discrimination, as well as other global challenges. We will work with actors in the field by providing resources for sharing ideas and best practices, and develop new approaches to address the various, deeply interconnected forms of inequality and exclusion.

We look forward to building alliances, as tackling inequality is a call for action to all relevant stakeholders: multilateral institutions, governments, citizens, civil society, and business alike.

Branko Milanović: Covid-19 and the many incarnations of inequality

Inequality is by definition multifaceted. Not only is there a difference between income and wealth inequality, but inequality can be also inequality between genders, racial and ethnic groups, ages, territorial units within a country, and so forth. When one takes a stroll in a city like New York City, inequality is evident simply walking from one area to the next. Thus, it is not surprising that one is likely to see a relation between inequality – in its many incarnations – and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is, I think, very obvious in the case of the US, but is probably the case in other devastated countries like Peru, Chile, Brazil, and India.

Health inequality in the US is well known. Even after Obamacare, almost 30 million Americans do not have health insurance. Many depend on their jobs to provide it. When jobs were lost, as happened during the pandemic, the insurance was lost, too. Health inequality contributed to casualties even if most hospitals treated patients regardless of whether they had insurance or not – thus showing a remarkable level of public concern that politicians apparently lack.

Education inequality is seldom mentioned. But a low level of elementary and high school education combined with wide latitude to do home schooling contributed to widespread dismissal of science and prophylactic measures to curb the spread of the epidemic. The fact that the US ranks far ahead of its income comparators in the percentage of the population that holds the most extravagant beliefs – from rapture to flat earth – is not an accident. It showed its nefarious character during the crisis.

A fragmented system of political decision-making seemed at first very helpful in the face of an openly obstructionist federal government. However, that too proved wrong: the inability of higher territorial units (like states) to enforce rules to contain the pandemic over lower jurisdictions (counties) led to administrative chaos. Additionally, it led to the expansion of the pandemic because unequal treatment by counties under conditions of free circulation of people spread the virus.

Finally, inequality in political power became obvious, too. Even when state or county administrations were determined to impose harsh measures, they were subjected to the relentless pressure of businesses. Few politicians, who are aware how important business support is for their elections, were able to resist that pressure. Most notably, this transformed California from an early success story to a debacle. 

Inequality in casualties, as the latter were especially high among Blacks and Latinos, probably blunted the political response. Neither of these two communities is politically powerful. Among the Latinos in California, many might have been non-documented aliens, and hence their political influence was even less. Their deaths effectively did not matter.

The outcome of all of these processes was that a democratic country appeared, and indeed was, much more indifferent to deaths than an authoritarian regime like China.

(Dr. Branko Milanović is an economist and professor at the City University of New York.)

Jenny Ricks: Fighting inequality requires re-balancing power relationships

Inequality is really about power. Privilege and wealth are being used to push an economic and social system shaped to serve the narrow interests of powerful elites at the expense of people as a whole and the planet. We have to re-balance power relationships to truly fight inequality.

Both the big picture and the personal things tell you how inequality has reached crisis level. The headline-grabbing statistics are well known, such as how 26 people owned the same wealth as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. But inequality is also experienced very personally: whether it is a lack of income or decent job opportunities, the exploitation of women, poor public service delivery, rising mental health problems, rising levels of violence in your society, or the impacts of runaway climate change, among other ways. We are only now starting to understand how these are all, at root, actually inequality issues. In the age of Covid-19, the crisis of global inequality is reaching new extremes.

The Fight Inequality Alliance is built from the recognition that all inequalities – gender, race, class, caste, and others – are intersectional and reinforce one another.

Tackling inequality requires influencing policies, the narratives which drive policies, and the balance of power and voice in any society. Thus national action is primary, and continental and global actions must complement and reinforce it in order to help achieve both a shift in narrative and changes in policy, as well as developing on-the-ground organizing. People organizing at the frontlines of inequality – young people, women’s rights organizations and social movements are central to the Alliance’s efforts.

(Jenny Ricks is the global convenor of the Fight Inequality Alliance.)

Emilia Roig: Tackling inequality within inequality

All of our identity features are interwoven. It is impossible to separate the individual dimensions that define us. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term "intersectionality" to describe the entanglement of different systems of oppression. Since then, social problems and structural inequalities worldwide have been analyzed and addressed using this concept. The focus is now no longer merely on the "majority woman", but also on a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, a Roma lesbian, and a transwoman* in a wheelchair.

Intersectionality thus means recognizing and combating discrimination within discrimination, tackling inequality within inequality, making minorities within minorities visible, and protecting and strengthening them. Intersectionality promotes not only a multidimensional perception of reality, but also radical solidarity among different social movements and minorities. The feminist movement, the anti-racist and decolonial movement, the environmental justice movement, the LGBTQI+  movement and the disability justice movement tend to work in parallel bubbles. The lack of synergies weakens their potential enormously.  

Movements that fight for a transformation of society and for social justice must focus on more than one single dimension. Therefore, for example, climate change and its consequences need to be analyzed not only from an economic perspective, but also from an anti-patriarchal and decolonial perspective. The concept of intersectionality opens up the possibility of weaving a tight and strong fabric from many individual threads, and of contributing to the creation of a world free of injustice and oppression.

(Dr. Emilia Roig is the founder and director of the Center for Intersectional Justice.)

Catherine Mulligan: The digital world requires a new social contract

In 2020, global digital inequality stands in stark relief. The Covid-19 crisis has caused millions of children to miss school completely, while others are being taught remotely. Likewise, there are people out of work, while others are working on their computers from home. The pandemic has illustrated that digital inequality is real. 

Digital inequality is deeply seated in our preconceived ideas about how the world works. It is our norm that some get “less,” others get “more.” Since the silicon age in the 1960s, the digital world reflects an economy that is based on inequality. In fact, inequalities in the real world have often been compounded in the digital one. We are told we must accept inequalities in the accumulation of data because of the cost of storing it, the level of investment needed, and the skills required in analytics.

But the digital revolution is in our hands: we must challenge ourselves to think and act differently. Policymakers are looking at important but small things, like privacy, while failing to address wider implications. The digital world requires a new social contract that demands a rethink about labor when so much of our data is used for commercial benefit. It will take courage to drop our established ideas about digital inequality but this is the challenge of our generation. 

(Dr. Catherine Mulligan is the co-director of the Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Engineering at the Imperial College London.)

Galip Dalay: The vicious circle of conflict and structural inequality

The conflicts and civil wars in the Middle East have been given many names: ethnic, sectarian, and tribal, among others. These labels assume that the conflicts are premised on primordial identities. On the contrary, these conflicts are rather the outcome of a crisis of citizenship and governance, as well as socio-political, economic, and legal inequalities.

Indeed, it is the structural inequalities in state recognition and in accessing resources, coupled with the socio-political structure of hierarchies, that fuels these conflicts. An example: What we refer to as ‘sectarian conflicts’ in Iraq and Syria are in fact disputes spurred by structural inequality. More precisely, Sunni-Shia and Kurdish-Arab categories do not only represent religious, national, and socio-political identities or identifications, but they also signify different levels of recognition by the state and access to resources. Once politicized, which they inevitably are, such structural inequalities pave the way for a vicious cycle of conflicts.

In this respect, similar to the dynamics between the conflict and fragmentation of the state, which mutually exacerbate each other, we have a similar dynamic between conflict and inequalities. Conflicts deepen inequalities and create asymmetry in vulnerabilities for different social groups and political actors. This in turn fuels existing conflicts and sows the seeds for future ones. The Middle East is a perfect test case to observe these intimate links between conflicts and inequality.

(Galip Dalay is Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.)

Firoze Manji: Power concedes nothing without a demand

When capitalist ‘democracy' was first established in the US, only white, male capital and slave owners were permitted to vote. In effect, what was established was a privileged or sacred zone, and everyone not in it was confined to a sacrifice zone. Democracy was built on genocide, colonization, and slavery. This was the basis of white supremacy. All subsequent modifications to the nature of democracy occurred not as a result of noblesse oblige but as a result of struggles: women won the vote through organizing mass protests – it wasn't given to them; slavery ended because of slave revolts, for example like the victorious slave revolution of 1791–1804 that led to the establishment of Haiti.

It is in the very nature of capital to make profits by exploiting the labor of farmers and working people who they condemn to the sacrifice zones. But as Frederick Douglass pointed out, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Thus, the fight against inequality requires that those most oppressed and exploited organize on their own terms, in their own ways, to achieve not so much equality but rather freedom and the ability to determine their own lives.

(Dr. Firoze Manji is the former Africa Programme Director for Amnesty International and Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.)

Kristian Parker: The environmental community alone cannot tackle the climate crisis

When the Oak Foundation first launched its Climate Justice Initiative in 2015, it recognized that the environmental community alone could not tackle the climate crisis. We needed to create a broader, more inclusive movement that acknowledged the deep climate injustices playing out across the globe along gender, ethnic, and racial lines. Today, calls for climate and economic justice have only increased as more and more grassroots movements such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion demand societal-scale transformations to create a more livable and equitable planet in a climate changed world.

Our investment in the Climate Justice Resilience Fund represents one important means to build on this momentum because it recognizes the power of women, youth, and Indigenous Peoples. They are demanding change and creating climate solutions that will meet their water, energy, and food needs as they strive for a more resilient future. In the years to come, the Oak Foundation will continue to focus its work on the levers of change that accelerate us towards a future with clean air, healthy and sustainable food, and wellbeing for all, especially for the generations to come.

(Dr. Kristian Parker is vice-chair of the board of trustees of the Oak Foundation.)

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