Dr. Meghnath Dhimal
Environmental Health Scientist
Biography:

Dr. Meghnath Dhimal started his career as an Environmental Health Research Officer in 2005 and has been working as a Chief/Senior Research Officer since 2010 at the Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC), Government of Nepal. He completed his PhD in Geo-sciences (Environmental Health Sciences) from the Goethe University in 2015, and his Master Degree in Environmental Sciences from Tribhuvan University, Nepal, in 2004. For his PhD studies, he received a German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD) scholarship. After the completion of his PhD study, he also worked a Guest Scientist at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, Social Medicine and Environmental Medicine, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany from 2016-2018.

Achieving both practical and theoretical advances in environmental and public health research, Meghnath has led research projects on environmental and climate change, non-communicable diseases, neglected tropical diseases and health systems research in Nepal. Recognizing his contribution in the field of climate change and health, he was awarded with the “Young Scientists Award of the Year 2015” by the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in 2015. He also received the Nepal Bidhyabhushan “Ka” Award of the Year 2016 by Rt. Hon President of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal in 2016. He is a Member of the Research Committee, Institute of Medicine, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu (2016-2019); Member of the Global Young Academy (2017-2022); an Expert Member of Public Health and WASH Thematic Group of National Adaption Plan formulation Process, Ministry of Health, Government of Nepal (Since 2016) and Member of Steering Committee on Urban Health Initiative (Since 2018). He has made substantial contributions to developing environmental health and climate change programmes and policies. In Nepal examples include health sector implementation plans and strategies, NAPA, LAPA, PPCR, Climate Change Policy 2011, H-NAP and NAP development in Nepal.

Meghnath has also served the World Health Organization (WHO) in the capacity of Temporary Adviser as well as in the capacity of Climate Change and Health Expert. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed journal papers, essays, technical reports and articles in the popular press. His research is featured in numerous scientific and media outlets including the Science Daily and Medical Xpress. His research interests include climate change and health, environmental and public health, neglected tropical diseases, non-communicable diseases and gender perspectives on human health.

Find our more here:

https://scholar.google.de/citations?user=iD4CQUgAAAAJ&

How can we improve Global Health and overcome Global Disparities?

A conversation with Dr Meghnath Dhimal.

How to reduce the opportunity gap between developed and developing nations? More specifically, how to address existing disparities in terms of resource allocation, education and economic means? And how to solve major environmental threats to global health, including non-communicable diseases spread by mosquitoes, contaminated water or air pollutants? Dr. Meghnath Dhimal posits that the answers lie in international networking and interdisciplinary collaboration—between scientists and politicians, the environmental and medical communities, Northern and Southern hemispheres, and so forth.

Dr. Dhimal, a Senior Research Officer with the Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC) and the global health chair at the Global Young Academy (2017-2022), has made substantial contributions to environmental health policies and climate change programs. In addition to his advisory role at the World Health Organization (WHO), he was awarded the Young Scientist of the Year award in 2015 by the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.

Watch the trailer:
Episode Notes:

In this far-reaching conversation, Dr. Meghnath Dhimal, a Senior Research Officer with the Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC), reflects on his upbringing in rural Nepal, where disease patterns have significantly shifted since. He talks about being a passionate advocate for combining health and environmental issues in order to better tackle our global burden of disease.

“The major health risk factors at the moment are environmental factors spread by mosquitoes, contaminated water and air pollutants. So until and unless we bring both sectors together, we cannot solve this issue.” – Dr. Meghnath Dhimal

Dr. Dhimal also paints a very clear picture of the opportunity gaps and existing disparities between developed and developing nations. While the former have the bulk of the world’s resources at their disposal to handle but a fraction of global health problems, it’s the other way around for developing nations.

“There is a disparity in terms of resource allocation, in terms of education, everything. We need to change this. And I think we need political reform. It will be a political decision, not a scientific one.” – Dr. Meghnath Dhimal

The scientist calls on his Nepali colleagues abroad to return home and pass on their scientific expertise to future generations, as well as generate data and research about the “developing world,” for a change. He also implores viewers to embrace more holistic solutions to the regional, national and global health challenges we face.

“Most of the problems can only be solved through networking and collaborations. So we need South-South collaboration, South-North collaboration, North-North collaboration and ultimately, we need to maintain peace in the global community.” – Dr. Meghnath Dhimal

Watch the video:
Read the transcript of Dr. Meghnath Dhimal's Video here

Welcome to our series, Researchers with a Passion. My name is Nerina Finetto, and my guest today is…
I am Meghnath Dhimal. I’ve worked in Nepal as an environmental health scientist for the past 15 years. I am also a member of Global Youth Academy, and I’m currently chairing the Global Health Group at Global Youth Academy.

Thank you so much for joining me. What is your research and why did you go for it?
Basically, I was brought up in rural Nepal. I had a curiosity about how modern health is changing for people since my early childhood. Basically, my work is about how these changing environments or environmental factors affect human health. And how we can prevent disease, infections, et cetera, from environmental and social factors. So my research focuses more on the environmental, social and cultural factors, which are linked to the behavior of people. Because if you see the global burden of disease, more than 80% of diseases are attributed to environmental risk factors. And basically, especially in the developing country where I come from, diseases like diarrhea, cholera and respiratory illnesses are common now. And the major risk factors for this are environmental risk factors. Like most developing countries, people still use solid biomass fuel, which is the major cause of respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, et cetera. Now, in urban areas, pollution levels have also increased, which is a major threat for non-communicable diseases, like cardiovascular disease.

To prevent these things, we need to know who are the people at risk. We need to generate the evidence and we need to guide our policymakers. In the present day, all the developing countries are facing a big problem. I’ll say even developed countries, from the climate perspective. And many infectious diseases were the declining trend due to massive interest in the force, but now due to this climate change, the diseases of the lowlands are now sitting towards the hill and mountains. So that is a big threat for a mountainous country like Nepal. And also other neighboring countries like India, China, Bhutan, et cetera. So that means we are facing a new challenge. To address this, this means we have to address the environmental risk factors. Maybe climate change, maybe policy, maybe waste management, it may be water policy, or it may be any noise pollution or any radioactive substance. So part of this, we need the interdisciplinary research. We need to involve the scientists who have a background in social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, medical science, and we need to use the holistic approach to solve these national problems, regional problems and the global health problems.

What are the challenges that you see for your country and how do you see it related to the global community?
I was brought up in rural Nepal, which is located around 1,500 meters above sea level and I was born in 1981. That means almost 38 years ago. I spent eight years there, but even in these eight years, I saw a lot of changes. And I visited later on and more changes. Like when I was growing up there, I used to drink water that was safe, no diarrhea and at that time there were no mosquitoes. But now people have to use the bed nets, or they’ll suffer from the diseases like dengue, chikungunya or malaria. So in this way, the disease pattern has changed. In that timeline, people are talking about non-communicable diseases. These are the problems of rich people, of the developed world. But now, in each family, there are people with non-communicable diseases – maybe cancer, diabetes, respiratory illnesses or maybe suffering from infectious diseases… Diarrhea, cholera, or maybe suffering from injuries or trauma.

That means we are suffering from people’s vulnerabilities. And if you see the risk factor for this, then it comes in our environment. The water is contaminated, air is polluted, and in the agriculture system, we’re making massive use of pesticides. So there is exposure to pesticides, exposure to pollutants. And then people are getting more and more diseased. That may be both infectious diseases as well as,non-infectious diseases. So this brought something to my mind: why not do work on this? What is the evidence? Most of the evidence comes from Europe and America, but we as scientists from the least developed countries and developing countries, we have to generate our own evidence. And we have to think globally, but we need to act locally.

As per this, we need the local-level evidence. So that encouraged me to work on an issue like climate change and infectious diseases, to act upon it. Luckily, I got an opportunity for my PhD to study in Germany under the DAAD Fellowship, German Academic Exchange Services. I completed my PhD in 2015 from Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. I went back to Nepal and continued my job. Because before coming to Germany, I was in a position like Environmental Health Research Officer and later the Chief of Research Divisions. So that helped me develop networking at the national, regional and global levels. And recognizing my contribution in the field of neglected tropical diseases and climate change, the senior Academy of Nepal, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, awarded me the Young Scientist Award in 2015, which also encouraged me to work harder in this field.

In 2017, I got a very prestigious Nepal Bidhya Bhusan from the president of Nepal. It is a very prestigious award. And that also encouraged me to work in this field. The same year, the Global Youth Academy approved my application based on my contribution to science and society as a member of the Global Youth Academy. And from 2018, my colleague appointed me as a chairperson of the Global Health Group. So repeatedly, I’m getting the achievements and I’m also contributing to society. And for the past two years, I’ve attended the World Health Summit. Not only am I attending but Nepal is also doing the national summit of health and population scientists because we have to learn from the global community, but we have to apply. We have to bring change in the national scenario. Now, I’m in the high level committee, steering committee, technical committee formed by the government of Nepal. I can give science advice on where the evidence is needed. And we need to use the evidence to formulate our policy, plans and programs, so that we can get maximum benefit from our limited resources. That is my motto.

Beside Nepal, I regularly serve as climate and health expert at the WHO, World Health Organization, and I have already contributed in the Maldives to develop their health national adaptation process (H-NAP) to climate change. And in East Timor, which is a small island country, to develop their H-NAP. And in my own country, where I started a H-NAP for climate change. Because we have to be prepared and these are not limited to the country. These action plans and such assessments need to be done by each country. And it has been passed by the Male Declaration, which was held in Male in Maldives in 2017. These are the regional achievements.

Beside that, based on my paper, the United States’ CDC has also sent their travel notice regarding the zika virus. As a figure in the zika virus. like they have advised pregnant woman not to travel up to 2,000 meters where the zika virus is ongoing. One of the criteria for their decision was my paper, which was published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases. So in this way, we can start from the local level and those good practices can go to the regional level and also the international level. In this way, I’m just contributing to global society. As a global citizen and as a scientist from one of the least developed countries, my mission is not to work only in a small country, but to contribute to the global society.

You work as an expert bringing questions about health and environment together. Was this a new approach for your country?
I did my graduate degree in 2004, and then I joined the Nepal Health Research Council, which is the apex body of the government of Nepal, to promote health research in Nepal. Very rarely are there positions in the health sector with a background of the people in Environmental Sciences. And the big challenge for me was that, if I have the issue of let’s say, air pollution, the health sector will say, ‘no, no, no, this is the issue of the environment sector.’ If I talk about the issue of climate change, the person says, ‘no, no, no, this is the issue of the environmental sector.’ We are the people of the health sector. And I used to represent the health sector in the Ministry of Environment. And whenever I talk about health, this is the development process. When you do the impact assessment, we need to see health – the health of the people is very important. Let’s say, if we develop a hydropower dam and it is a threat to health because it became the breeding place of many disease vectors. They’ll say, ‘no, no, no, this is the environmental sector. You don’t need to talk about health. The health sector will do it.’

But if I see this is boarding up my own country, that means environmental health issues are neglected for collective response. And the major risk factors are the environmental factors that are spread by mosquitoes, contaminated water or air pollutants. So until and unless we bring both sectors together, we cannot solve this issue. Like in the 1980s, the big problem in Nepal was respiratory illnesses and diarrhea. Now after 30 years, 40 years, again we’re talking about diarrhea control and respiratory illnesses. This is not only the issue of my country, Nepal. Other developing countries have the same scenario. The reason behind is that people have never utilized an opportunity to bring the two sectors together. I’m happy that many countries have already established the environment health divisions, but still my country hasn’t. We have a recession, right? So we have to bring both sectors together to address other means to protect the health of the people.

The Lancet Commission came up with the 2009 report that climate change was the biggest threat of the 21st century. Later in 2015, they again came out with another commission report that climate change was the biggest opportunity of 21st century because we can take it as an opportunity. Because it’s a threat, and we can address all these environmental factors like air pollution, water pollution, et cetera, and we can protect the health of people. This has given opportunities especially that the least developed countries can access, and can request adaptation from developed countries.

The Green Climate Fund has already received a big amount of money from developed countries and it is a pooled fund. So we can all take an opportunity and not only in a single country of the global community. Even developed countries are equally affected. So our efforts should be for the reduction or mitigation of climate change as well as adaptation to climate change.

How did Nepal change?
Recently, we published a report on the national burden of disease in Nepal. We have a clear sense of the trend of disease in Nepal. It shows that over the years, we have been very successful in reducing child mortality rates, infant mortality rates, and we have achieved almost all Millennium Development Goals. So Nepal was one of the countries to achieve most of the goals. Now it is SDG3, which talk about health and well-being. And if you see the changing pattern of disease, we have achieved great, we made a great achievement on infectious diseases. The third now is that diseases are now seen in the new area, where they were not endemic in the past. So that is a big challenge. The overall caseload is reduced, but even a single case is a threat. So it is getting silenced and second, now more than 68% premature causes of death are due to non-communicable diseases. That means diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, et cetera.

So now, our big challenge is how to combat these NCD epidemics. Though we have already made multi-sectorial NCD action plans, we need to implement them effectively. And we had quite a tough time in the past because we’re in the transition from a monarchy/ unitary system to the federal system. So now we have a different three-tier government. We need to make new multi-sectorial city action plans, and we need to take the evidence we have generated by the scientists, and we need to make evidence-based then we can combat means, we can prevent and control non-communicable diseases in the future.

For this, we need investment in the adolescents. Because if we can do investment right now, then we can control the incidences in the future. Because these are chronic diseases. So, in a nutshell, that means the big challenge for us now is the control of non-communicable diseases. Because that covers the major portion of the burden of disease in Nepal. And equally important is how to sustain the achievements we have made in the past. We have a plan for the elimination of malaria by 2026. So we need to work harder. We need to sustain those achievements, right? And we have eliminated some goals for eliminating the viruses and other diseases. But the pattern is now changing in the new area, which we’ve not intervened in the past. So we need to scale up our programs. We need to strengthen our service programs, then we can achieve our work.

What would you like to change tomorrow?
The first thing is that yes, it’s actually systems. We have to state our goal of systems, we have to increase our transparency. And Nepal is such a kind country, I’ll say. It has made such a kind constitution that it has a basic health, basic education, like the right to live in a healthy environment – it’s a fundamental right of citizens. So the document is already very fine. Now we have to implement it. And we’re making hundreds of new laws. Like, we recently came up with the Public Health Act. And it has also been amended. If somebody gets ill because of the environmental factors or this factor, he can complain. He can file a case, and he can get compensation.

So, it is now time to change the country. Our prime minister has the vision: a prosperous and happy Nepal. So, for all of this, actually, we do all have a duty but a single person cannot make change. We need to collectively join forces. For that, we are working, and we have good economic growth right now. And we aim to bring change in the country, in at least the next decade. For that, the scientists who are abroad, who went abroad to study, they need to come back to the home country and they need to solve the country’s problems. Only then can education bring change to the life. Not when the life of the people in the society and in the nation as a whole. So I actually request to all my Nepali colleagues and Nepali scientists to come back and work for the country. We need to bring change in the country. And if there is change in the country, if we get graduates from developed to developing countries, then we can also see our quality of life and image in the international arena [improve].

What does the world need the most right now?
Most of the problems can only be solved through networking and collaborations. So we need South-South collaboration, South-North collaboration, North-North collaboration and ultimately, we need to maintain the peace in the global community. The next thing is international trade and controlling crime and disputes. So the first thing we need is to bring peace in society, to bring peace in the community. That is a big challenge to achieve, but we have to work on it, and only then can humankind sustain itself on this earth.

Do you have a dream?
My dream is to serve the global community. Living in my own country or living abroad, but to serve the global community. My land, my mother and the global community have given many things to me. So I need to give back. I can only pay back that debt by giving the service to them, giving the experience to them. So my dream is to bring the health improvement in the people of the global community.

What kind of society do you dream of?

Yeah, a prosperous society, with less disparity among society’s members, because the big challenge of the global community now is the big disparity: economic disparity, in terms of gender, of economic status. So we need to narrow down this gap. Because every citizen on this Earth has the same rights. Let’s say I talk of literacy increases; they are in a 90 by 10 gap. Developed countries have, let’s say, 10% of the world’s health problems, but 90% of the resources are invested there. And developing countries have 90% of the world’s health problems, but less than 10% of the resources. So there is a disparity in terms of resource allocation, in terms of education, everything. So we need to change this. We need to bring change to this gap. For this, I think we need political reform. It will be a political decision, not a scientific decision.

So every politician should have the enlightenment to bring change to the global community, bridging the gap and bringing down disparity. It is a political issue. It’s an economic issue. I think we need to have a holistic approach, which means scientists can give their evidence, but politicians can make decisions and we can bring change in our lifetime.

What is life about?
For me, life is to be balanced – in terms of an academic career, of family life and of societal life. So if I’m very much an expert only in academic life, that’s not life, because I forget to live the family life. I need to balance my family life. And I also need to give time to my society, or the society will not recognize me. For me, balance is a critical role. Like the balanced diet, I have to make my life balanced between scientific committees, society and also my family. So that is my motto, and I am doing that.

I got an opportunity to do my PhD in Germany. I came here and I had a small daughter, and in my society especially, for females, it is about duties like childbirth and rearing. But I did not limit it to that, with small kids and having other new kids. Even my wife did her PhD and I contributed a lot. We went back to Nepal together, both with PhDs, and we are working together. One person takes care of the babies and the other goes to the conference. In this way, I’m managing and at the same time, I am giving time to my family like my mother, my society, my office. I can also stay in Europe longer, but what I thought was that I had to stop by my home country. So we went back.

Thank you so much for this conversation!
Thank you.

And thank you all for watching, listening and sharing. Keep wandering and see you soon again. Bye and ciao.

Biography:

Dr. Meghnath Dhimal started his career as an Environmental Health Research Officer in 2005 and has been working as a Chief/Senior Research Officer since 2010 at the Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC), Government of Nepal. He completed his PhD in Geo-sciences (Environmental Health Sciences) from the Goethe University in 2015, and his Master Degree in Environmental Sciences from Tribhuvan University, Nepal, in 2004. For his PhD studies, he received a German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD) scholarship. After the completion of his PhD study, he also worked a Guest Scientist at the Institute of Occupational Medicine, Social Medicine and Environmental Medicine, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany from 2016-2018.

Achieving both practical and theoretical advances in environmental and public health research, Meghnath has led research projects on environmental and climate change, non-communicable diseases, neglected tropical diseases and health systems research in Nepal. Recognizing his contribution in the field of climate change and health, he was awarded with the “Young Scientists Award of the Year 2015” by the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in 2015. He also received the Nepal Bidhyabhushan “Ka” Award of the Year 2016 by Rt. Hon President of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal in 2016. He is a Member of the Research Committee, Institute of Medicine, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu (2016-2019); Member of the Global Young Academy (2017-2022); an Expert Member of Public Health and WASH Thematic Group of National Adaption Plan formulation Process, Ministry of Health, Government of Nepal (Since 2016) and Member of Steering Committee on Urban Health Initiative (Since 2018). He has made substantial contributions to developing environmental health and climate change programmes and policies. In Nepal examples include health sector implementation plans and strategies, NAPA, LAPA, PPCR, Climate Change Policy 2011, H-NAP and NAP development in Nepal.

Meghnath has also served the World Health Organization (WHO) in the capacity of Temporary Adviser as well as in the capacity of Climate Change and Health Expert. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed journal papers, essays, technical reports and articles in the popular press. His research is featured in numerous scientific and media outlets including the Science Daily and Medical Xpress. His research interests include climate change and health, environmental and public health, neglected tropical diseases, non-communicable diseases and gender perspectives on human health.

Find our more here:

https://scholar.google.de/citations?user=iD4CQUgAAAAJ&

Hong Ching Goh
Senior lecturer, Urban & Regional Planning
Biography:

Goh, Hong Ching is a senior lecturer and currently the Urban and Regional Planning program coordinator at the Faculty of Built Environment https://fbe.um.edu.my/, Universiti Malaya.

She holds a Doctor of Natural Science degree (Geography) from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn (attached to ZEF), Germany, a Bachelor degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a M.Sc. degree in Tourism Planning from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

She is a corporate town planner registered with the Malaysia Institute of Planners and the Board of Town Planners Malaysia.

She was a visiting scholar in the MIT-UTM Sustainable Cities Program (2014/2015), a member of the Global Young Academy https://globalyoungacademy.net/ 2015-2019), a fellow of the ASEAN Science Leadership Program (2016/2017).

Her recent research interests focus on the interface of development and conservation domains and the cross-cutting challenges and implications, which include urban planning and urbanization-related risks, tourism planning and impact management as well as the multi-level governance of natural resource and protected areas.

Currently, she is heading the Malaysian case study in the prestigious 4-year program ‘Blue Communities’ https://www.blue-communities.org/Home, an interdisciplinary program aimed at capacity building among the researchers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, United Kingdom and Vietnam for sustainable interaction with marine ecosystems.

A conversation with Dr. Hong Ching Goh

How can urban and natural environments come together without compromising conservation efforts? And what can those living in such environments do to help?

Hong Ching Goh, a doctor in natural science and expert in urban and regional planning, has dedicated most of her academic career to the study of one of Malaysia’s – and the world’s – most diverse ecosystems. She tries to find common ground between different groups in the area to preserve its natural value while also increasing its development.

Traces.Dreams is a place on the web for people interested in the past, passionate about the present and curious about the future. Traces.Dreams is where you can find inspiration through a multidisciplinary and multi-regional perspective. We draw attention to the big questions that researchers from a variety of disciplines and countries are grappling with. We seek their work-related insights, their perspective on life, their dreams and the “whys” driving what they do.

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Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Hong Ching Goh's Video here

Nerina Finetto: Welcome to our series Researchers with a Passion. My name is Nerina Finetto, and my guest today is…

Hong Ching Goh:
I’m Hong Ching Goh. I’m from Malaysia, and currently I’m working as a senior lecturer in the Department for Urban and Regional Planning, in the Faculty of Built Environment at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Nerina:
Thank you so much for joining me. What are your main research interests?

Hong Ching: The research topics themselves are very much related to how my cause has evolved over the years. In the beginning, I started with urban planning, so we started planning for the urban areas. Then, with my Master’s degree, I worked on tourism planning. Around that time, I realized that when we talk about tourism and urban areas, what has always been missing is the foundation, the fundamentals of the resource. Because this is where we see that the resource forms the foundation for urban areas to operate. This becomes the foundation for tourism, and that’s how I shifted into natural resource governance.

Natural resource here involves forests, water, rivers. Then, of course, I also focus on governance, because I believe that that is the driver that has the most impact on how natural resources are being utilized and exploited.

Nerina:
Urban planning and natural resources are related topics, right?

Hong Ching:
How I see urban planning is that it should not be exploited at the expense of natural resources. These two should come together and build what we call the sustainable development of urban areas, or the sustainable development of cities. We have sustainable cities on the list of sustainable development goals for the first time, because these didn’t appear, for instance, in the millennium development goals.

One of the reasons is that we plan our cities without considering natural resources, and that’s where disasters start coming in. We only see urban areas as a built environment, a concrete environment. We don’t really see urban areas and urban development as an ecosystem that combines the built environment with the natural environment.

Nerina:
What are you working on right now?

Hong Ching:
At the moment, because I moved a bit from urban planning to what we call regional planning, I’m working on national parks and also marine parks in Sabah, which is located in Malaysian Borneo.

Narrator:
The Borneo Rainforest is the oldest in the world. One hundred and thirty million years old; that’s 70 million years older than the Amazon. Out of the 12 regions of mega-biodiversity in the world, Borneo ranks with Amazonia and Equatorial Africa.

Borneo lies in the heart of the mega-biodiversity eco-region of the Indo-Pacific basin and Malaysia. Sabah is special, because in terms of biodiversity per unit area, Sabah is the best in Borneo. According to National Geographic, ten square kilometers of Malaysian rainforest have more flora and fauna than that of North America and Europe combined.

Here, in the Indo-Pacific global center of coral biodiversity is the cradle of coral evolution. Beginning with 70 genera in areas around Borneo, it reduces gradually as one moves outwards. The Coral Triangle – the Amazon of the Seas – is the center of marine biodiversity for the world. It is home to one of the most diverse collections of marine life in the world, with over 75% of coral species known to science, over three thousand species of reef fish, over five hundred species of coral. This is unmatched in the world in terms of marine biodiversity per unit area.

Hong Ching:
Sabah is the poorest state in Malaysia, but they also have the most beautiful natural resources. You can climb up to the mountain, – that’s where the highest mountain in Malaysia is located -, and it has a fabulous marine ecosystem in the sea. So the beauty of Sabah is both at the mountaintop and in the sea.

Nerina:
What is the most relevant topic you are investigating?

Hong Ching: It is about the interactions between humans and nature. That’s the main research question we are looking at, but then we go into detail. We are looking at how humans utilize resources, what is the state of the natural resource we are talking about, and how we can make a relationship between these two for the wellbeing of the people and, at the same time, for the health ecosystem of the marine biodiversity.

Nerina:
What results have you gotten so far? Do you have any concrete suggestions?

Hong Ching:
Good question. So we’ve started with the national parks, and the main thing is that we really have to consider people’s livelihood before we can actually address nature conservation. I think the natural resource is not that we appreciate it in terms of its intrinsic value, but the first thing we need to understand is why people are utilizing it and why they are exploiting it, and from there we can find options to address the issues of how humans and nature interact. Then, what are the challenges behind it, before we can actually provide a solution for it. And this actually needs time.

I’m from peninsular Malaysia, and as I go into Malaysian Borneo, even though I’m Malaysian, I am considered an outsider. So the main thing is to gain the trust, and that trust will help understand the real situation, the real issues that exist in that particular study case.

Nerina:
What kind of methods do you use? Do you have a quantitative or qualitative approach?

Hong Ching:
We started with quantitative, but to understand the dynamics, it’s not easy at all if you want to use a questionnaire survey.

Now, for instance, I extend my research from the national parks to the marine parks. We started combining interviews, focus group discussions and also stakeholder meetings, because stakeholder meetings will address one of the central questions, which is about governance. We see how people interact and how they provide opinions, how they address issues, before we go into the smaller group.

When we have these stakeholder meetings, we gather all the stakeholders we can identify, and then they discuss the issues. But this is where we go into the second layer of stakeholder meetings, because it’s where we realized what would be the dynamics: who you can talk to, who you cannot, how to address the issues with someone you cannot talk to, for instance, because of some sensitivity. At the same time, there are those we could talk to, but for the same reason, they were reluctant to talk during the first layers of stakeholder meetings because of the power struggle.

So that is when I realized that stakeholder meetings provide a very good platform for us to collect data on the topic of governance at a more formal, but you can actually say “informal” level.

Nerina:
Who are the stakeholders?

Hong Ching:
In natural parks, we have a Sabah Parks Board of Trustees, we have the Forestry Department, and in marine parks we have fishery. We have the agriculture department, we have the NGOs – and NGOs are not only limited to the nature conservation NGOs. There’s community NGOs, and these can also be divided again. For instance, those that are a local initiative, those at the state level, and of course, we have the international NGOs. For instance, what we are dealing with now is the WWF and Reef Check. So those are at the international levels, but of course their offices are in Malaysia.

Then, the local initiative NGOs is where power struggles start coming in because they always feel so capable. So we always need to consider the weaker ones and those who are very vocal, because if the vocal ones have the impact or implications when we come to a group discussion, it will make the weaker ones keep silent. That’s where we really have to identify them.

Apart from that, we involve the universities, and their researchers always have their passions and interests, and it’s not very easy to work together from the very beginning. It requires some understanding, and trust as well, and that would actually help when we talk about how to exchange data and exchange opinions, because when we talk about research ethics, this is something that you have to be careful about as well.

Back to when I mentioned the stakeholders and government agencies. In Malaysia, because we have a federal monarchy, we have government agencies at the federal level and at the state level as well, and they have their dynamics in their interactions, too. So those are the dynamics we really have to consider when we do the stakeholders’ analysis as an outcome from the stakeholder meetings.

Nerina:
What is the biggest challenge at the moment?

Hong Ching:
It’s territorial. I think all the stakeholders have different interests, and so far there is not much consensus building, and consensus building is meant to bring everyone together. To give you an example, we deal with fishery and we talk about conservation-based NGOs, so it’s two conflicting agencies in terms of interests. One wants fish, but you are talking about conservation. So this is conflicting, and how to come to a consensus? That is something most of the agencies avoid actually discussing, because when we talk about reaching a consensus, it actually means that you have to compromise, and no one wants to compromise.

That is something very tricky, and at the same time we realize that in the case of national parks, compared to the marine parks we are working on, they have a different dynamic when they talk about different challenges, and the degree of the challenges is also different.

Nerina:
What kind of outcome would you like to see from this project?

Hong Ching:
The ideal situation – I’m sure that when it comes to guiding principles, the closest we get to would be the best – is to make every stakeholder understand not only about their own interests, but also about other stakeholders’ interests, because when everyone has at least made known their interests, then you can make a decision about what is right. Understanding what other people’s interests are, I think, is the most important thing.

In developing countries, in the past – for instance, in Malaysia -, traditionally when there’s talk of development and planning, it’s always top-down. When we say top-down is when the local people are not well understood about their needs; it’s always the government that thinks ‘we are doing the best for you’.

But now since we have stakeholders, we are not talking about the government interests at the federal or the state level, but we are also talking about the local communities that try to get involved as stakeholders.

Actually, I forgot just now, when it comes to stakeholders, the largest ones are the local communities. If I give an example, every parent would like the best for their children and sometimes they actually forget about their children’s needs. So this is an example I would try for our government – they are trying to do the best for the local people, but sometimes they may not fully understand their needs. So when we have these stakeholder meetings and analysis, we go on the ground, we do the job, get their opinion, and this is best for starting the conversation.

Nerina:
This means that you would like to have an influence on future policies, right?

Hong Ching:
It would be policy relevance in a way, I would say, but we do not want to approach policy makers directly. Of course, we see how these issues are addressed now, and why it’s become so important. The main reason is that it is no longer focusing on science-based research. What is more important is the society and how to link science to the society, and this society includes the policy makers, the local communities at the grassroots level and the society as a whole, since we’re becoming a more developed, progressive society.

So this is where I see that we try to combine the scientific research, but at the same time we try to learn from the local communities. Learn from them, try to combine this, and then try to use a very diplomatic way to talk to the policy makers.

Nerina:
How difficult is it to initiate change?

Hong Ching:
We need to change even the system itself, but to change it, we’d have to tell the government to change it, and that is not possible.

What we learned from the case of mangrove conservation in Malaysia is that scientists have done a lot of research about the importance of the mangrove. It didn’t work for the policy makers. So we are using another way, and also being in the university as an academy.

What would be right for our role is that I’m not going to the NGO, I’m not going to the policy makers either. What we would like is to become a mediator, linking what is actually being addressed by the NGO, what is actually being addressed by the local communities and link with the bureaucrats, so there is a channel to try andto facilitate dialogue again. Because this is what we see in Malaysia. Governments refuse to listen, and then the scientists will be publishing, but we don’t see a bridge to make that more fruitful.

Nerina:
Why are you so passionate about these topics?

Hong Ching: I didn’t like from the beginning. I was born and brought up in a rural area, in a small village. I remember that there were only two Chinese families out of 72 households.

Being a rural girl, I would say that I appreciate trying to go to urban areas. I went to the university – I was a science student until secondary school. Then, I decided to choose urban and regional planning because for a secondary student to choose a university in Malaysia, there were very few choices. Two universities offer the courses, and you have to go for two years at what we call high year secondary school, and then you can have a full choice of universities to enter.

At that time it was Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia, and at UTM – apart from urban planning, architecture and quantity surveying – there were engineering courses, and I thought at the time that it was very boring to go into an engineering course because I wasn’t fascinated by it. That’s how I got into urban and regional planning.

After my first degree, after five years, I took the tourism planning course. I actually liked the natural area, and that’s when I conducted my case study for my mini-thesis in national parks. After that, I worked in the corporate sector for four years with a developer, so basically I was cutting down trees for four years for real estate development. The company I was working with was one of the top five companies in Malaysia in real estate development.

After four years, I started to think about what I really want in my life, and I was lucky enough that I got a scholarship. That’s when I fired my employer and then afforded my studies. At that time, the topic I chose was eco-tourism.

Back to the question you asked, – why I chose that -, I think it was already in me, but I didn’t realize it. But when I chose my case study, in Kinabalu Park, which is also the first World Heritage site in Malaysia, and it’s in Sabah. I am still working on it – I started in 2005.

When I went to the site and stayed in the forest for one year, I realized how nature shapes humans. People are very friendly, innocent, and kind, and coming from a corporate background for four years, I would say that I was toxified to an extent. It’s also the society when it comes to Malaysia, and also that I was brought up in a Chinese family and in Oriental or Asian society, there’s always this unconscious – or maybe conscious – competition. People will ask: “how’s your daughter doing in exams?” and I realized that sort of competition, to an extent, equipped me to survive in the corporate world. But at the same time, I was losing myself.

Back to the nature, I learned about this, I learned how to be myself and express myself much better. In Germany, I was attached to this Center for Development Research. My colleagues and friends were from all over the world, and that’s how I learned to listen, instead of having to guard and protect or defend what you’re saying. Because you have to learn to listen, not only talk. And listening is actually the best language, I would say.

That’s how I link back to nature, because in nature you do not need to speak, and that helps me now, when I’m doing my research with a stakeholder meeting or a focus group discussion. To listen to people carefully, to what they are talking about, and to be patient as well. I really appreciate how it actually evolves.

Nerina:
Are there any moments from your childhood or your past that you think may have played an important role in becoming who you are today?

Hong Ching:
Childhood. I used to have a tiger mom. I am the youngest in the family; my mom passed away when I was fourteen, so that was difficult, and because of that, I became much more independent.

I’m very happy to be Chinese. I received my primary school education in a Chinese school and that helps you a lot. Then when I entered Universiti Teknology Malaysia for my bachelor’s degree, I had to share rooms with two Malay roommates. That was a university policy: the first year, you have to mix roommates. It shouldn’t be from the same race, so that it could create some race integration.

That’s what happened, and that helped me a lot because I realized when I was doing research in Sabah, many of them are from different ethnic groups. I’m always perceived as a Chinese that can speak good Malay, and I do understand about the culture, because, I think, I lived with roommates from different ethnic groups. It helps you become more sensitive and understand about other people’s cultural practices, and that helps me a lot when I do my research.

Nerina:
You mentioned that you are happy to be Chinese. In your opinion, what makes Chinese culture so special?

Hong Ching:
That’s funny because just now you ask that, and I think: “Yes, no doubt.” But now that I try to point it out it’s like… What is it I love so much about being raised in a Chinese family?

I like the perseverance. My father was a farmer, and I see how much perseverance he had, and hard work, These two things I really appreciated and learned from him. I think being raised in a Chinese family in a big Malay village was not easy for me, because ever since I was young, I felt distinctive, but at the same time, you have friends from other ethnic groups that come together.

I also appreciate how the Chinese appreciate relationships. It’s not in a very vocal, expressive manner, but at the same time we are perseverant. We are not very vocal in general – especially, for instance, my father. He usually lets the actions talk, rather than he himself talk. And that’s something I learned from him, as well as being perseverant, because we came from a very poor family. But we realized that that should not be something that is going to beat us down, and that is something that I do really appreciate.

Nerina:
What is life about?

Hong Ching:
Life is a journey, that’s what I always believe. It is a process. I used to be trained in Malaysia in urban planning – I plan everything. But I do realize that I have to be very patient to get to the outcome, but actually enjoy the process itself, and one of the quotes I always remember is that that life is a learning process, and the learning process continues and gets harder until we learn.

I do realize that when there’s a challenge, I always see it positively and there must be some things that I could learn and use to move on, and when I have this kind of breakthrough, this enriches my life towards betterment.

Nerina:
Thank you so much for this conversation.

Biography:

Goh, Hong Ching is a senior lecturer and currently the Urban and Regional Planning program coordinator at the Faculty of Built Environment https://fbe.um.edu.my/, Universiti Malaya.

She holds a Doctor of Natural Science degree (Geography) from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet Bonn (attached to ZEF), Germany, a Bachelor degree in Urban and Regional Planning and a M.Sc. degree in Tourism Planning from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

She is a corporate town planner registered with the Malaysia Institute of Planners and the Board of Town Planners Malaysia.

She was a visiting scholar in the MIT-UTM Sustainable Cities Program (2014/2015), a member of the Global Young Academy https://globalyoungacademy.net/ 2015-2019), a fellow of the ASEAN Science Leadership Program (2016/2017).

Her recent research interests focus on the interface of development and conservation domains and the cross-cutting challenges and implications, which include urban planning and urbanization-related risks, tourism planning and impact management as well as the multi-level governance of natural resource and protected areas.

Currently, she is heading the Malaysian case study in the prestigious 4-year program ‘Blue Communities’ https://www.blue-communities.org/Home, an interdisciplinary program aimed at capacity building among the researchers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, United Kingdom and Vietnam for sustainable interaction with marine ecosystems.

Jomo Kwame Sundaram
Economist
Biography:

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, known as Jomo, is a prominent Malaysian economist. He holds the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, and is Visiting Senior Fellow at Khazanah Research Institute, Visiting Fellow at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, and Adjunct Professor at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

He is also a member of the Malaysian Council of Eminent Persons who advises the Federal Government of Malaysia.

He served as the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) during 2005–2012, and then as Assistant Director-General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome during 2012–2015. He was also Research Coordinator for the G24 Intergovernmental Group on International Monetary Affairs and Development during 2006–2012. During 2008–2009, he served as adviser to Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the 63rd United Nations General Assembly, and as a member of the [Stiglitz] Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System.

Jomo is a leading scholar and expert on the political economy of development, especially in Southeast Asia, who has authored or edited over a hundred books and translated 12 volumes besides writing many academic papers and articles for the media.

What are the engines of inequalities?

What do inequalities look like in the global scheme? Can we sustain a growing population? What role does capitalism play? Why are health and nutrition key for sustainable development?

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, world-renowned economist and current member of the Council of Eminent Persons for the Malaysian Government, speaks about the global landscape for inequalities in the modern era, and how these have been continuously shaped and reformed by world events, about different approaches of capitalism, how different powers are shaping our reality, how women, health and nutrition are key for a sustainable future and more.

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Read the transcript of Jomo Kwame Sundaram's Video here

My name is Jomo Kwame Sundaram. I live in Malaysia. I used to teach economics in the university, and then I worked for about eleven years in the United Nations system overseeing economic and social development research, first in New York for seven and a half years, and then at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome for three and a half years.

Thank you so much for joining me here on Skype. We met at the conference, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World, where you participated at the round table “Engines of Inequalities: Elite, Politics and Power.” How did we arrive at this moment in which the richest 1% of the population holds half of the world’s wealth?

Well, I think from what the data tells us, especially about income, inequalities have grown a great deal, especially in the last two centuries, since the time of the industrial revolution, and the change of the type of imperialism. This has very important implications. What basically has happened is that a huge gap group between those economies which successfully made the transition to either industry or very highly productive agriculture such as the so called settler colonies of the British Empire; Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and so on. This gap has been extremely important, but in the last century or so, there have been some important developments.

We find, for example, that after the first world war during the 1920s, there was a continued huge increase in inequality but also in economic vulnerability. This led to the crash and the depression, particularly during the 1930s. At that time there were a number of measures, which were taken in the United States, which we often refer to as the New Deal, but also in other parts of the world to get to the support of the publics behind them. An extreme type of ethnopopulism, which we often call fascism, developed in countries such as Germany, in Italy and Japan, of course. But there were also other sympathetic tendencies in other parts of the world, such as Spain and so on.

Before that, there was a very strong reaction to these growing inequalities, the more successful reaction against it in the form of the Russian revolution of 1917. Then slowly over time, there were other revolutions, but many of the subsequent revolutions which took place were also wars of national liberation. This I think is very important to recognize what happened, for example, in China and later on in other countries such as Vietnam, were really wars of national liberation. These all responded to different types of inequalities.

These different types of inequalities at that time were used by certain forces to mobilize around what was called socialism and so on. Then there was another type of reaction against inequalities; the inequalities among the rich world, between the established imperial powers, colonial powers, and the rising ones, such as Germany and Japan and so on. This could not be resolved, and eventually it led to the Second World War. During the Second World War, many, many people were mobilized for the war effort, and especially women.

Women were mobilized because men were often the main people in the war, and so much of the rest of the economy, including the household economy, was sustained by women. After the end of the Second World War, it was not … you just could not simply go back to the status quo ante. You had to organize life differently. For about a quarter of a century after 1945, there were quite a number of reforms which were used to be referred to as part of the Welfare State.

These were reforms or try to reduce the inequalities of the century since the industrial revolution, before the depression. Most of the time when we talk about inequalities, we think about national level inequalities. This is especially true in the west. But for many others in the rest of the world, they are not only thinking about the inequalities in their own societies, but they are also very conscious of the fact that they have been left behind, they have been marginalized by the way society has changed.

If you look at total inequality in the world today, about two thirds of it is due to differences among countries, and about one third are differences of so called ‘class’. These differences, if you describe them as differences of location or geography versus class, you can begin to understand why so many people want to move, they see movement, migration, international migration included, as a way of overcoming their own economic insecurity and economic deprivations.

Of course, there are many other reasons as well, but this is extremely important. What has changed however, is that in the last two or three decades, there has been a very important change, that we found that in some parts of the developing countries, you began to see, maybe not two or three decades ago, even half a century ago, you began to see accelerated economic growth, first initially in places like Korea and Taiwan and so on, but also spreading to other countries in East Asia. Then from the end of the 20th century, there seems to be accelerated growth even in the southern cone of Latin America, and from the beginning of the 21st century, accelerated growth in some countries in Africa, because there was greater demand for the things Africa could produce, especially minerals, but also some agricultural production. The demand was not coming from the West. The new demand was coming from the east, from China, from India, and so on.

All this has significantly changed the world. Even though the initial motivation for what is called globalization was for the big corporations of the north to make more profits from controlling more and more economic resources all over the world, that whole process has had unexpected consequences, including the fact that many countries have been able to grow much more than ever before. Some of this growth has trickled down, including to workers; and especially where the workers and the farmers have been able to secure rights, their incomes have often gone up. So we have a world which has changed quite a lot.

Then of course we have seen, especially during the last decade, much slower economic growth in the west, and also in Japan. All this has meant that the gap between the north and the south has been reduced a little bit, but at the same time, in many countries, both in the north and the south, inequalities at the national level have increased.

So it’s a very complex picture about how the world has been changing. But I think it’s important to remember that geography means a lot, and class continues to mean a lot. Interactions between the two are not very straightforward. Globalization for example, the reaction to globalization is quite complex. For example, in the west, everybody benefits from cheaper products; products which are made in poor countries with very low wages for the workers and so on and so forth. Everybody benefits from these cheaper products. But when people lose their jobs, or their working conditions become worse because the employers and the big corporations have alternatives abroad, they do not feel it all at the same time. So the resistance to this very complex processes of globalization, and economic liberalization more generally, were used to be quite uneven and quite slow.

But recently, one decade of very poor economic performance, especially in the West, has resulted in all kinds of reactions, some progressive, some reactionary, but generally there has been a tendency to blame the other, to blame the outsider.

The outsider in terms of somebody who is culturally different, who’s alien, who looks different or behaves differently, and also to blame the rest of the world, other countries, especially those who are different culturally and so on. So what has happened now is that there’s been a resurgence coming back off what is called ethnopopulism. Also, especially in North America, in the US, we have seen the return of jingoism, nationalistic jingoism of national chauvinism. This is not new.

When the West believed that they won the Cold War, there was an element of that, but now it is much stronger and it is combined with these other elements. So, what we have is a situation where the opposition to economic liberalization is bigger than ever before, but it includes very many reactionary forces in addition to the progressive forces in who oppose globalization almost from the outset. In many ways you can see due to the transformation of the economy, of the transformation of social relations and the transformation of politics in the postcolonial world.

In the economic system we have today, it seems that in order to have winners, we need losers. Can we change it? How?

Our society today, it is quite possible to have economic growth which is shared. If you look, for example at China, China has been growing and real incomes for working people have been going up. Unfortunately, China is the exception. China is the only country where you have this kind of very clear rising tide lifting all boats. Of course, there are some very ridiculous multibillionaires in China as well, but the high growth rate has enabled this phenomenon to take place in China. In different times in society, this has happened in many other parts of society, if you think about northern Europe for example. Even today Norway, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, is also one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. But these two countries, China on the one hand and Norway on the other, are almost exceptional. In most countries, we see the rich growing at the expense of the poor.

One cannot deny that one of the benefits of so called globalization, were cheaper consumer goods for many people in the West. Okay. For the producers, the workers who are producing those goods, who didn’t have jobs before, they benefited from getting some jobs, some steady income. It is very low, very, very low, especially when compared to the west. But it was probably higher than before. You find that in countries like Bangladesh or even in Ethiopia, people are getting better off. But again, these are exceptions.

The way in which the West particularly, but also Japan, responded to the last great, so called Global Financial Crisis in 2008/2009, mainly using so called unconventional monetary policies. Firstly, those policies are very blunt. They can benefit all kinds of people, but the way the policies were implemented, it really helped the rich to become even richer.

So the concentration, not of income, but of wealth, especially in the United States … The United States is one of the more successful examples of recovery compared to Europe during this period. But there has been a far, far greater concentration of wealth. Very often, when we talk about economic inequality, we mix up the two; income and wealth.

But income is a flow and wealth is a stock. It’s important for us to recognize this. So, the availability of cheap credit, or what they call easy credit, enabled the people who could borrow to borrow very cheap and to buy up wealth from other people who were distressed. The result is this far greater concentration of wealth in the United States, but also elsewhere in the world. This is part of the reason why there is so much alienation and resentment, but also, unfortunately, misunderstanding. This is part of the problem in terms of addressing this issues.

We do not have the resources to make everyone as wealthy as a billionaire. Neither do we have the resources to live as the rich are doing. We do not have sufficient resources on our planet to sustain such a lifestyle. How do you feel about this?

Well, to put it in terms of a slogan, we have enough for everybody’s needs but not for everybody’s greed. This is a slogan associated with Gandhi, but possibly it was there even before Gandhi. But I think that message is quite clear. Now, you’re quite right. This is a dynamic which we have in our society. But some of the recent technological developments are accelerating this process and part of these processes.

Part of the problem, of course, is that there is a very weak sense of social solidarity. Some of the people who are able to organize social solidarity do so on a reactionary basis. This is a very major problem. Unless you can organize an alternative, successfully organize and sustain an alternative, we’re in very, very serious trouble. As far as the problems of resources are concerned … I mean, the challenge is that it’s not simply as many people like to say, about all the population, human population is growing and so on and so forth.

Part of the problem is that we are taking resources from the earth without thinking about sustainability. We are also in the process of human consumption producing a lot of side effects, which are not going to go away, which are reducing the quality of life, increasing pollution and so on – more greenhouse gases and so on. All of which are going to have adverse effects not only for ourselves but for future generations.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to organize solutions. Part of the problem is that everybody wants to have what they call win-win solutions, so that the people will benefit, but also the businesses will benefit. Of course there are some such options, but very often business is most interested in promoting solutions which will benefit themselves. The benefit to society is a secondary consideration. There are not many occasions when the two coincide. So, it is very difficult in our society which is becoming increasingly individualistic.

At the conference, you spoke about capitalism and the near future. What options do we have?

Well, what I was saying at the conferences is that, in the near future, capitalism is the only show in town. There is no immediate alternative to capitalism. The anticapitalist forces are not strong. However, what I was also saying is that there are varieties of capitalism.

What is happening in China today or what is happening in Norway is not anticapitalist. It’s different type of management of capitalism. Likewise, with Bangladesh, they are not some other type of society, but they have learned to moderate capitalism. They have learned to manage capitalism, just as Roosevelt tried to do during the 1930s. Roosevelt was not a socialist. During the 1940s, when various reforms were taking place in Western Europe, ’40s and ’50s and so on, these reforms have helped improve conditions, reduced the worst inequalities. But to say that that was the end of capitalism, I think would be a great exaggeration.

Of course, there are some right wing libertarians who think anytime there is a role for government, that is the end of capitalism. Of course that kind of simplistic thinking is becoming quite popular. But leaving that aside, I think there are varieties of capitalism. What people will need to think about is also how we can mobilize some of those forces to do some good. Let me give you a simple example; during the time I was working in the United Nations, we proposed the idea of a Global Green New Deal.

We wanted to capture the idea of Roosevelt: a new deal with certain responsibilities of not only for the workers but also for the capitalists and so on, including paying taxes and so on. But in addition, we recognize the challenges of sustainability which we face in the world; resource depletion and exhaustion, the continued destruction of the environment, destruction of the basis for continued existence on earth.

Also, we raised the question, we said that because of the huge inequalities in the world today, these have to be inequalities which are going to be dealt with, and not just at a national level, but also global. That’s why the very clumsy slogan of a Global Green New Deal. We propose specifically that we have a golden opportunity.

This is 10 years ago, right? The golden opportunity to reduce poverty – especially what we call energy poverty – in the south by a massive subsidization of electricity from renewable energy sources in the south. Much of this was conceived of as solar. Some of it of course, could have been from other sources, so wind turbines and so on. At that time, we thought that the unit costs were coming down, but not coming down fast enough. There was a need to subsidize electrification in the south.

You cannot rely on existing demand because they are very poor people who do not have the resources to buy electricity at market rates, especially if you start introducing things like carbon taxes and all that without thinking about the distributional implications. So, that was our proposal. Unfortunately, because of this idea of independent power producers generating electricity, and the government should not be involved in producing electricity and so on, what we find is that business interests have become so powerful.

We have very, very powerful lobbies, which are misleading governments, misleading publics about the real options. I think we have a situation where we can actually move quite rapidly to renewable energy. This was part of the proposal to think about how to deal with the economic crisis in terms of changing the social relations.

It was not going to be the end of capitalism to be sure, but, if successful, we would have seen many people who have never had access to modern electricity, would be able to have access to modern electricity and to be able to improve the conditions of life. For example, to use the mechanical power to overcome the drudgery of certain types of manual labor, or to use electricity for cooking instead of certain fossil fuels or to use electricity for studying for children. All of this could have been made possible.

So, we should not say that the only thing is to end capitalism, but we need to begin to think about how we can improve things if the economic system does not fundamentally change. How do we manage it better so that we do not destroy the very basis for our own futures in existence.

What could also be done to initiate progressive change?

I don’t think there are any universal answers. There are no universal answers. I think those days when people thought in terms of a single force, with a very clear blueprint for everybody are no longer there. We have to begin to think creatively, recognizing that not everybody wants to change the system.

People all dream of a better life, but they don’t necessarily all want the same thing. We need to unite people to overcome the divisions which have been growing in recent decades, and to be able to mobilize them successfully; and mobilize them not just to replace one set of leaders with another set of leaders, but rather to be able to bring about much more fundamental and deep rooted transformations. It is always a context specific challenge. You cannot talk about it in the abstract.

If you had the power to change one thing tomorrow, what would it be?

I would begin with health and nutrition. Health and nutrition involves entire families. I see the possibility in health and nutrition for greater leadership of women. This I think is also important. The transformation of social relations will also involve transformation in the household. This I think will be important.

Part of the focus on nutrition is because many of the problems are not entirely systemic. Many of them have become, even if their origins are systemic, they’ve become part of our behavior. We are subjected to all kinds of propaganda from food companies, from beverage companies. We have changed our lifestyles and we are now suffering a lot of health and nutrition problems because of what we eat and drink. This is self-inflicted in some ways, or at least it appears to be so.

We need to begin to think about that, and to address that. If we are going to be serious about universal health coverage, it means that the price of medicines has to go down. Everybody should be able to afford decent health. As people deal with these problems, with health and nutrition issues, they begin to understand the subtle ways in which this system affects all of us. It’s not only at the level of production, but also at the level of consumption. In recent times, I’m putting a lot of emphasis on this, partly because perhaps this might be the way to go forward. When you think about health, you also have to think about, for example, the consequences of global warming and how it affects us. For example, when you think about sustainability, there are different options involved.

All this becomes important when you think about nutrition, you think about food. What you said earlier about producing for people’s needs – there’s enough for people’s needs, but not for everybody’s greed. The satisfaction which is derived from just having a good meal, a good healthy meal rather than a very, very expensive and costly meal. There are many issues which people become aware of. For example, the excessive use of agro-chemicals to produce food. As they become more aware of food and how that food affects their wellbeing, their health, their nutrition, then I think this kind of awareness is very healthy for people to begin to understand how the system operates.

You mentioned you see the possibility for more leadership of women. Could you tell me more?

In many traditional households, the division of labor is such that the decisions about household consumption are still made by the women. So, if you are able to enhance the power of the women there … Traditionally we think in terms of production, but we also should think about consumption and reproduction. For example, if a woman … if you think about nutrition, the current scientific consensus is on the first thousand days. That means from the moment of an unborn child’s conception until the child reaches the age of two, the mother, the prospective mother needs to be aware.

So there are certain health considerations involved. The mother has to be aware, and nutrition and health of the unborn child in terms of what the mother consumes, the interconnectedness of society; in this case between mother and child, but also the support system of the family and beyond is something you begin to appreciate more in this kind of context.

The household is just the nexus for this changing human relations, changing relations. So when the decisions are being made, which affect nutrition, affect health, and the decision making shifts, if we assume men bringing in money from the market – which is not the case; in many, many places it is the women who are working in the farm, or women who are working in the market. But that power associated with bringing income has to be shared.

If you take a different view about health and nutrition, and of course if you extend that to the appreciation, the greater appreciation of what now people call ‘care work’, that has important implications as well.

Who is ruling the world?

Well, I think there are different types of power. There’s what is called economic power. There’s a political power. There is a power associated with the state where even judges have some discretion. Then also, in some societies, legislators have considerable influence because they set the rules of the game.

Then you have a soft power as well. This notion of soft power. Power doesn’t just come from the barrel of the gun. It doesn’t come from the repressive apparatus of the state. It also comes from the powers of persuasion of, for example, the cult of certain personalities.

So there are different types of power, but I think given how things have changed in society, it is probably the power associated with wealth, which is the most important, because many of the politicians unfortunately are available … Some people joke, ‘we have the best election money can buy’, and there’s some truth to that.

But again, it is the way power is shared and distributed in many societies changes, and it changes over time. Where individuals locate them … see themselves and in their relationship into power.

A small farmer in a village, you could talk to them about the power of a big transnational corporation. It’s very difficult for them to appreciate it or the power of Google. It’s not easy to appreciate that. This is the problem. You may have very, very powerful rich people who are abusing their power and so on. But it is not self-evident to everybody that this is the case. Some of the people we may not like, maybe as seen, if you have a big company offering goods at very low prices, they are making billions. But do we, who go to those shops, resent the existence? It’s much more complex kind of situation which we live in. Yes.

Do you have a dream?

I’m so tired from work that I hardly have the chance to dream. Of course you want things to be better, but I don’t think I spend much time dreaming a dream.

What is life about?

I would like to go with the thinking that I have done something to make life better, especially for those who are marginalized. I mean, many people, because I live in Asia, they ask me why I’m still writing about African issues. Partly because of my names, I feel a connection, but also it is a way of reminding oneself that it’s not just about ourselves. When we say we, we the people, it is not just ‘we’ in the narrow sense of a ‘we’, but a broader sense.

You were named after two African anti-colonial leaders, but beside your background, what motivates you?

Only because I have continued to do things without any success. People often ask me, why bother? It’s not a very easy question to answer, but from an early age, I guess, I was quite happy to be innovative without necessarily being officially appreciated.

Perhaps it is their attitude. You need to be a change maker. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Okay Nerina. All the best. Thank you.

Thank you so much for watching. Thank you so much for listening and thank you so much for sharing. Next time we are going to continue with our mini-series about inequalities. Hope to see you soon again. Bye and ciao.

Biography:

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, known as Jomo, is a prominent Malaysian economist. He holds the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, and is Visiting Senior Fellow at Khazanah Research Institute, Visiting Fellow at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University, and Adjunct Professor at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

He is also a member of the Malaysian Council of Eminent Persons who advises the Federal Government of Malaysia.

He served as the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) during 2005–2012, and then as Assistant Director-General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome during 2012–2015. He was also Research Coordinator for the G24 Intergovernmental Group on International Monetary Affairs and Development during 2006–2012. During 2008–2009, he served as adviser to Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the 63rd United Nations General Assembly, and as a member of the [Stiglitz] Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System.

Jomo is a leading scholar and expert on the political economy of development, especially in Southeast Asia, who has authored or edited over a hundred books and translated 12 volumes besides writing many academic papers and articles for the media.

Megan Tobias Neely
Postdoctoral fellow in sociology
Biography:

Megan Tobias Neely is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. In 2017, she graduated with a PhD in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. She studies gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace and the labor force.

Her research examines rising economic inequality in the U.S. through the lens of gender and race. She pursued graduate school after working as a research analyst for a hedge fund from 2007-2010. This insider experience led her to sociology to study the mechanisms that reproduce gender and race inequality in this industry and to understand how the financial sector perpetuates class inequality in society at large.

Hedged Out: Inside the “Boys’ Club” on Wall Street

Income inequality has skyrocketed in the United States. Since 1980, the richest 1 percent doubled their share of the nation’s earnings, and these high earners are concentrated in the financial services industry. Today, hedge fund managers earn an average annual income of $2.4 million, astronomical payouts that have mostly gone to elite white men. Megan presents an insider’s look at the industry. Have a watch!

We spoke with Megan Tobias Neely during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Megan Tobias Neely's Video here

My name is Megan Tobias Neely and I’m a sociologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University.

Thank you so much for joining me. What are your main research topics?

My research examines rising economic inequality, through the lens of focusing on how social inequalities such as gender, race, and social class inequality works in elite workplaces. For example, my current research examines the hedge fund Industry, and I conduct interviews with hedge fund workers, and I do field observations at their industry events and at their workplaces.

Was it easy to find people who wanted to get interviewed in the hedge fund Industry?

Yeah. So the research on elites, especially ethnographic on elites , usually says that you have to have an insider connection to industries like the hedge fund Industry in order to study it. And I thought I would be well positioned to study it because I had worked doing kind of support research at a hedge fund from 2007 to 2010. And I was surprised when I entered that world. It wasn’t a world I ever thought I would work in. And so I was fascinated by it and I was fascinated by how it shaped inequality.

And when I returned to study the industry, I tried to use those networks and that knowledge to access the industry. But what I found is that they were very resistant to talk to someone. I had worked at a large hedge fund that’s associated with a large financial firm that invests in hedge funds.

And so I represented a client, which made them very concerned. But once I positioned myself just only as a researcher and first and foremost as a researcher, they were very eager to talk with me and share their experiences. And they were excited in some ways to share the secretive world with what they understood as an unbiased audience. As a researcher, they understood that I would dig past sort of the stereotypes and the scandals that are often featured in the news media and portray the everyday lives and practices within the industry. So once they understood that goal they were very excited and eager to talk with me.

What are the results of your research so far?

Yeah, so what I found is that many of the features of this industry that they view as being very beneficial, actually created inequalities in unexpected ways. So they put a high precedent on having passion for your work. They really value trust and loyalty among employees. But what I found is that these kinds of features that seem good, they seem like beneficial things in the workplace, actually allowed [inaudible 00:02:57] biases based on status characteristics, which is the term that academics use to refer to things like gender identity, racial identity, and social class identity. So these allowed biases to flourish. Because when we make a decision about who we trust or who we view as passionate about their work, it’s usually based on something that we determine at the gut level or the instinctual level immediately when we interact with people. So even though those in this industry don’t think of themselves as being prejudiced or discriminating, they have built networks that do end up leading to the exclusion of women as well as minority men.

And what I argue is that those same processes that lead to this exclusion also create an environment that allows them to justify the high incomes they earn. So I argue that it is the very processes of an inclusion and exclusion along gender and racial lines that helps to foster an environment that allows for these high incomes that drive the current trends and widening income inequality.

Why this topic?

The research on the financial sector in the U.S and transnationally, has largely found that it is increasingly characterized by insecurity. Financial crises are happening at more regular intervals. And this creates an environment where people who work at firms like hedge funds face considerable insecurity and instability. And of course they have the incomes to weather that insecurity, but it also shapes the way they are motivated to earn money.

So for example, I interviewed one trader who I called Craig. He receives a bonus based on the trades that he makes in the stock market, and this affects the kinds of risks you take. So what he described to me is that he could take very high risk trades after he’d made a big bonus that would allow him to live for so many months based on that bonus. It could pay for his family’s rent, his children’s tuition, and then he might be able to live off that income for six months before he would have to start making more modest trades again to make sure that he could ensure his lifestyle.

Case of traders like Craig really captures how these workers live in a pretty unstable environment, because if the stock market shifts, those trades are less predictable, and they have to really shift their approach. They actually benefit from insecurity in the labor market and in the stock market, but it also leads them to be highly motivated to protect their interests.

So firms like hedge funds face insecurity in the stock market. They also face what they perceive as regulatory insecurity. So the government changes the regulation that influences how they do their business and that forces them to abruptly shift. And because of this insecurity, they put a high premium on trust and loyalty, and they select people that they perceive as trustworthy and loyal, so that they can weather this insecurity. I started studying the hedge fund industry in part because I was reading about the increasingly precarious working conditions of workers in the U.S and abroad as they face unpredictable wage labor, irregular schedules, many juggle multiple jobs in the low wage service sector. And this has led to increased polarization and inequality in the labor market.

There are not many women working in the hedge fund industry, right?

Only 17% are women, and among senior workers, only 11% of them are women, which shows that women are gaining access to some entry level positions but struggling to stay in the industry as they move up throughout their careers. And what I found is that there are processes that start at the moment of hiring, that preclude women’s access to these jobs. Things like biases against women who maybe are mothers or could be mothers leads employees not to hire them in the industry. For example, when I was doing my research, a very famous hedge fund manager named Paul Tudor Jones at a conference said that he thought that the experience of having a child would compromise a woman’s passion to the work, and he cited this as evidence that women could not be as good of traders. The women I interviewed expressed considerable frustration with this quote, and they’ve often described how as they progressed in their careers, they were shifted from jobs and on the investment side of the business. So jobs in research and trading, to jobs in client services, which were perceived to be more conducive to having a family.

Whether this is true was not entirely clear in my research because women who worked in client services described how they had to be on demand all the time. They had to travel to meet with investor clients, but the perception among managers was that it was a better job. But what it also did is it made it harder for women to access leadership positions because more of the executive positions come from working on the investment side of the business.

Is the job of a hedge fund manager more than a full-time job?

As a sociologist, we call this discourse. Which means it’s a story that people tell to explain their lives, but it reflects their deeply held belief system. So people held on to this belief that the passion for work would conflict with passion for family. But what I found is that mothers and fathers alike, described equal interest and enthusiasm for their work as they did for their families. In fact, I actually found that the men talked more about their passion for their children in their interviews with me. They often cited that as part of what drove them to succeed and excel. And this also emerged, I found some evidence of a bonus for fathers. I had a couple of interviewees who are hedge fund managers who acknowledged that they paid fathers more because they perceived male breadwinners as needing more money to support a family in an expensive location like New York City.

Is there a result that really surprised you?

One of the most surprising findings from my research had to do with how these hedge fund managers create community. I assume that because hedge funds are small and relatively isolated in terms of how they work, they’re very insular. I assume that there would be networks, but I didn’t think they would be quite as close knit as what I found.

What I came across were deliberate efforts to forge really close bonds and create community throughout the hedge fund industry. I found that there is a strong anti bureaucratic sentiment as well as an anti hierarchical sentiment. Many hedge fund founder’s actually founded these firms as a way to believe the giant hierarchies and large pyramid structures and investment banks that they perceive to be inequitable. They perceive them to be bogged down in bureaucracy, and they perceive them to be an efficient. hedge fund managers often talk about how they want to include employees. They want to create an open workspace that promotes communication and a sense of collective participation in their work. The hedge funds engage in all kinds of bonding rituals. Some host initiation rituals like Karaoke nights for new employees. They do things like relay races, they ski, they play poker, they have dinners, some even do things like group activity puzzle solving.

And they do this all to create an environment where employees feel like a family and can rely on each other and trust one another. But what I found is that that close bonding actually led to some employees feeling very ostracized. And when they encountered, for example, when women and racial and ethnic minority men encountered discrimination or harassment, they felt very isolated and did not have any avenues to seek recourse. Instead, they perceive the labor market as the only avenue for recourse. They thought that they would take their talent elsewhere, and they thought that employers who discriminated would be penalized by losing their talent.

But unfortunately what I found is that by taking a view of the entire industry as a whole, ultimately this does not penalize the employers because it is such a white male dominated industry. So in the hedge fund industry, there’ve been several industry reports, one in 2011 and then another one again this year that it found that those who do experience harassment or discrimination in this industry often have few other options, by pressing charges or calling attention to the issues was perceived as a career ender because it would ruin their reputation.

And this meant that those firms who engaged in these kinds of practices would encounter a few consequences for this behavior.

How do they see their work? How do they see themselves?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I included in my interviews broad questions about how they perceive the benefits of their work as well as the risks or the negative aspects of their work. And I left it open ended because I didn’t want to lead the questions. I wanted to understand how they see the world. And what I learned from this is that hedge fund managers and workers at hedge funds tend to understand their work in narrow terms. Like most of us, we understand the social world that we impact, but we often don’t understand the kind of consequences our work might have for others. So for example, hedge fund workers, when they describe the benefits of their work, they usually reference the people who are impacted directly from their investments.

Roughly two thirds of hedge fund investments actually come from large institutions. These include pension funds, education, endowments like those at universities, and also government wealth funds. And so the average hedge fund worker, they understand the benefits of their work as being to save for retirement and help average workers save for retirement. So they often imagine the pension fund holder as the client that they’re serving. And I think that this would surprise many people. We assume hedge fund managers are thinking more about building wealth or driving companies into the ground. But really they’re focused on what they think of as adding value. And of course then many engage investment practices that do put workers at risk. So they often put pressure on companies to engage in labor practices that make work more precarious and unequal for workers. For example, they often want corporations to remove mid level managers or outsource labor or automate work using digital technologies, but they think that they are driven by this idea that that will make these firms more efficient and produce value in the market.

How do they feel they are perceived by everyone? Is this an issue?

Yeah. Yes. That is an issue. So one thing I encountered when trying to recruit participants is they often ask me or said to me, ’you’re not a journalist, right?’ Because they felt that the industry has been so burned (‘’burned’’ is how they would frame it) by journalists. And one of their motivations for talking with me was to kind of, because the focus of sociological research is to provide insight into the everyday practices of the people we study. And so what I heard from when I ask the question of how do people react when you tell them what you do for a living. Many of them said that they just don’t understand. They identified a gap between the public portrayals of the industry and the everyday lived experiences and many of also felt like the media portrayals focused on what they described as a few bad apples.

So they really thought that often those hedge fund managers who make news for doing really particularly egregious investments, or for engaging in insider trading or fraud, they felt like those hedge fund managers caught most of the attention but didn’t capture their work, which is largely true with what my research found is that is that: the average hedge fund manager is much less exciting and a little bit more boring than how we think of them in the media.

What does a hedge fund manager do?

What I find most interesting about what they do is that many hedge fund managers engage in all kinds of analysis of markets. So there are a number of hedge fund managers who use, they use all kinds of strategies to invest in the market. So some use quantitative strategies and algorithmic trading strategies, and others actually do analysis of economies around the world.

So they might study emerging markets and they’ll actually travel to different countries around the world to understand what kind of conditions the businesses face in each of those contexts. And then they use this information to invest worldwide. So for example, I had one interview with a hedge fund manager during the height of the Eurozone crisis. And she was investing in European stocks and government bonds. And she said, Europe is going to be here forever. Everybody’s trying to sell their European investments and I’m going to buy it while it’s low because Europe isn’t stable and I want to contribute to stabilizing it, and making sure that continues. So that’s kind of an example of what they do that you might not expect on the one hand. The other thing that was unexpected I found, is that many hedge fund managers come from academic backgrounds.

I interviewed several physicists, people with PhDs in artificial intelligence, biology, even fields like philosophy. And they use this academic training to shape how they think about markets, and that informs their kind of everyday decisions. And one thing that’s often not captured in media portrayals of hedge fund managers is that they engage in sort of what we would think of as more of like a tech startup culture. At their firms they’re often dressed more casually, especially if they’re not engaging with clients. They’re more relaxed and are a slightly nerdier bunch than what we think as in the media. And this is partly because of this academic influence. And that was a common theme that came across in my interviews with academics as they described a moment when funding went up for investments in research, whether by the government or by universities.

And this was the moment that pushed them into financial services as an alternative option for them to make a living with their academic degrees.

It sounds like many of the managers decided to do what they are doing because of the money.

Yeah. Yes. Many of them described how they were in academic positions, whether at research institutes or in postdoctoral fellowships or other kinds of positions, but just weren’t well funded. And they described how they couldn’t get jobs as professors like they had wanted. And so instead, many of them describe how a friend from Undergrad or a family friend gave them kind of the tip that their academic degree could be useful in finance. And that’s what led them then to the hedge fund industry or other financial careers that then led them to hedge funds.

I spoke to one hedge fund investor who had done his PhD in artificial intelligence in the late 1980s and early 90s. And he laughed and said ‘’when I graduated there was nothing to do with my PhD. So finance was the logical option for me.” And then with a laugh, he said, “it’s such a waste. There’s so many of us that could be coming up with solutions to broader issues in society, but because we haven’t found enough funding in academia or from government institutions, we ended up resorting to finance.”

In term of investment strategy, is there something that you feel people would not expect?

There were a few trends that I found particularly interesting in terms of investment strategies that the everyday person wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. So during my research there were several ups and downs in the stock market, surrounding oil and gas prices as well as a stock market crash in China. And during these times, the people I interviewed spoke about how their client investors would redeem money because they get scared when the stock market crashes. And this made them very frustrated because one of the things few people know about hedge funds and other kinds of investment techniques is that they usually make money by buying a lot of stock at the bottom of the stock market crash. So even though stock market crashes are stressful and created headaches for them, they would be excited because it created opportunities for them to grow.

And this is something that theorists who study financial systems have theorized broadly – how it is actually these crises that create wealth. And that’s part of the nature of the system and how it creates inequality, because financial crises negatively impact everyday workers, but it actually allows those who are in positions to invest, to gain broadly from it. So that was one unexpected finding about how they invest. Another one that I found particularly interesting, so as a gender scholar, I teach fertility and reproduction. And one of the theories that I teach has to do with how fertility rates shape economic outcomes in capitalist societies or in other societies as well. And during my research, I heard a lot of investors talk about how they track fertility rates as a sign of where to invest in what countries around the world. And that is something you wouldn’t think of generally.

But as a country transitions from being high fertility, which is typically associated with a country with an agrarian economy. But as a country with an agrarian economy develops its fertility rate slows down and starts to decline. And so it becomes what’s called this economic sweet spot where there are many people who are young workers and just entering the workforce. And this creates a boom in the economy because there are fewer older workers who are dependents, who rely on their work for things like social security and other provisions. And then as they enter the workforce, they have fewer children. So there are also fewer children to take care of. And this creates a boom in economic development, which investors in hedge funds and other financial firms are aware of. And so they use this to shape what countries they invest in around the world. And they pay attention to where countries are in this fertility cycle as an indicator of how to invest in the companies in that country as well as in the government.

Why are you doing what you are doing? Why are you so passionate about this topic?

I pursued inequality because I cared about understanding poverty and inequality. And then I took this, I applied for a job at a financial firm when I graduated from university and ended up doing industry research at a large financial firm. I took this job because I wanted experience with data analysis to prepare me for graduate school, but I ended up being at one of the largest financial firms in the world and their hedge fund division. And this gave me access and knowledge of an area of the world that contributes to the rising incomes that are generating inequality on a broad scale. Those at the top of income distribution and how this contributes to inequality. I felt like we needed more insight into their social worlds and what shapes their everyday decisions to help us understand how inequality is reproduced and what the outcomes are for low wage workers and the poor.

Of course, we would like to have a decrease in inequality, but based on your study, how and where could we start working on it?

As a sociologist, we often focus on the causes of inequality rather than the solutions. And I currently work at a gender research institute called the Clayman Institute that focuses on interventions to create more equality in the workplace. So our research team actually works in partnership with corporations and government or agencies to create interventions. And what I think is key for interventions for social change is to have them be focused on the local conditions and the immediate context of the site that you’re trying to change. So what we do is we study work organizations and we identify the particular avenues that bias emerge and inequality happens within each organization. And then working with internal gatekeepers who are motivated to create change, we design interventions for change, things like calibration systems for how they hire, how they evaluate applicants and how they promote employees within the firm.

And then we work together with those gatekeepers to come up with that solution, how to implement it and then study the aftermaths to determine how much change can be made in terms of producing equality. And for example, in one firm that we studied, we found an enormous gap between men who are highly ranked in their performance evaluations and women who are ranked at highly. And what we heard in the interviews was that there was a perception that men would be harder to retain. And so they inflated their evaluations course. So the team working on this research project devised an intervention to create more specific criteria for evaluation of these employees, and they reduce that gap by almost 30% from the men’s evaluations to the women’s.

And if you had the possibility to change one thing tomorrow, what would it be?

It’s hard because I’m trained to study complex institutions. And so when I think of the problems, I think of them in terms of how many actors are at play in creating inequalities. One of the most startling dimensions of inequality in the world today ,from my perspective as a gender scholar, is the fact that there are very few women who are in the high earning salaries at the top. But most women earn the incomes that support the poor and working class families, whether that’s in the U.S or in the world. In general women worldwide carry the burden of poverty and inequality. They’re the ones who are raising children and with very few supports to do it.

And I think as a collective transnational society, we need to value the work of women who don’t often earn high wages, and especially the work that they do to reproduce society. So they perform all kinds of work to raise children who become future workers and we all need those workers, and we need to value those women’s labor as much as we do value the people who I study in finance.

Are you seeing positive changes?

I’m very encouraged and inspired by the fact that so many women are gaining access to political leadership positions. And I think what’s most important is the fact that many of these women in the case of the recent U.S midterm elections are not following traditional political careers, but rather they are entering office through campaigns based on transformative change, and are seeking to make more widespread changes in the institutions governing society. And I think that this provides a key to how women commit create broader change. I fear that if women only follow the same access to power as men do, that this will only serve to reinforce the institutions that help to generate power and inequality in our society. I think that we need more campaigns for transformative change like those we are seeing right now in many political movements around the world.

What kind of society do you dream of?

I think the kind of society I dream of is one where we value what people do outside of work as much as we value what they do for their paid labor. I wish that we live in societies where people’s care for each other was highly valued as well as their artistic pursuits, and a society that allows people to pursue those things and live comfortably while doing so.

What is the most important lesson you I have learned from this research?

I think what is most revealing about studying people who are considered political or economic elites is the realization that they are people like everyone else who make mistakes, who make decisions based on the information they have available to them. And this doesn’t excuse when they make decisions that have adverse consequences for everyone, but it does help us understand why they make those decisions and understand how the worlds that they live in influence why the kinds of solutions to social problems that they select. And I think we need more research that delves into those worlds and gets access to political and economic elites to better understand why there’s such a gap in between what they care about and what other people, the middle class, the working class and the poor care about in society. Overall, the economic elites that I speak to care about other people and they do care about the impacts of their work. But the problem is that they don’t understand necessarily the solutions to the problems that other people face.

What is the most important lesson you want your students to learn from you?

I think the most important lesson is about approaching research. Broadly speaking, approaching and understanding other people from a sense of curiosity and fascination rather than through preconceived notions about how we stereotype or assume people act or behave. I think that starting research or seeking background information on a group of people, we need to start from a place of really understanding where they’re coming from, understanding the experiences that they’re having and how that shapes their perceptions in the world. And I always hope that students will find that as fascinating as I do. To me, every person I interview prompts new questions and curiosities for me, and makes me want to learn more about their experiences, and it always challenges whatever I assume going into the interview based on social theory or based on previous research.

And I love that about my work, that it’s always surprising. It’s always unexpected because usually our assumptions going into research do not play out as we expect. And this is particularly true about ethnographic research, which is much messier because people’s lives are much messier than we like to portray them in stories or in books. And that’s what makes it so enjoyable and engaging and interesting.

What motivates you?

What motivates me is getting other people excited and interested in understanding inequality, and really delving into the data that helps us to explain how inequality reproduces and persists over time.

What do you look forward to?

I’m looking forward to continuing studying inequality, and what I want to do in the future is to really put workers who are at the top of the earnings distribution in conversation with those at the bottom. So I’m right now in the process of setting up a research project where I’ll investigate the lives of corporate elites as well as low wage workers in the same firm at different sites. One of the things that I love about studying inequality is figuring out how studying inequality at different parts of the earnings distribution changes how we understand it. And so I’m looking forward to putting those experiences within one context, within the same firm, into conversation with each other to understand why those at corporate headquarters make decisions that impact workers, low wage workers. And then to understand how those low wage workers actually experience those decisions, and how they think about them and how they impact their lives.

Thank you so much for this conversation.

Thank you so much for having me join you.

Thank you so much for watching. Thank you so much for listening and thank you so much for sharing. Next time we are going to continue with our miniseries about inequalities. I hope to see you soon again, bye and ciao.

Biography:

Megan Tobias Neely is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. In 2017, she graduated with a PhD in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin. She studies gender, race, and class inequality in the workplace and the labor force.

Her research examines rising economic inequality in the U.S. through the lens of gender and race. She pursued graduate school after working as a research analyst for a hedge fund from 2007-2010. This insider experience led her to sociology to study the mechanisms that reproduce gender and race inequality in this industry and to understand how the financial sector perpetuates class inequality in society at large.

Fritz Nganje
Lecturer in International Relations
Biography:

Fritz Nganje is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.
Prior to this, he was a researcher in the Africa Programme of the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue. His research interest is in the areas of the diplomacy of subnational governments, decentralized cooperation, South Africa’s foreign policy and diplomacy in Africa, peace building in Africa, and South-South cooperation.

Cities, Cooperations, inequalities and the promise of a Democratic “Right to the City"

Who owns the future of our cities? Who determines how they develop? Who decides what does it mean a “dream city”? How can we challenge the unequal power distribution?

Listen to Fritz Nganje, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.
Mr. Nganje’s current primary area of interest focuses on the international relations of sub-national governments, and more specifically on how provinces, regions, and municipalities come together to promote city cooperation and inclusive urban governance and development.

We spoke with Fritz Nganje during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The title of his presentation was :
City-to-City Cooperation and the Promise of a Democratic “Right to the City”

When city partnerships are designed and implemented in a manner that fails to challenge unequal power relations, the urban elite tend to use their position as gatekeepers of the institutional landscape of cities to determine which foreign ideas are localized and how, undermining
the transformative potential of city-to-city cooperation.

Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Fritz Nganje's Video here

My name is Fritz Nganje. I’m a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. Right now my primary area of research is the international relations of sub-national governments, trying to look at how provinces and regions and municipalities are becoming more involved, their involvement in the global space and what is the significance of this, both for their relations with their national government, but also for power relations within these sub-national governments.

In fact, that is why my paper today looked at one of the key elements of this development, which is city cooperation. Trying to look at how cooperation between cities could be leveraged to be able to start challenging the influence of the elite both at the local and at the global level.

The key argument I made in the paper today is that the way these cooperation initiatives are designed does not really make them amenable to be able to serve as a catalyst for inclusive urban governance and development. Because for the most part they are designed as exchanges between city officials and politicians without necessarily bringing onboard the local population who also have an interest in the issues that form part of these transnational linkages.

I argue that in order for us to transform city-to-city cooperation into a tool for inclusive urban development we need to democratize this aspect of our international relations by ensuring that we design these partnerships in such a way that all interested stakeholders in the city, whether they are corporates or they are farmers or they are merely city dwellers, they shall have the opportunity to participate actively in these transnational linkages. Because ultimately they will affect the way that these individuals in the city are governed.

As things stand, for the most part, it remains more of a technocratic process that is not really amenable to significant democratic change in urban areas. Just to extend a little bit on that, I’m trying now to look at how the internationalization of cities, what kind of implications these have for power relations within cities. Because for the most part every single city in the world today, be it in the developed world or the developing world, wants to be globally connected, wants to be competitive.

I think we need to start asking the question: what vision of the city informs this global connectedness? Because for the most part, it is the visions that the elite have for the city that inform the way the city engages with the outside world. If that is the case, it means that the interests of the ordinary people are not reflected in these internationalization efforts of the city. That is why we have cities that devote significant time and resources just to make themselves to be seen to be competitive, even to the detriment of the livelihoods of ordinary groups in the cities like your street vendors or those who do not have any significant dwelling or accommodation in the city.

Well, I’m passionate about those topics because I am committed to the development and the emancipation of my continent, Africa. I believe that that is one of the ways that I can make a meaningful contribution to the development of the continent by engaging in research and developing knowledge and contributing to dialogues that will help to generate ideas and policies that could assist with the emancipation of the African continent.

The issues that I will say concern me the most actually touch on the key theme of this conference today, are the issues of growing inequality and the effects of global capitalism on the livelihoods of ordinary people particularly in the African continent, who are forced nowadays to go through processes and experiences that actually undermine their dignity as a result of the global processes that actually are geared towards making certain parts of the world and a certain groups of people richer while undermining the ability of others to meet their basic livelihoods.

In your opinion, what do we need to change? Where could we start changing this?

I think fundamentally I believe that the structure of the global economy itself is a starting point. It is from the structure that some of the misery and some of the challenges that people face even in rural areas or in the suburbs or in the townships in most of the big cities. These problems arise because of the way the global economy is structured. I am also cognizant of the fact that those who wield power, those who influence these processes are not willing to give up their privileged position.

I believe that the starting point to start changing things and to start challenging the hegemonic forces is for individuals at the grassroots level to mobilize and work together. Because it is through the collective force of individuals that we can start making any attempt to challenge the forces that undermine the dignity of ordinary people.

What we’ve seen in a number of countries, particularly in Africa, is a tendency for groups to arise and challenge those who hold power. Once those who hold power have been dislodged, we see the emergence of the same tendency that had given rise to the grievances in the first place. I think what is fundamental is to be able to put in place good institutions that are able to curb the excesses of power and to also ensure that the interests and the aspirations of everyone in a particular society are taken on board.

If you focus on change that relies on individuals, such a change can hardly be sustainable. If you have good institutions that are able to ensure that the interests and the aspirations of all individuals in society are taken into account, and that the excesses of power are actually checked, and I think that is a good starting point to be able to effect change in the system.

Sorry, going back to your paper, could you tell me which cities did you analyze and where and what kind of exchanges do they have and why?

I was looking at partnerships between Brazilian cities and their counterparts in Mozambique within the framework of efforts to promote the democratic right to the city. I drew from Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the right to the city, which argues that the city should be made to be a space where every city dweller is able to exercise their right to meet their interests and their aspirations, and not necessarily become a space which is the privilege of only those who own property and those who own capital.

Over the years, particularly in the early 2000s, we’ve seen that in Brazil there have been attempts to try to institutionalize the right to the city. Although the Brazilian experience with the right to the city has been characterized by significant struggles and pushback from property interests and conservative elements of the society, there has been an attempt by cities in Brazil,with the support of international organizations like the World Bank, the UNDP, the ILO, or city-led works like the United Cities and Local Governments, to support Brazilian cities to try to assist their counterparts in other parts of the world, particularly in Africa, and in this case Mozambique, to try to share their experiences with the implementation of the right to the city and help them to adopt more inclusive approaches to urban governance and development.

I think it is a good initiative. I think there is still work that needs to be done. By this, I mean we need to reconceptualize the way we design these partnerships. Because, as I said earlier, for the most part, they have been limited to technical exchanges between city officials or politicians for that matter, without necessarily taking into account the fact that for any significant democratic change to take place in the city you need to start challenging the dominant power relations in the city.

City to city cooperation that is designed from a technocratic perspective does not have the potential to challenge these dominant power relations. That is why I argue in the paper that we need to democratize these partnerships to make them more inclusive. So, instead of just having officials exchange ideas and knowledge and experience, we should also bring civil society and different groups within the city to be part of these exchanges so they can help to transform these partnerships into sites for the renegotiation of power within the city.

What kind of cities do we dream of? What kind of city do we want to have where we globalize them? How do you see it? How can we start doing it?

I think the starting point is to understand the nature of the city within the framework of neoliberal capitalism. If we start seeing the city as the place where the manifestation of the forces of neoliberal capitalism, they acquire a concrete presence. Because it is in the city that we see the manifestation of inequality. It is in the city that we see the manifestation of exclusion, where we see immense wealth existing side by side with abject poverty.

It is from that perspective that we can start looking at the city not as this neat space which speaks to the aspiration of those who wield capital, but rather as a contested space where even those who have traditionally been marginalized are also able to try to express themselves, and they are given space to be able to articulate the kind of city that they want to live in. Because for the most part today, the vision of the city reflects the interests and the aspirations of the elite and those who are in possession of capital. The property owners, they determine how our urban planning should take place to the exclusion of the street vendors who also need to make a living from the city.

I think the starting point, as I said, is to go back to try to democratize the urban space to create space for all city dwellers to be able to express themselves, and to play a role in shaping the city, and in shaping the vision of the city that is reflected in the way the city integrates into the global capitalist economy. Because, again, it is from that perspective that we can start having our grassroots voices challenging the transnational processes that undermine their livelihoods.

Is there a good example, is there a city who is doing well in this?

I think it’s difficult to say there is a poster child of some of those expectations. If you look at the example I gave you in my presentation today of Brazilian cities, like Porto Alegre, that were able to take advantage of the legislation, the statute of the city that sought to institutionalize the right to the city, they were able to adopt certain policies and practices, such as the participatory budgeting exercise that sought to try to create a deliberative space that allows the citizens of the city to play an active role in the way the city was managed.

Again, I mean all the time as the neoliberal forces continue to fight back, I don’t think we can even talk of Porto Alegre today as a shining case of some of these progressive ideas that we’re trying to articulate. Because it’s a process of a continued struggle because there will always be a pushback from those who wield power today who do not want to lose their privileges.

You see, I don’t believe that the state can be the starting point of change, and neither do I believe that the formal processes and institutions that we have today, we can rely on them to engender the kind of progressive policies and processes that we are talking about. I think the starting point for change will be at the level of the individual. We all need to be cognizant of the environment in which we live today. We need to understand the different processes through which power reproduces itself, and we need also to try to work together.

We need that social mobilization, both within and across state boundaries, to be able to work together as individuals that want to see a better world and better communities. I think it is from that point that we can start seeing some concerted efforts to challenge the dominant institutions and processes today. We cannot expect, because to a large extent the states and the institutions that we have today, they’ve been hijacked by those who want to continue to enjoy privileges to the exclusion of the larger population.

I think the starting point is to try to confront the dominant discourses that contribute to the marginalization of our broader communities just to serve the interests of a small elite. It was quite interesting to listen to one of the speakers at the introductory round table on Wednesday, that what we have today, those who are in possession of capital are able to have their way because they are in control of the dominant discourses, that they do not need to use military force to have their way.

All they need to do is to have the ideas become the dominant ideas in society, and as a result, enable them to reproduce their power and their domination. To answer your question directly, if I had the power to change something, it would be firstly to be able to promote education and promote greater sensitization so that people across the world should be able to understand the different processes through which domination is carried out and reinforced.

I think it is through and an awareness and a greater education that we are able to start confronting the hegemonic forces that breed inequality, exclusion, and abject poverty.

I think the most important lesson of late is that change can only happen if we go back to the local level. It is only at the local level that we can start bringing about change. You cannot rely on the government. You cannot rely on the dominant institutions that, as I said, have been captured by those who want to maintain their privileges.

In order for change to be engendered, we need to be able to unearth the power of the people. We need to make people understand that they need to take responsibility for their lives. They need to take responsibility for the better world that we aspire for. You cannot sit back and wait, that that will be handed to you by big corporates, or be handed to you by your government, or even by the global institutions that preach equality and social justice. We need to all start taking action at the grassroots level and draw from our respective strengths to work together to be able to challenge the system.

I think a very important role, because, as I said, domination today takes place predominantly at the level of ideas. If your ideas acquire a hegemonic status, then you are able to dominate those around you. That is why I think research and academia has a significant role to play in this. Unfortunately, to some extent, our institutions of learning and our research institutes have somehow been co-opted into the dominant system.

Those who still believe in a progressive world, I think they have the responsibility to challenge the dominant forms of knowledge and to be able to use what are considered to be their privileged position within the institutions that create knowledge, to be able to articulate alternative and more progressive ideas that can make the world a better place. Without the role of researchers and intellectuals, then those who are at the forefront of some of the adverse processes that we are talking about here will continue to use their ideas, no matter how perverted they may be, to continue to entrench their hegemony.

I want to live in a society where differences are respected. I want to live in a society where it is not just about me, it is about the broader community. As an African, I subscribe to the philosophy of Ubuntu, that I exist as a human being because of the broader community. As such, I want to live in a society where there is that kind of human solidarity and that I do not live only for myself, but my life reflects the value of communalism where we work as a human race collectively to make the world a better place.

I also aspire for a society where nature is not seen as something to be dominated and destroyed just to make a profit, but that we also recognize that our very existence depends on the health of the environment around us.

I think there is a lot that the rest of the world can learn from Africa. As I said, particularly they can learn the humanistic values that are embedded in the concept of Ubuntu, that life is not worth living without taking into account the broader community. I think what has, to a large extent, brought us to where we are today is this individualistic conception of life that it is all about me.

I think if we draw from the philosophy of Ubuntu that teaches us that I am an individual, I am worthy of a human being because of my connection with other human beings, I think that can be a starting point to try to deal away with some of the ills of the capitalist system that have made some lives very, very dispensable just to make profit and enrich other lives.

Thank you so much for this conversation.

Thank you so much for having me.

Thank you.

Biography:

Fritz Nganje is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.
Prior to this, he was a researcher in the Africa Programme of the Pretoria-based Institute for Global Dialogue. His research interest is in the areas of the diplomacy of subnational governments, decentralized cooperation, South Africa’s foreign policy and diplomacy in Africa, peace building in Africa, and South-South cooperation.

Sudheesh Ramapurath
D.Ph. Candidate, Dep. of Int. Development
Biography:

Sudheesh Ramapurath C. is a D.Phil. candidate at the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. His research explores the impact of agrarian changes and land policies on landless indigenous peoples in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
His publications have appeared on The Wire, in the Indian Journal of Human Development and in Citizenship Studies.

Land rights, poverty, and hope in Indian indigenous community.

How do the needs of indigenous communities transform over time, and how can these same communities integrate themselves into a rapidly changing society?

We sat down with Sudheesh Ramapurath, an ethnographer and a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, to talk about his research on Land and Livelihood struggles in India, his homeland. More specifically, Sudheesh’s research focuses on the struggles of the Paniyas, a community that is part of India’s indigenous peoples, the Adivasis. Sudheesh analyzes how, over time, starting from pre and post-independence periods right up to the modern day and age, the Paniyas are still living under the poverty line.
Why? What do they want? What do they need? What is the role of research?
What changes are needed?

We met Sudheesh Ramapurath, during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The title of his presentation was :

Persistence of Poverty in an Indigenous Community
in Southern India: Bringing Agrarian Environment to
the Centre of Poverty Analysis.

Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Biography:

Sudheesh Ramapurath C. is a D.Phil. candidate at the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford. His research explores the impact of agrarian changes and land policies on landless indigenous peoples in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
His publications have appeared on The Wire, in the Indian Journal of Human Development and in Citizenship Studies.

Gabriele Köhler
Development economist
Biography:

Former Visiting Fellow and Senior Research Associate
Gabriele is a development economist.

After a career with the United Nations spanning more than 25 years in a wide range of positions with UN-ESCAP, UNCTAD, UNDP, and UNICEF, she is interested in three areas of research and policy thinking: the emerging development agenda beyond 2015 and the – neglected – role of the state; the discourse around human security and human rights; and the interface of social protection with broader social and economic policies, notably employment and decent work, international trade and investment policies. Her publications, journalistic articles, and advisory work focus on political economy and policy issues. Her regional specialization is Asia, notably South Asia and Southeast Asia.

By training, Gabriele is a macroeconomist educated at the universities of Tübingen, Munich, and Regensburg in Germany. She has been an ACUNS Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Ottawa (1989/90), a Visiting Fellow at the IDS Sussex (2010/12) and will be a Visiting Fellow at UNRISD throughout 2014.

Gabriele is a board member of Women in Europe for a Common Future, and of the UN Association of Germany, an elected member of the UNICEF National Committee Germany, and, as a hobby, on the board of the Friends of the State Museum of Ethnography, Munich.

Gabriele Köhler collaborated with UNRISD for the project inception workshop for New Directions in Social Policy, 2014. For the workshop, she wrote the draft paper “New Social Policy Directions? Some Reflections on South Asia”.

Gabriele also presented a seminar in the UNRISD Seminar Series on Innovation, Human Rights and Feasibility: Development and Welfare Policy in South Asia in May 2014.

Gabriele became an UNRISD Senior Research Associate in September 2014.

Creative coalitions for transformative change

Is there hope for a structural change?

We sat down and talked to Gabriele Köhler a Development Economist, former UN official, and Human Rights advocate, about what we foresee for our society, economy, and planet 20 years from now. In her paper ‘’Creative Coalitions’’, she explains how, in a world marked by increasing exploitation, an unequal concentration of wealth and unfettered capitalism, there is room for hope and optimism thanks to new coalitions of people in civil society coming together to fight repression and standing up for common causes, mandates and concerns.

We spoke with Gabriele Köhler during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The title of her presentation was :
CREATIVE COALITIONS IN A FRACTURED WORLD: AN OPPORTUNITY FOR TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE?

Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Gabriele Köhler's Video here

Gabriele Köhler: My name is Gabriele Köhler, a development economist. I’m associated with the
UN Research Institute for Social Development.
I’m also affiliated with a non-governmental organization called Women Engaged For A Common Future, and I also work
with the UN Association of Germany.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for joining me,
how is this conference relevant to you?

Gabriele Köhler: I’m here because UNRISD has convened this conference at a time when I think many of us are extremely distraught, depressed, frightened by the fractured world which is one of the titles of the conference. And how to overcome all the inequalities that we’re experiencing and that are getting worse and worse. My question is, is there any space to be optimistic? Are there any counter trends against the increasing exploitation, increasing concentration of wealth, what I called unfettered capitalism. Capitalism that is no longer regulated by a social welfare state. Is there any space where we see some counter current that gives us some reason, even naively, to be optimistic, and that’s why I’m here.

Nerina Finetto: Are there reasons to be optimistic?

Gabriele Köhler: Well, the paper I’m presenting, I’ve called it “Creative Coalitions” and the idea is that we are seeing, because of this pressure and this intolerance and this new racism, because you know the increasing oppression of women. The persecution of civil society in many countries. We’re seeing new constellations in civil society, and even among unorganized citizens, of people coming together who didn’t use to have a common cause, a common mandate, a common concern. And so examples are, for instance, in the United States, the movement that started with the women’s march when the new president, when Trump was inaugurated, which is not really a feminist movement but it embraces very many different groups in American society. Of course feminists but also climate fighters, the people who are opposed to the American gun laws, et cetera. In Germany, we’re finding new alliances. Germany is where I live. We’re finding new alliances that we wouldn’t have seen, I think, 10 years ago where asylum seekers and organizations defending the rights of asylum seekers, are teaming up with the Federation of Industry, the Federation of Trade and Commerce to fight against government decisions to deport individual asylum seekers who are not recognized. The industrialists are interested in, you know, the vocational training expenses that they’ve incurred, but they’re also interested now in that individual because they’ve realized these are people who have a lot to give as well, you know as productive members in society. And the asylum seekers, of course, are defending their right to asylum but it’s a new coalition that we wouldn’t, as I mentioned, we wouldn’t have seen perhaps 10 years ago. And there’s many other examples like that and I think these kinds of new cross cutting constellations of fighting back against repression are what is giving some scope for hope. And I have to really add a very important footnote, I’m talking about developments in democratic societies. If we look at the low income countries that are dictatorships, people are being killed every day now. So this is not, I mean, it’s not to be taken lightly but where there is that democratic space, we are seeing these new coalitions. –

Nerina Finetto: What are the main challenges in your opinion here?

Gabriele Köhler: Well, for these groups, let me start with the positives. I think they have, you know, they have a lot of momentum, they all have energy, they’re getting quite clever also in terms of, you know, producing emotional values. You know they have the stickers and you know the songs and the banners, et cetera. So there is some cohesion also coming just from movementalism, if you will. The challenges are, of course, that these groups, precisely because they’re cross cutting, don’t really have negotiating power. So it’s not like a trade union that can go on a strike. So there’s no negotiating power. Also, because they are cross cutting, sometimes there are sometimes there are strange bedfellows, so one is coalescing with groups, amongst groups, that one would actually see with reservation. So that, you know, at the same time is the Achilles heel of these kinds of movements.

Nerina Finetto: And where does your passion come from?

Gabriele Köhler: You know, I think I’m passionate about this nowadays because I’m a grandmother and I have three grandchildren, three beautiful grandchildren, who are very young and I’m really worried about their future. And so, you know, a part of being a political economist and being someone who has been interested in fighting for human rights. In my career, I used to be a UN official, but I think what’s really driving me the most now is thinking, 20 years from now what kind of society, what kind of an economy and what kind of a planet will these young children be living on?

Nerina Finetto: How do you feel the situation will have developed in the next 10 years?

Gabriele Köhler: Well, if this, you know, I mean, we can say that this create coalition is very naive because if we look at global production chains, how they work, how they exploit, how they exploit people, how they exploit the planet. If we look at the power of dictatorships, it’s very naive to think that some of these, you know, local or even regional opposition groups might actually change something. But I think if we don’t look at opportunities for fighting back then we would be totally lost. What will the world look like in 10 years? Well, I hope that we will see another eco-social turn in the publication that came out two years ago called “Transforming our world”, which relates to the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. There was this notion that we had seen a social turn in the 1990s that was putting more emphasis with the millennium development goals, or in the 2000s, rather, putting more emphasis on social equality, social goals, social policy, interventions. And that we were thinking, even just two or three years ago that there was now an ecological social turn, whereas now these past two, three years we’ve been seeing more and more retrogression on policies and I think we need to, you know, if we don’t succeed in strengthening the eco, or coming back to an eco social turn, we will have a very, very difficult situation in 10 years. Both economically, ecologically and socially, and politically.

Nerina Finetto: What steps do you suggest should be taken to enable change?

Gabriele Köhler: Well, I think this particular conference is interesting because there is a lot of policy ideas floating around and some are quite, not conservative in the political sense, but you know we’ve seen them for a long time and it’s around increasing social protection, child benefits, social pensions, unemployment insurance, which has been on the agenda since 1919 if we look at the creation of the ILO. There are a lot of discussions this time, in this conference, around decent work which means at least minimum wage. Wages that actually enable people who are working to be socially, you know, in social insurance as well as having a decent income, as well as having accident and health insurance, et cetera. But there’s also now more discussions about how do we actually address the power hierarchies and the political change that is needed.

Nerina Finetto: How can we create structural modifications in power?

Gabriele Köhler: Well, I mean, again this is a bit, probably a bit too optimistic and a bit too naive but maybe these creative coalitions, these cross-cutting, coming together of civil society, which also would need to include political parties, progressive political parties, parliamentarians, and others. Perhaps they can succeed in challenging, you know, repression and planetary destruction and economic exploitation.

Nerina Finetto: What is the most important lesson you have learned so far in your career?

Gabriele Köhler: I think what I’ve been learning lately is the important, you know, it’s something that, as a political economist, one is of course always aware of, but I think it’s becoming more prominent in research in the past few years. The importance of power, the importance of power constellations, the importance of hierarchies, the importance in social exclusion, in economic exploitation. How it’s really a relational element that is formed by where you stand, where one’s position or one’s group position is in the social and political and economic hierarchy.
Often in the past, we have seen a change in the people holding the power, but we have not seen a change in attitude and direction. Do you agree?
I would agree, I think if we look at past social movements, there is always that risk that those who are then in power become like those who they’ve overthrown. I lived in Nepal, I worked in Nepal during the Nepal civil war. I was there in 2007 when the civil war was over and there was a peace agreement and we were all very disappointed on, you know, in subsequent political alliances that went back to the old mode of order.
The same thing we’re seeing in Myanmar today. I think many of us were very, very excited when Myanmar started opening up politically and a few years later, we see genocide against the Rohingya, so again, you know, there’s a new group or possibly partially new group in power, but the old patterns of oppression are reappearing.

Nerina Finetto: How did you get into this field?

Gabriele Köhler: -I think I was always fascinated by the idea of the United Nations, of something that is driven by principles, by human rights, by values, by normative ideas. And I think to this day, I do believe that ideas can change the course of history but of course, it takes a lot of good fortune and it takes a lot of coalitions.

Nerina Finetto: What message would you give to your younger self?
Don’t despair. Don’t give up.
What kind of society do you dream of?

Gabriele Köhler: Well I think we, everyone who’s at this conference, I think, shares the idea of an egalitarian society that does not exploit the planet. Egalitarian in the economic sense, in the social sense, that everyone is included. The UN agenda calls it leaving no one behind, and that also includes letting the planet survive. Changing one’s ecological behavior and I think there’s many different aspects of what needs to be done, yes.

Nerina Finetto: You wanted to work for the United Nations, did you find what you, as a young woman, expected?

Gabriele Köhler: I think one has a, if you’re outside of the United Nations, one has a very idealizing, romanticizing notion and of course, the United Nations is on the one hand the secretariat with lots of very, very dedicated people who want to change the world, as it were. But of course, it is also, you know, 192 member states who are quite different in what they’re expecting of the United Nations and what they’re doing in their own country. So I think, you know, you’re asking what I’d tell my younger self, maybe to be more realistic about how much one can achieve in a lifetime.

Nerina Finetto: What message would you like to give your grandchildren?

Gabriele Köhler: I think to fight for social justice. I mean, I mean I would use a different word with the grandchildren but, to be fair, I think something you deal with young children it’s a lot of it is about teaching them to be fair and to recognize each other’s dignity and the dignity of the earth on which they are.

Nerina Finetto: What is life about?

Gabriele Köhler: I think it’s about social justice, gender justice, and climate justice.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for this conversation. And thank you for watching, thank you for listening and thank you for sharing.

Biography:

Former Visiting Fellow and Senior Research Associate
Gabriele is a development economist.

After a career with the United Nations spanning more than 25 years in a wide range of positions with UN-ESCAP, UNCTAD, UNDP, and UNICEF, she is interested in three areas of research and policy thinking: the emerging development agenda beyond 2015 and the – neglected – role of the state; the discourse around human security and human rights; and the interface of social protection with broader social and economic policies, notably employment and decent work, international trade and investment policies. Her publications, journalistic articles, and advisory work focus on political economy and policy issues. Her regional specialization is Asia, notably South Asia and Southeast Asia.

By training, Gabriele is a macroeconomist educated at the universities of Tübingen, Munich, and Regensburg in Germany. She has been an ACUNS Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Ottawa (1989/90), a Visiting Fellow at the IDS Sussex (2010/12) and will be a Visiting Fellow at UNRISD throughout 2014.

Gabriele is a board member of Women in Europe for a Common Future, and of the UN Association of Germany, an elected member of the UNICEF National Committee Germany, and, as a hobby, on the board of the Friends of the State Museum of Ethnography, Munich.

Gabriele Köhler collaborated with UNRISD for the project inception workshop for New Directions in Social Policy, 2014. For the workshop, she wrote the draft paper “New Social Policy Directions? Some Reflections on South Asia”.

Gabriele also presented a seminar in the UNRISD Seminar Series on Innovation, Human Rights and Feasibility: Development and Welfare Policy in South Asia in May 2014.

Gabriele became an UNRISD Senior Research Associate in September 2014.

Francois Bourguignon
Emeritus Professor of Economics
Biography:

François Bourguignon was the Director of the Paris School of Economics from 2007 to 2013. Back in France in 2007, following four years as the Chief Economist and first Vice President of the World Bank in Washington, he has also returned to his former position of Professor of Economics at the EHESS (advanced school in Social Sciences). Trained as a statistician, he obtained a Ph D. in Economics at the University of Western Ontario, followed by a State Doctorate at the University of Orleans in France. His work is both theoretical and empirical and principally aims at the distribution and the redistribution of revenue in developing and developed countries. He is the author of a great number of books and articles in specialized national and international economic journals. He has taught throughout Universities worldwide. He has received, during the course of his career, a number of scientific distinctions / decorations has been decorated. Through his experience, he is often sought for counsel to Governments and international organisations throughout the world.

Inequality, Technology, and Globalisation

What does the future of equality and inequality look like in an interconnected world?

Listen to François Bourguignon, Emeritus Professor and Director of the Paris School of Economics.

We spoke with Prof. Bourguignon in Geneva during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The title of his keynote was:
Global and National Inequalities: A Worried Look into the Future

Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Francois Bourguignon's Video here

Francois B.: I am Francois Bourguignon, and I am an Emeritus Professor of Economics at the Paris School of Economics.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for joining me. You are one of the keynote speakers here at the conference. What is the key message of your presentation?

Francois B.: So, presentation was really about inequality today or in the recent past in the world, other role, and in some countries, and about what to expect for the future. My view is that when we look at the past, we have gone through a very favorable period where global inequality has gone down practically because the European countries have been able to grow faster than advanced economies. This being true not only of those big emerging countries like China, like India, but also in the 2000s in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

In countries the evolution is really very [inaudible 00:01:44], but except for a few countries like the United States, we don’t observe rising trend of inequality of a very long period. Where there has been an increase in inequality tended to stabilize after a while. So this is for the past, and I would say that if we were to stop the world in 2015, we could say that despite the crisis 2008, things are more or less favorable.

But now if you look at the future, I was expressing some possibilities about the future for two reasons. The first reason is that I believe that the region of the world where we find most poor people today which is Sub-Saharan Africa, is also a region where the demography growth is extremely quick. This is a region where the population grows at a rate of 3% a year. We know that within the next 30 years, there will be one billion more African people, and basically have doubts about the engine of growth of those economies. I believe that they rely almost essentially on the export of commodities at least the bulk of them, not every of them but the bulk of them, and because of that they cannot grow much faster than the growth rate of the whole world.

And because the rate of growth of the population is very high, this mean that per capita they will not grow very fast. 1% on average over the long run would be more or less the [inaudible 00:03:37] magnitude. But this is less than the long run growth rate in developed countries. This is much less than the growth rate in emerging countries, which mean that the poorest part of the world will lag behind the rest of the world, which will contribute to an increase in inequality.

So the favorable evolution of the global income distribution or welfare distribution that we are observing in the last 15 or 20 years, from my point of view might not continue because of this Sub-Saharan factor.

And my second reason why I am a bit pessimistic on the future is that I believe that we are already engaged in this technical revolution which is automation, which is artificial intelligence, which has already shocked the labor market. We observe, for example, that in many countries there is polarization of the labor market with more people with high salaries, and more people with low salaries, and less people at the middle. This will continue. The technical revolution will have an impact on the labor market. It will also have an impact on the overall distribution of income because the surplus generated by this technical change will go mostly to the owners of the new machines, the robots, or the owners of the algorithm that will be responsible for artificial intelligence.

So because of that, I have a feeling that in the future we are about to witness a big increases in inequality during all the transition period where we will be filling the directing path to the technical revolution, but it will take time before the profit that this revolution will bring in terms of higher productivity for people before this is being recycled in the economy, and everybody can benefit from it, it will take a long time.

So transition period may be very difficult period, and we should try to prepare to address the issues that will arise during that period, the issues being how do we limit the increase in inequality? What do we do to provide employment to people who have lost their employment, and this will be the really difficult issues.

Nerina Finetto: Has poverty declined around the world?

Francois B.: There is no doubt about the fact that poverty has regressed, has diminished in the world, and it has diminished in two ways. It has diminished in terms of the proportion of people below some poverty limit, poverty line. Thee are various poverty lines, but whatever the poverty line you look at it is true that there are less, the proportion of people below the poverty line is smaller. But this has been going on for quite some time, but for sometimes the proportion was going down but because the population is increasing, the number of poor was increasing.

This is a big difference over the last 15 or 20 years in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is a fact that economy progress has been able to dominate demographic growth. My answer to you question is no, there is less poor people today in the world than it was the case before.

Nerina Finetto: Why should we care about inequality if poverty is on the decline and quality of life improves?

Francois B.: I think that your question is maybe rephrased in a different way. Some people felt, “Why are you interested by inequality? As long as there is loess poor people, shouldn’t we be happy with that?” This is a good argument. But if we believe or if we have the proof that because there is more inequality because of very rich people are getting higher share of the total income, because of that they are slowing down the progress of the poor people, then we are interested in inequality because okay, it is good that the number of poor people goes down, but it could go much faster down if we are able to bring back part of the income of the very rich to the poor people.

So this is really the big issue behind inequality, but it is not clear that it is so easy. You cannot tell people, “Okay, I will take something from you and I will give it to the poor people.” If you want to do that, you have to introduce taxes. But if you are introducing taxes and if your tax is too high, then the rich people in the country will say, “No, here the taxes are too high. I’m leaving. I’m going somewhere else.”

Even when they say, “Okay, I will give that back to the poor people,” then poor people will say, “Okay, fine, I mean I have all that money coming, so it is not necessary for me to do too much work because I am happy with the money that I’m given.”

So, my point here is to say that we cannot believe that redistributing and taking one dollar or one peso or one CFA franc from rich people and giving back to the poor people will always do the trick. We are losing money in the process. When you take one dollar from the top, when we get to the bottom, we don’t have a dollar, so there is a leakage in the system due to the fact that the economy efficiency or the efficacy of the economy system is being affected by this kind of distribution.

Nerina Finetto: You have written also a book about inequality and globalization, right?

Francois B.: Difficult, but the book was entitled The Globalization of Inequality. It was really about the fact that inequality was becoming a global issue. For a long time people would say, “Okay, we don’t care about global inequality.” Inequality that matters is inequality that does exist in one country. The people in Chad will not be considering people in Niger, they are neighbor. This is another population they don’t care. But because of the world has become more and more integrated, this is not true anymore. People have the TVs, they can watch the TVs. They look at the way in which people in the rest of the world can live. They look at the TV series coming from the United States or coming from other countries, and they say, “How come I am so low in terms of purchasing power when I am comparing myself to those people?”

And in the other camp, to some extent, people in rich countries say, “How come those people living in Mali or living in Tanzania are so poor? There is something wrong in that.” So from that point of view, inequality is or has become a global issue. We would like to make sure that over time poor people become relatively less poor with respect to the others. And this is a reason why inequality has become a global issue, but at the same time the book was also about what is the impact of globalization on inequality.

Nerina Finetto: And what is the impact of globalization on inequality?

Francois B.: We could think that the impact on developed countries, the issue basically of globalization is really about the relationship between Asia and the West, basically because the big thing about globalization has been the surge of Chinese manufacturing in the world, and the fact that a lot of manufacturing industry has left the advanced economies to go to China. Because of that, jobs are lost. Some small cities in the U.S., in Europe, were basically de-industrialized, so a lot of local problems and some workers basically lost their job. All the wages went down.

So, globalization without any doubt had an impact on the labor market in formerly industrialized countries. And of course, it was a very good thing for the Chinese, and it was a very good thing for all the people working with the Chinese, with the Vietnamese, with all this part of the world did very well. And in terms of world inequality, world inequality was reduced because of that.

But, what is the problem of that is the fact that in advanced economies, some resentment appeared against this globalization which was really reducing the [inaudible 00:13:51] feeling of some people. It is a very difficult issue because workers or some workers who are affected by this competition coming from Asia, but at the same time those goods are produced in Asia were much cheaper. So, many people could buy goods at a much cheaper price which they could not buy before.

So in those advanced countries, you had a kind of dilemma between workers who were unhappy and consumers who were happy. Some cases some people are both consumers and workers, but this was a very, very difficult issue.

: But today what we observe is together with technical change, the impact of globalization, practical change in advanced economies, has been rather bad for many people, in particular people who are living in metropolitan areas, who are not living in the most dynamic part of those countries.

What we see today with, and this was something I talked about this morning and something I talked about in that book, I said because of that we will see that there will be a pressure on the political system which will come from those people who are deeply unsatisfied, and who are against the system because they consider that the establishment, which has permitted globalization, which has encouraged globalization, has been going against them, and something will happen.

I was predicting something like the Trump election except for the fact that I saw that it would not be Trump in terms of the American election, I saw that it would be Sanders. So from that point of view, I was wrong, but I was right in the sense that yes, something has happened politically. This is also in somewhere in Italy, this is somewhere in the Brexit, there is something of this type. We have the same type of mechanism, which is behind the scene. Because of that, I think that we are living in difficult times.

Nerina Finetto: We are facing some challenges here in the developing countries, but at the same time people are accusing us of contributing to the inequality, for example, by paying very little for raw materials coming from Africa. What is your opinion?

Francois B.: Okay, that’s very difficult to say because when you look at the last cycle in terms of commodity prices, it was not so much due to Western countries and advanced economies. It was very much due to China. The fact that China was booming literally, growing at 10% a year, the needs of China in terms of commodities was absolutely enormous.

China directly made deals with all those countries in Africa telling them, “Okay, if you provide me with a continuous supply of those commodities, then we are in business. I will help you in doing constructing infrastructure, etc. So, from that point of view I don’t think that really there was, that Sub-Saharan Africa was in any case discriminated against in term of prices. This is for the last big cycle in commodities.

But you know it’s very difficult to say that there is a right pice for those commodities. Okay, I mean when the price of oil, the price of gas, the price of copper, the price of cocoa, the price of cotton goes up, those countries are happy because they are able to buy more goods coming from the rest of the world.

But, what is the right price of that? We cannot say that there is a just price or an unjust price. Those commodities in general, this is true for mineral commodities, do not cost very much to be extracted. You have a huge investment to make, but when the investment has been made, the marginal cost of extracting more oil, more copper, is very low. So, what is a fair price?

If we want to think about it in those terms, we have to say what is a fair distribution of total income in the world? This is a very difficult question because when we talk about fair distribution, fair price, we have in mind a normative judgment. What does it mean ‘fair’? Some people tell you because the market is generating that price, it is fair because people demand that product are willing to pay so much. People who sell this product are willing to be paid so much, and there is a price that they calibrate supply and demand, so this is fair.

But you might say, “No, no, it is not fair because those suppliers are poor people and we should try to give them more.” But this is a normative judgment, and economics is not only normative.

Nerina Finetto: What do you think in general is the biggest challenge we are facing at the moment?

Francois B.: I believe that the biggest challenge that is in front of us is how will it be possible to employ everybody in the world? How will it be possible to provide to everybody not so much the income that they need, not so much the food that they need. I believe that we’ll be able to do that, but to provide them the job that they would like to have.

It will be difficult to provide jobs to this very large number of young Africans which will arrive on the labor market in the coming years. It will be very difficult to prevent many people in advanced economies to lose their job. Already in the case of China it is already the case that manufacturing sector is not hiring people any more, and they do the opposite. They are already laying off workers because they are using automated production processes. So I would say that the big issue in the coming 20 years will be essentially jobs.

Do you support the idea of a basic income?

Because we will be going through difficult times, we should make sure that we are able to provide to everybody the income that they need in order to survive in a satisfactory way. Not to live in luxury, but in a satisfactory, to have enough to eat, to have enough to pay for roof on their heads, to have enough to buy clothes, etc.

But my point, and I believe this is possible, I mean, this is a big effort, it is a big re-distribution. We need to go much beyond what we do today, but I believe it is possible. At least economically it is possible. More difficult is that for people this is not enough. If I’m told, “Be satisfied you have the income to live on, but you don’t have a job, you should be happy. You don’t have to work and you have some income.” I will not be happy because this means that I don’t have a function in the society. I’m not included in the society.

Part of the way of life that we have built, not only in advanced countries but everywhere in the world, we are in a society where labor work as value, not full value, as value as a social value because this is a way in which we socialize. Because of that, I would say that the basic income might be done. It will be much more difficult to make sure that everybody will be included in the society.

Nerina Finetto: If you had a magic wand, what changes would you make tomorrow?

Francois B.: Okay, I will say it’s a bit probably problematic and controversial, but if I had all the power, I would say that I would like to control the technical change. I would like to tell people who are working on autonomous cars, on new drugs, to tell them, “Some of the work you do is fine. Please continue, when you have new drugs that will cure some pathologies, but your autonomous cars and trucks, I don’t care about them. Let’s continue with human-driven cars because you will be getting rid of too many jobs, and we don’t know with those people who will be out of a job.

But, you cannot stop progress. I mean, the technical progress will go on. If it is possible to do better, to invent a new mechanism that will do incredible things, and it is true we are doing incredible things, then it is right to go again that. So, this is not possible. But then what you could possibly do is to try to maintain a demand for jobs, which is at reasonable level.

For example, I have a former colleague and very good friend, and we wrote many papers and books together, who died two years ago. His name is Tony Atkinson, and he is one of the most important economists, and he worked on inequality. His last book, which was called Inequality: What Can We Do?, he had a very interesting idea. He was saying first the state in a country should be a kind of employer of last resort, saying now some jobs are missing, then the state must be providing those jobs which are missing.

So, what would people do?

Then one of his suggestions to say we want to get rid of the automatic mechanical relationship between the administration and the people. Today you call any kind of public service, you don’t have a human voice in front of you. You have more and more machine voice, which tells you press one, press two, press three, etc. It takes hours. You don’t get exactly what you want. And his point was to say let’s have a principle who would say that when you call the administration, you must have on the other side somebody, a human.

I thought it was a very nice image, at the same time of the risk that we have in front of us, and how good the world would be if indeed we were having this kind of human relationship.

Nerina Finetto: What is the most important lesson you have learned in life? If you could talk to your teenage self, what would you tell him?

Francois B.: Okay, I guess that, okay, I’m not prepared to answer that question so I have no time to think about it. But the first reaction which comes to my mind was to say when I was young, younger, maybe not 15 years old but maybe a little later, I thought that the world, the country was an organized system and that it was possible to have somebody or various people in charge of the system, and driving the system in a very definite direction with very clear principles. This is a way in which the world would be progressing over time.

What strikes me today is the fact, not already for quite some time, is the fact that to use a very well known expression, there is no pilot in the plane. Basically we are in a world which is going in a kind of haphazard direction. We don’t know what really may happen. We know that there are huge problems in front of us. We talked about inequality. We talked about politics. We didn’t talk about the environment. We didn’t talk about climate change. This is an incredible threat, which really is a threat for the whole humankind. What is going on?

We are certainly able to organize ourselves to take action against that, and this is really what at the same time bothers me most, and makes me believe that my generation, because I’m really at the end of my career, didn’t do well to some extent. We missed something. What exactly did we miss? I don’t know. We understand that the reason we are unable to act is because there are lobbies, there are people who have more power than others, would be affected negatively by some environmental policy, but we have not been able to put any order in this.

Okay, this is my regret, and what I learn is that the world is a kind of society which progresses in a kind of random way.

Nerina Finetto: What kind of society do you dream of?

Francois B.: Yes, I mean I’m dreaming of a society where people would be able to do what they want. And to some extent, I think that I spent my life trying to think about this, and to reflect on the way this can be done. But this is, of course, a complete dream, but it is at the same time a dream and it is an ideal. From that point of view, I like very much the kind of definition of freedom that is given by Amartya Sen. Sen has this fantastic book, the title of which is Development as Freedom, and his points to say development is not about producing more and more and more. It is not about GDP growing at 5-6-10%. Development is to provide people with the possibility of doing what they want to do.

I think this is a great way of looking at the world. This may be a dream. Maybe at the end we will be able to reach that stage, I don’t know.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for this conversation. Thank you so much for watching. Thank you so much for listening, and thank you so much for sharing. Next time, we are going to continue with our mini-series about inequalities. I hope to see you soon again. Bye and ciao.

Biography:

François Bourguignon was the Director of the Paris School of Economics from 2007 to 2013. Back in France in 2007, following four years as the Chief Economist and first Vice President of the World Bank in Washington, he has also returned to his former position of Professor of Economics at the EHESS (advanced school in Social Sciences). Trained as a statistician, he obtained a Ph D. in Economics at the University of Western Ontario, followed by a State Doctorate at the University of Orleans in France. His work is both theoretical and empirical and principally aims at the distribution and the redistribution of revenue in developing and developed countries. He is the author of a great number of books and articles in specialized national and international economic journals. He has taught throughout Universities worldwide. He has received, during the course of his career, a number of scientific distinctions / decorations has been decorated. Through his experience, he is often sought for counsel to Governments and international organisations throughout the world.

Michael Danquah
Development Economist
Biography:

Michael Danquah is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Economics, University of Ghana, Legon, and a Research Fellow at the Transfer Project. He is also an International Growth Centre (IGC) researcher and was recently selected as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), Department of Economics, University of Oxford, UK. His research interest is in economic development in sub-Saharan Africa and he has published extensively on issues such as informality, inequality and poverty reduction, and productivity growth.

Inequality and Institutions

What does politics look like in sub-Saharan Africa? How does it work and whom does it benefit?

Development Economist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Ghana, Michael Danquah, explains the power plays in place to keep only a privileged few in rule of his country, while the rest of the population faces a stagnant economy that puts education, health, and public policies at risk.
Improving education, raising awareness and restructuring old and faulty concepts of power become keys to leading a country out of the darkness, and to help start to position them, little by little, on the path to economic, democratic and social development.

We spoke with Dr. in Geneva during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organized by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The title of his presentation was:
Inequality and Institutions: Exploring the Mediating Role of Political Settlements in Some Selected African Countries

“In this paper, we quantitatively examine the interplay of legal, political and economic institutions and political settlements on income inequality. We focus on the marginal effect of the institutional variables on income inequality conditioned on political settlements. The findings show that the marginal effect of legal, political and economic institutions contingent on competitive clientelist political settlements exacerbates income inequality significantly. This means that politics and power play in competitive clientelist political settlements are detrimental to equality and poverty reduction.”

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Michael Danquah's Video here

Michael Danquah: My name is Michael Danquah. I am a Development Economist and also a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Economics, University of Ghana, Legon.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for joining me. What do you focus on in your research?

Michael Danquah: My main research interest is in development economics where the focus is on issues of poverty, inequality and inclusive growth. Issues of poverty, issues of inequality, issues of informality are key issues that if we are able to confront, would open the door to improved welfare in our part of the world.

Nerina Finetto: The title of your presentation here at the conference is ”Inequality and Institutions: Exploring the Mediating Role of Political Settlements”. What are the main issues here?

Michael Danquah: The issues are quite clear here. For any country to grow, to develop it would need what we call institutions. The institutions would facilitate the growth and the development process. But, the institutions don’t just grow. The institutions don’t just develop. There are things that go into it. One of them is what we call political settlement. Political settlement is a big word, but what it means is the distribution of the balance of power within a state. All right, so how does that balance of power within the state, how does it affect institutions and how does that affect the development outcomes, just as I said earlier, on issues of inequality and that of poverty?

Nerina Finetto: What is the situation and what is happening in Ghana and in the other sub-Saharan countries that you have analyzed?

Michael Danquah: Excellent. What actually happens is this: the political elite or the elite feed on the states. They actually derive their influence, their power, their wealth, and their status right from the states. They are much interested in this: how can they continue to hold on to power so that they can always gain from it? That’s what we call the politics of holding power. That is the bigger issue. How do they hold onto power?

One way of doing this is through patronage, what the political scientists would call clientelism. That is one way of doing that. But, once they begin to do that, we lose focus on the people. It’s just on them. How do they hold on to their power? How do they win the next elections? That is all that they’re actually interested in. So that’s politics of holding power, which is centered on a few people at the detriment of the entire population. And this would, in turn, perpetuate poverty and inequality.

If you take a country like Ghana and some other sub-Saharan African countries, what happens is this: I mean patronage is very intense, it’s very deep. It starts even within the parties themselves. If there are elections within a party to elect even local executives, there’s loads of patronage. To elect the leader, there’s patronage. Then, there’s the bigger patronage, the bigger clientelism, when the main parties have to go into elections, as well. This is what is going on, but the main thing is that it shifts the focus from the people, from the welfare of the people to the welfare of a few individuals.

Nerina Finetto: Is this not somehow the norm for politics everywhere?

Michael Danquah: Excellent. This is one question that I have been asked over and over. This is not the same politics. Yes, it is politics everywhere, but it is a bit different when you come to sub-Saharan Africa. Yes, there is patronage, but the intensity of the patronage in parts of sub-Saharan Africa is quite deep.

I’ll give you a very good example. I mean , one would actually expect that if a new party rises to power and starts work, yes, definitely there will be changes of the justice ministry or the … but it goes far beyond that. It gets to the point where civil servants, public servants, public relation officers … I mean it’s quite intense that many of the public servants are even removed from office. Anyone who is seen to be allying with the other political party is also removed, so it’s quite … Then, we have the entire corporate governance thing where boards of corporations and government institutions are already formulated by the government.

If you have a new government in power the President would make more than 6,000 to 10,000 appointments, but he’s appointing everybody, but that’s not what happens in the developed world. Yes, there is room for the President or Prime Minister, but it’s not an open doorway where he can do whatever. This tends to affect the institutions, so there is that politicization. They use their institutions for their own gain, so they would appoint brothers, sisters, family people, party people who may not even have that expertise, but they will still put them there.

Michael Danquah: There’s that bigger question. Why do they do that? It’s the politics of holding power. They’re so consumed with staying in power that they would do anything to stay in power at the detriment of the people. That is what is actually going on. That’s quite different from what happens. If you take many of the developed countries there are some checks and balances, so you can do A, but you cannot do B, C, D.

Nerina Finetto: What do you think is needed? How do you think it is possible to change the situation?

Michael Danquah: That is a very big question. Yesterday in my presentation, I talked about the dark wave that is brewing because what actually happens is this: many of the countries in sub-Saharan African are becoming increasingly clientelistic in terms of the form of democracy that we have. This is quite evasive. Then, what can be done to harness the power of this political elite and then also what can be done on the part of citizens, as well?

One thing that comes up, and I would have to look into it again, is trying to improve the levels of literacy. Most of the people in sub-Saharan Africa, yes, they’re poor, but they don’t have education, as well. Those higher levels of illiteracy give that room for the political elite to actually exploit. We should be looking at how we educate our people, so we need higher levels of literacy and that may reduce the extent to which the political elite can actually do what they want to do. That may not solve the problem, I mean all the problems, but I think that if we have a population that is educated, that may – yes, some of them will still go the other way -, but I think many of them can now look into what is going on, reason into it and then it may not….

Some of the things we would have to look at: trying to educate. Then, maybe the other thing may be the power of the media, trying to get an independent media. I mean you take places like many sub-Saharan African countries; yes, media is vibrant, but they have their own issues. They’re not paid well, so there is that tendency for them to be aligned to political parties and actually do the bidding of those … once they can influence them with money and on and on. So we need to get to that level where we have that independent media. Strong, vibrant, that can stand up against the elite.

Then, also, with regards to the media as well, yes, we still need to look at the content of media. Back in sub-Saharan Africa, one would say the quality of the journalists that we have, journalists who can research and bring out developmental content to their people, try to open their eyes as to what is actually going on. This may be able to dampen the power of the political elite. Knowing that if we do A, B and C, these may be the repercussions. No matter how much money we give to them that that may not help us. These are some of the things. Trying to look at the levels of literacy, then using the media more or less as a tool that can help us.

Nerina Finetto: If you could change one thing tomorrow, what would you do?

Michael Danquah: I would look into how we can harness even the power of the political elite so that they would actually reduce that incentive to hold onto power. That would be very difficult. I don’t know how that could be done, but we need to get to a point where we can reduce that incentive of the political elite to hold onto power. One of them … I mean like you said, what I would do would be to reduce the incentives that the elite gains when they come to power.

I mean when one comes to power he’s got everything. Within the twinkle of an eye, he has a house, he has a 4×4, he has a bodyguard who is a policeman, he’s got almost everything. It’s quite difficult to let go of some of these massive incentives. That is one thing I would do, basically to bring to the barest minimum the incentives that the political elite is essentially giving to the political elite.

We need to find ways to rechannel all these incentives into the development of the welfare of our people. That’s what I’d do. Basically, bringing it down from say 100% to like 5%, so they would realize that they are there not for themselves, but they are there to serve the interest of the people.

Nerina Finetto: Why are you doing what you are doing? Why this research? What motivates you or how personal is it?

Michael Danquah: I came to realize that all the efforts by the development partners: the UN, the SDGs and all of them. It is more or less fruitless, the efforts by the World Bank, it’s more or less fruitless if the underlying and all the shifting political settlements are not addressed. If these things are not addressed I am sorry, we can roll out a million incentives, we can have MDGs, SDGs, we can extend the dates over and over, but Africa, sub-Saharan African and the rest in the Global South will still be where they are, because there are some fundamental things we would have to address and that is the balance of power and how it’s actually influenced the equality of institutions and therefore the development outcome. If the balance of power is not addressed and it’s ”business-as-usual”, we would have to keep on drumming this. Most of the development partners seem to appreciate it for now, but we would have to keep drumming this at home, doing more research on this.

That’s why I carried out this research which was a quantitative research. Most of the research is more argumentative, trying to put the pieces together. I felt, look, why not do something quantitative, that yes would tell the story from a different angle. Look, there is a dark wave, it’s quite gloomy if we don’t address the … unblinding politics under the power ray. That’s why I’m doing it and I hope I have much more research going on looking at the deals, environment and how it affects the development outcomes and so many other things. But, this is more of an advocacy more or less in terms of the research I do so that the development partners and then the political elites themselves would realize that ‘Look, we are going in circles and will not get anywhere if we don’t address this’.

Nerina Finetto: Do you have a dream?

Michael Danquah: Yes, I have a dream. As a development economist, one would want to see improvements in the welfare of our people. That is the key. That’s why we do what we do. You take many other countries – like I am from Ghana, poverty levels have actually stagnated over the last five, six years. We haven’t seen any, not even a 1% decline in terms of poverty. Inequality is actually going up and it’s up from about 0.423 to about 0.43, so we’re not making progress. We’re just not making progress. Whatever is being done is not being translated into the welfare of our people, and that’s my dream, that’s what I would want to see.

I always say this: we would have to move from what I call ‘business-as-usual’. There’s that thing, people like just doing the things they’re doing, but they’re not looking at the outcome. There are no outcomes. You are going back and forth, you are paid, you’re doing it all, but there are no outcomes. That’s my dream to try change the narrative here, but, no, no more ‘business-as-usual’ in terms of politics and way of doing. No more, but let’s change that narrative. Let’s make sure that whatever we are doing there are outcomes to it.

How can a country go for the past six years with so many programs, spend millions of dollars, but there is nothing to show for it? It is because we just do the things we do and really don’t care, but we need to change that narrative and begin to do things in a different way. Do it in a different way. I mean if we do it well, we would get outcomes. Definitely, when we put in that effort, there will be outcomes. We could see outcomes that reflect improvement in the welfare and that’s what I would want to see across many sub-Saharan African countries, changing the mode of doing things. Let’s inject some efficiency, let’s inject some innovation, let’s inject some level of seriousness into what we are doing and then let’s know that whatever we’re doing is in the interest of the people we serve and not us.

That’s my dream: changing the entire way of doing things across the length and breadth of the continent. If you go back and forth, it’s ‘business-as-usual’ in our universities, in our hospitals, in our various governments. It’s ‘business-as-usual’. Let’s just go to work at anytime. That shouldn’t be the case, that wouldn’t bring about the change we want to see in the Global South. We need to, that’s my dream. We would have to move, shift from the ‘business-as-usual’ way of doing things into more serious, outcome-oriented way of doing things in our part of the Global South.

Nerina Finetto: What is life about?

Michael Danquah: For me, life actually has to do with more or less seeing others, getting past where I have gotten to. I have many students that I have supervised and have taught and that is the only message I give. ‘Don’t grow up to become like me, but you need to grow up to be better’. I’ve seen that through many of my students who are now doing excellent things across the world. For me, that’s life. I mean trying to encourage our younger ones, trying to let them know that there is hope, they can do better. Why? They can do better because they have more opportunities than we had 40 years ago. What stops them from doing more than we did? That’s what I do. I tried. For me, that is life and that’s whats gives me that joy: seeing, trying to encourage them, trying to push them up and then trying to let them know that they can get anything, they can get anything if they put their hearts and mind to it.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Michael Danquah: Thank you so much.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for watching, thank you so much for listening and thank you so much for sharing.

Biography:

Michael Danquah is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Economics, University of Ghana, Legon, and a Research Fellow at the Transfer Project. He is also an International Growth Centre (IGC) researcher and was recently selected as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE), Department of Economics, University of Oxford, UK. His research interest is in economic development in sub-Saharan Africa and he has published extensively on issues such as informality, inequality and poverty reduction, and productivity growth.

Carla Beatriz De Paulo
Civil Servant and Researcher in Social Policy
Biography:

Carla Beatriz de Paulo holds a Master’s degree in social policy from the University of Brasilia and works for the Brazilian Government since 2011.

Changes, Inequalities and Policymaking in Brazil

What do inequalities look like in different parts of the world, and what can governments, civil servants, and citizens do to eliminate them?

In the second episode of our ‘Inequalities’ mini-series, Carla Beatriz de Paulo – General Coordinator in the Ministry of Social Development in Brazil – tells us about what hides behind the rise of a ‘new middle class’ in her home country, where dependence on State social programs from lower income sectors do not seem to be decreasing.

Touching on racial, gender and social issues, Carla gives us an insight into the needs and limitations that the Brazilian population faces everyday, and tells us how academia and field work can come together to bring about solutions to an unequal playing field.

We spoke with Carla Beatriz de Paulo in Geneva during the conference: Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilisation, organised by The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).

The title of her presentation was:
Brazil’s economic upsurge in the 2000’s : The rise of a “new” middle class or the fragmentation of the working class?
Because of the economic upsurge in the 2000s, part of Brazil’s working class started accessing durable goods and private services that had been historically inaccessible to them. This was interpreted by segments of the government and academia as a shift in class structure, and thus seen as the rise of a “new” middle class in Brazil that was less dependent on public services. This would then allow the state to restrict its role to regulating private services and providing public services to the poorest. This study suggests that interpreting this income shift as the rise of a “new” middle class is not only incorrect, but also potentially harmful to social change, since it incites fragmentation and disengagement within the working class. Alternatively, it argues that those who bene ted from the income shift are a fragment of the working class and far more dependent on state social services than advocates of the new middle class thesis suggest. In order to better understand this phenomenon, this study seeks to investigate the level of access to health and education services of those in this income range. The results obtained through data analysis reveal the predominant use of public health and education services by “new” middle class in 2008 and 2013, respectively.

Find out more about UNRISD here: http://www.unrisd.org

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Carla Beatriz De Paulo's Video here

Carla Beatriz de Paulo: Hi, my name is Carla. Beatriz de Paulo. I’m from Brazil. I’m a researcher and a civil servant.

Nerina: What is your main research focus?

Carla: The dynamics of social classes in Brazil, and how social classes relate with the State and social policies.

Nerina: How did you arrive at this topic?

Carla: Since my undergraduate studies, I was always interested in social policies, on a way to improve the quality of life of the population, and I was also very interested in the dynamics of social classes in Brazil; how the middle class and the working class and the elites behaved throughout our history. In the 2000s, when we had major economic growth in Brazil and there was a debate about the rise of a new middle class, I decided to take a deeper look into this phenomenon, and study how middle classes behaved in our recent history.

Nerina: Here at the conference, you presented the results of your recent studies. Could you tell me about this?

Carla: In 2013, I started my Masters studies at the University of Brasilia, and I decided to study this phenomenon of the new middle class, and what was the level of access that theses people had, should they have an education service, whether public or private, in order to understand if these people where really less dependent on State social policies. I analyzed the data from 2003 to 2013 of the Brazilian National Household survey, to compare and compress the public and private provision of health and education services.

What I concluded was that despite what had been said about the new middle class being able to consume private health and education services, data showed that in fact most of these people where still using health and education services provided by the State.

Nerina: Why is this result relevant?

Carla: When people argued that a segment of the population didn’t need public services anymore because they were now able to buy them in the market, it meant that the State could focus only on the extreme poor, and these people could afford their social services. Research has shown that in fact, these people still largely depend on the State to satisfy their basic needs in health and education.

Nerina: And was this unexpected?

Carla: Since the Constitution of 1998, all Brazilians have the right of health provision, so our health system is universal, so anyone can demand for services and education as well, so the State has the duty to provide primary and secondary education for all social classes.

But throughout our history, middle classes and elite have abandoned public services and decided to pay for private education and health services, so the public services basically attend the working class and the poor people. This is basically how things work, but on the other hand, despite that people usually pay for private health insurance, depending on the case, they also depend on the public health sector, because for high complexity treatments, usually you have to go to the public health centers, because the private sector is unable to provide this kind of treatment.

Brazilians also receive tax exemptions when they declare that they use private health and education services, so in the end, everybody depends somehow on the State to have access to health and education, whether public or private.

Nerina: And what does this result mean for policy making?

Carla: I think it would be important for the government to focus not only in fostering and regulating the private market of health insurances and private education, but in strengthening the provision of public social services, expanding and improving the quality of public education, and also of public health.

Nerina: What are, in your opinion, the biggest challenges in this field in Brazil right now? And what would you change if you could?

Carla: I would insist on the provision of universal social services; not only health and education, but also transportation and housing. I would also implement policies to tackle inequality rates, which are very high in Brazil in terms of income and properties, so this is basically what I think we need now.

Nerina: Is there somebody who inspires or inspired you in a special way?

Carla: When I was in University during my undergraduate studies, I had some professors who were also civil servants, and it was a very promising moment in Brazil at that time, in 2007, 2008, and they really inspired me to not only work with research but also try to apply for a public position and to work with policy implementation.

This was really important for me and they made me see how academia and the civil service can really complement each other.

Nerina: Why and how do you think that research and civil public service complement each other?

Carla: At University, in academic debates, if you’re not careful enough you can detach yourself from the real work and how things really happen, and the limits and the constraints of the role and the possibilities of the State, so when you work in the Government, you are aware of all these possibilities and constraints; you become more realistic. On the other hand, if you only work in the civil service, you can become too skeptical and too pragmatic and refrain from seeing a bigger picture and making some important reflections. That’s why I think having both perspectives is very complementing and enriching for both of them.

Nerina: If you could speak with an influential politician, what would you tell her or him?

Carla: I would suggest to this person to take gender and race and social inequalities into consideration while implementing programs, and I would also suggest – or really, warn them – about the importance of communicating with the population in a very transparent and clear way so that people from all social classes are able to understand how the policies that are being implement work and how it can improve their lives and the lives of the collective.

Nerina: In your opinion, is there a need to improve the understanding of the role of the state?

Carla: We have some problem related to that, because usually when public services work, people don’t realize that it has to do with the State, it has to do with the Government, but when they fail, it’s when they realize that it does have to do with the Government. I think it’s important to communicate with the population constantly about what is being done, so that they understand that this is not something that is happening only because of the economy, because of their personal efforts, because otherwise, you can think that your improvement in life is due to your effort and your merit, and I think this can be very harmful for a collective mentality and progressive social changes.

Nerina: What would you tell a recipient of public aid?

Carla: We are in a very difficult moment right now, in my country. We are very concerned about the people, and how their lives are going to be in the future. But I think I would tell these people that they should fight for their right, because they have lots of rights, an they’re probably unaware of their rights and their powers, and they should demand the State provision of public services because we have a highly regressive tax regime in Brazil, so everybody’s funding these services and the people who need them the most should be able to receive them.

Nerina: How personal is what you are doing to you?

Carla: I would say it’s very personal. I think the world is very unfair and these bothers me a lot, and it bothers me even more as a person who should be working for changing this, not only academically but professionally, so all types of inequality bother me a lot. Not only social, but also in Brazil’s case, racial inequalities and gender inequalities as a woman. I think these are my main concerns.

Nerina: What is your perspective about gender and race inequality in Brazil?

Carla: I think gender and race inequalities appear in different forms depending on the country. Brazil, for example, we have a slavery past, so race is a very important issue in our country, but since we never had formal segregation as other countries like the US and South Africa, most people believe we don’t have racism anymore, and we are a mixed population and there is no racism, that there is no open form of racism, but I disagree on this perspective. If you check data about access to the labor market, income, education, health, it’s possible to notice how the black people are underprivileged, and suffer several forms of subtle of racism and discrimination. This is something we have to take into consideration while formulating public policies in Brazil. It’s something very important.

About gender, even though we don’t have, like some countries, some formal mechanisms of discrimination between men and women, sexism is something very common in the Brazilian society and we still have gender gaps in several fields in terms of payment, labor relations, reproductive rights, and it’s also very important to take this into consideration while formulating public policies.

Nerina: We often speak about what developing countries can learn from developed countries, but what could other countries learn from Brazil?

Carla: First, in terms of public policies, over the last decade we had some very successful experiences regarding food security policies, water provision and conditional cash transfers that have be very helpful for developing countries. In terms of a broader view, I think we are, in general, very welcoming and warm, so I think this is something that can be very useful, too.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Carla: My dream, which I haven’t achieved yet, is to work on the implementation of a social program in a way that I feel that I’m changing our social reality, because so far, I have done research, I have worked on public policies, but in a very distant way from our reality, and I could see some impact, but something very broad. I would like to work on something more specific and really get in touch with change.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Carla: You’re welcome.

Nerina: Thank you so much for watching, thank you so much for listening, and thank you so much for sharing. Next time, we are going to continue with our mini-series about inequalities. Hope to see you soon again. Bye and ciao.

Biography:

Carla Beatriz de Paulo holds a Master’s degree in social policy from the University of Brasilia and works for the Brazilian Government since 2011.

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