global inequalities – what politics?

I found Andy Summers’ blog ( very inspiring, and it provided an excellent overview on some recent work on inequality. He points out that inequality is ‘back on the agenda’ (though I never fully understand how it can not be on the agenda, and whose agenda this might be). One may be less optimistic about the importance of the inequality agenda than Andy is – in fact I think Ashwani Saith’s recent article in Development and Change rightly highlights that we seem to have gone back to business as usual after the post-2008 optimism – but this in no way ought or need to change our commitment to push it higher up the agenda, and the fact that inequality is coming down in a fair number of countries is reason to celebrate and basis to build on in the international debate.

Andy’s notes end with a thinking on the politics of inequality, and this in my view is also right, and needs much more thought (and include a better understanding of what ‘middle classes’ are, as their place in an income distribution is not necessarily the most important reason why they are a class and have certain political power). Social policies – including those that redistribute – are deeply political (of course, the same goes for economic policies). The creation of the welfare states in OECD countries have been political projects, of nation building, restoration after civil wars (Scandinavia), after wars (UK), responses to threats to stability (of the left, as for Bismarck), and are deeply inter-twined with democratic structures (eg the polder model in the Netherlands, now challenged by populism). As far as I know the best book on the long term history of welfare states (and why this is a ‘free lunch’) is Peter Lindert’s ‘Growing Public’, including the role that democracy (or voice) plays in balancing growth and the expansion of public spending.

Recent progressive politics in the South are equally political projects: Lula managed to redistribute while reassuring investors, NREGA in India was (part of) a the Congress- led Government’s response to perceived failures of the BJP (and of course, the classic employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra was an example of urban middle class support), and China’s leaders’ idea of harmonious society is as much a response to rising unrest as it is to growing inequalities.

Understanding the political nature of inequality is not an academic exercise (or at least not in the negative sense, of academic as practically irrelevant). The development debate needs to pay more attention – in my view – to politics, beyond the numbers and income distributions, so as to strengthen an understanding on how we can galvanize progressive political forces. In the current European climate, at least, this is urgently necessary!

Arjan de Haan

Supporting Inclusive Growth / Croissance pour tous, International Development Research Centre / Centre de recherches pour le développement international

Formerly at ISS The Hague:

The new IDRC programme Supporting Inclusive Growth supports research by Southern institutions that helps understand how we can support growth that is inclusive, and promotes job creation and entrepreneurship.


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