Decades of sustained economic growth have seen Asia grow ever wealthier. But, as Oxfam's Asia Deputy Regional Director Lan Mercado explains, Asia's successes have come at a huge cost. An estimated 500 million people across Asia remain trapped in extreme poverty, forced by discrimination and closed political systems into lives of poverty and insecurity. Now it stands at a crossroads. This inequality is not inevitable or incurable, and as Lan explains, there is much that can be done to reduce inequality and improve the lives of all Asia's people.
Since the 1990s, many Asian countries - most notably, China, Viet Nam, Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Bangladesh - have become steadily wealthier. But Asia's successes mask the sad reality that almost half a billion people have been left behind, mired in poverty and inequality. A development model that exploits and excludes people based on their social class, gender, caste and ethnicity has
benefitted powerful elites at the expense of those lower down the economic and social ladder.
Inequality - economic, social and political - is a threat to Asia's progress and stability. In Asia at a Crossroads we call on Asia's governments to pursue inclusive and sustainable development to bridge this unjust divide.
The tragic consequences of inequality
The widening gap between rich and poor has deadly consequences. Amongst Nepal's poorest families, twice as many children die before the age of five than in its richest households. When disaster strikes, those who have been driven by poverty to live in insecure locations or in substandard housing are at a much greater risk of injury and death. If they survive, a lack of savings and insurance means it will take them
longer to recover. This was all too apparent in the catastrophes where I worked. In Aceh after the tsunami, and in Tacloban after typhoon Haiyan, everybody suffered, but those with money were able to escape the devastation. They had a choice. They did not have to be crammed into the dirty surroundings of evacuation centres, or stand in line for hours for a kilo of rice and a tin of sardines.
Many conflicts have their roots in inequality.
Inequality can increase conflict that, in turn, threatens growth and social cohesion. Many conflicts have their roots in inequality. At the heart of the long running conflict between the government in Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the south of the Philippines was a refusal by the Moro people to be further dispossessed of their ancestral lands and waters as a result of laws written by powerful groups and enforced by the national government. In 2012, peace came only after the Moro people's power to rule over their territories was recognized by the Philippine
Unequal Power Relations
As was the case with the Moro in the Philippines, reducing inequality requires changes in institutions to correct the rules, laws, regulations and norms that are shaped by unequal power relations.
There have been a few good initiatives to combat political inequality, such as parliamentary quotas, but political representation and participation remain largely unequal. Women are under-represented in political spheres across Asia, and members of ethnic and lower caste groups often have little political power due to their social status.
The elite's capture of political power means they are able to sustain the structures that underpin inequality. For example, a proposed property tax in Thailand that would have increased the contribution of wealthy people to better public services for poor people is struggling through a parliament made up mostly of the country's largest landowners.
Urgent action needed
The consequences of inequality can no longer be ignored. Even the World Economic Forum, which begins in Davos tomorrow, has identified inequality as the top global challenge.
World Economic Forum has identified inequality as the top global challenge.
Governments, the private sector and Asia's citizens must increase efforts to fight discrimination, democratise institutions, increase poor people's access to productive resources, guarantee workers a living wage, make taxation policies fair, and provide everyone access to quality health and education.
Inequality and poverty are not inevitable. In Vietnam, the government's relentless efforts have reduced the poverty from nearly 60% to 20% in only 20 years. Realising how disparities between regions and social groups are obstacles to inclusive development, the National Assembly has placed inequality at the top of its agenda.
Now other Asian governments must follow suit. In Oxfam's new regional briefing note, we have identified five interconnected action points that must be prioritised if we are to close the inequality gap and secure Asia's future:
- Empower poor people, especially women;
- Provide fair access to good quality, free public health services and education;
- Strengthen poor people's right to land and access to productive resources and assets;
- Guarantee equal pay for equal work and pay workers a living wage;
- Ensure everyone pays their fair share and that tax measures do not unduly burden poor people.
But can we leave inequality entirely to government to tackle?
Why will governments act on inequality if its citizens do not care?
Why should wealthy families and corporations bother to give back to society if they can get away with it?
For civil society actors and development organisations, how will fighting inequality change the way we do development?