The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: world economic forum

Davos: The Ever-Missing Gender Lens

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THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM IN Davos, Switzerland last week captured a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Sessions were held in the growing fear that elite figures in finance, government, and the entertainment industry are no longer in control of the direction in which our planet is headed.

A clear sign of what’s wrong was obvious just in the makeup of the participants. Around 18% of them were women – that’s it. In 2002 that number was 9%, and in 2011 it was 16%. True, things are heading in the proper direction, but, seriously, this is trite and incremental stuff – hardly worthy of true leadership, especially on a global level.

What’s truly frustrating about this fundamental lack of progress at Davos is that a good portion of many of the meetings was about tackling poverty by supporting women’s efforts in developing nations. It was right there in front of them as Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, observed at Davos: “I don’t think the people who go to Davos deny that this is a major issue. They read the same reports about the value of investing in women in terms of education and employment as I do.”

The World Food Program reminded the crowd that the global economy requires the leadership of women if it is to be righted. Almost 90% of each dollar is invested by women and girls in their families through purchasing books, medicine, and food. The number for their male counterparts is between 30 and 40 percent.

I suppose we would expect a development group to say such things, but what about the head of the World Economic Summit himself, Klaus Schwab. He stated forthrightly that:

“A world where women make up less than 20% of the global decision-makers is a world that is missing a huge opportunity for growth and ignoring an untapped reservoir of potential.”

Who’s to argue? And why would we wish to? But how do you square that observation with the fact that only 18% of Davos attendees are women? This has to be more than some kind of value statement; it must be an action plan, and if anyone should be able to guide us in this direction, it is supposed to be world leaders.

This week I composed a piece for the Huffington Post on the Davos Man. You can link to it here. Author David Rothkopf has asked the cheeky question: “What About Davos Woman?” He’s right. How can you gather the world’s elite in such a grand spectacle as Davos and call for more women’s leadership when you are willing to tolerate less than 20% women into the sessions? Clearly there is work to be done, but it’s difficult to have confidence in the supposed “best and the brightest” when they can’t make happen in their own sessions what they say needs to happen in the world in general.

“Leaders do not conform, says Israelmore Ayivor, author of Leaders’ Ladder, “they reform. If you conform, you are nurturing mediocrity. If you reform, you are breeding change.” If it’s change Davos is looking for, then conforming to historic gender patterns is hardly the way to get there.

Would Martin Luther King Jr. Have Supported the TPP?

 

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JUSTIN TRUDEAU WAS IN DAVOS, SWITZERLAND, at the World Economic Forum yesterday reminding the world’s elite that Canada was a great place in which to invest. That’s exactly what prime ministers are supposed to be doing. The key issue however is how to invest.

Our new Prime Minister has an important decision to make regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal involving 12 countries. Many have warned that this isn’t about trade at all but about the growing ability of corporate business interests to affect domestic policy. The rather stark opposition to the deal from a litany of civil society groups, economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, and the founder of Research in Motion, Jim Balsillie – all normally strong promoters of globalization, has been noted. Even the United Nations has come out in opposition, claiming that the deal favours global capital instead of strengthening democracy by removing decision-making away from the average voter. Trudeau’s promise to leverage an increased voice for civil society seems, on the surface at least, to be violated by the TPP deal.

The focus of this week’s blog posts have been on the abiding influence of Martin Luther King Jr. and how he approached vital files like poverty and civil rights. What would he counsel regarding the TPP if he were still present among us. We can’t propose to know the direct answer, but he would provide us some criteria regarding such a major decision. And he would ask questions, serious ones.

He would surely remind us that the rash of trade deals in the last three decades have coincided with the growth of poverty in affluent nations, the lowering of labour standards, a threatening toll on the environment, and a burgeoning disillusionment with government and democracy. He would then challenge us to question if these things were related. The leaders in Davos will hear of the newest research from Oxfam showing that “income and wealth are being sucked up among the elite at a fantastic rate.” The same study will inform them that a mere 62 people have $1.76 trillion (US), or more than half of the world’s population.

These aren’t easy questions, but must be asked, and King would ask them directly. It isn’t just that with fabulous amounts of wealth being created that most of the planet gets little of it in proportion to the wealthy. King would look at this development through the lens of social justice and not mere economics. He would challenge us to do the same. And he would wonder why the world’s governing leaders would continue signing deals that move us down that perilous road. Better yet, he would ask if such deals could effectively be adjusted to solve these problems.

I suspect he would hang his head in disillusionment, sensing that his great dream of equality would have to once again be deferred. He would be aware that most of the political leaders would have quoted him at one point or another during their respective tenures, but that they quietly refused to bring about the changes necessary for the dream to be realized. He would put it in the terms he used during his message at New York’s Riverside Church (April 4, 1967):

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people among our decision makers, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Today he would, with justification, add climate change, poverty, democratic decline, and the failure to build gender equality to the list.

Those who maintain that deals like the TPP are ultimately good for us must tell us why past such deals have been unsuccessful in solving these problems. Furthermore, they will have to wonder if such arrangements haven’t actually had a hand in causing them in the first place.

It is always a dangerous thing to suggest what a historical figure would say in the modern era, and I don’t wish to imply whether King would say yes or no. But he would ask the questions and he would wonder if all these economic dealings that benefit a few over the many are arcing our world towards justice or away from it.

Ultimately King was a moral voice and it is that voice that is missing in the halls of both finance and parliaments today. His ethical strains cut through the fog of distortion and spoke truth to the establishment. To his credit, Justin Trudeau claimed such a voice when he brought gender equality to the federal cabinet and when he claimed a new day for the Indigenous people of Canada. These were moral victories, not mere political expediency. Now he must sit down and answer these questions that King would have asked and decide whether to side with civil society and citizens or with the elite money gatherers. No trade deal in the world brings about justice; only acts of conscience are capable of it. And if politics today is to be successful, and democracy itself to be saved, it is time for the latter.

How Much Isn’t Enough?

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THE NEWS JUST KEEPS ROLLING OUT, and for Americans especially an important time has arrived. We consistently hear now that the United States has an economy getting stronger by the day and that citizens can look forward to a more robust future.

And then a study appears in the Washington Post that brings a dose of reality. The Southern Education Foundation reports that for the first time over 50% of American children come from low-income households in 2013. Back in 1986, the number was 32%, moving ever upwards to 42% in 2006, just prior to the great economic recession. The bottom has fallen out for thousands of more families since that recession, so that the numbers is about to reach 51%.

At first I thought these numbers can’t be correct because, if they were, surely the media would be all over them. Kent McGuire, of the Southern Education Foundation, put it starkly: “The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years. It didn’t happen overnight. Now we are a nation disinclined to invest in our young people.” He goes on to state to the Washington Post that the country has reached a “watershed moment.”

In recent weeks, President Obama has opened a new political and economic front, offering new initiatives to support the middle-class. Part of his incentive came from the Southern Education Foundation report. He is recognizing that an increasing number of families are falling out of the lower portions of the middle-class and landing squarely in poverty.

It all sounds timely, and makes sense. But no sooner was the Foundation’s report made public than another bit of information emerged that reveals just how difficult this fight is going to be. The highly credible international organization, OXFAM, informed us yesterday that by next year, over 50% of global wealth will be owned by the 1% financial elite. The 80 richest people on the planet have the same wealth as 3.5 billion people.

This was all over the news yesterday, serving as a kind of “aha” moment for world leaders about to meet at the World Economic Summit in Switzerland this week. The political and economic elite meet there every year, announcing plans to make the global economy more fair, and yet it doesn’t happen. In fact, it’s going the other way.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of OXFAM, is as bold a champion as any you will ever meet. She’s heading to Davos to unveil the details of the report and challenge world leaders to stop pretending that they are concerned about inequality and get on with dealing with it. She puts it plainly:

“Do we really want to live in a world where the 1% own more than the rest of us combined? The scale of global inequality is simply staggering; and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and rising fast. It’s time our global leaders took on the powerful vested interests that stand in the way of a fairer and more prosperous world.”

This dynamic woman will be co-chairing the Davos forum and won’t be denied, in part because the majority of those falling ever farther behind are the world’s woman. This is a global challenge and Byanyima is placing it front and centre on the global stage later this week.

But she released it now because President Obama is about to unveil his plans for the empowerment of the middle-class tonight, in his State of the Union speech.

There is no longer the need to keep talking about global inequality; there is now a clear consensus and the time has come to act. That’s why Bank of England governor, and Canadian, Mark Carney, recently stated that the capitalism is doomed if ethics continue to vanish, or why the Lancet stated that Canada is losing its knack for global citizenship and in the process is losing the battle against poverty and healthcare at home – especially among aboriginal populations.

A half-century ago, another president of the U.S. stood up to give his State of the Union speech in the same place Obama will tonight. John Kennedy spotted this problem of global inequality and reminded the American people what would happen if they didn’t take it seriously. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” This is the challenge now before us. Growing poverty and inequality says something about us as citizens, and what we will tolerate. At home, Canada is losing this battle, and internationally our voice against poverty has been diminished. Perhaps people like Winnie Byanyima can help us pull back from the brink.

How much isn’t enough for the global elite? Half the world’s wealth doesn’t seem to do it for them. It’s time to take them on before they, and us, lose the battle altogether.

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