The makings of a more human economy

It’s time to forge an ambitious but common-sense economic design that would benefit the 99 percent, not the 1 percent.

Poverty/inequality op-ed photo
A migrant worker carries scrap material she collected from debris of demolished buildings at the outskirts of Beijing, China [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

There’s a point in every struggle when momentum shifts behind you. Optimism becomes ambition.

I recall those moments in our resistance to overcome our dictator in Uganda. I felt a perseverant optimism, as a young refugee, that got me through customs at Heathrow Airport. In Beijing in 1995, I saw hope surge globally for women’s rights.

These days I am locked in the latest form of a lifelong struggle – the fight against global extreme inequality. I’m feeling increasingly optimistic. This week an ambitious new Commission on Global Economic Transformation cochaired by Michael Spence and Joseph Stiglitz launches. I am honoured to join it on behalf of Oxfam. The Commission heralds a new confidence about the rules and governance our global economy needs.

The world we confront sees eight men own the same wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people. Oxfam’s research has revealed that over the last 25 years, the top one percent have gained more income than the bottom 50 percent put together. Seven out of 10 people on our planet must survive on less than $7 a day.

The economic ideas of yesterday have bequeathed us an economy built for the one percent that is destroying our planet and destroying the future for our children. 


It is women crushed at the bottom of a global economic heap, whose poverty powers the supposed success of globalisation. They are more likely to be in the most dangerous, precarious, part-time employment, with lower wages. They are sexually harassed and assaulted. And they are the ones doing the cooking, the cleaning and the caring; free labour worth trillions – $10 trillion a year to the global economy according to McKinsey.

In the United States, Oxfam works with poultry workers (pdf) who have such high levels of repetitive strain injury from cutting open chickens that they can no longer close their fingers or hold their children’s hands. We work with hotel cleaners who when they complain of sexual assault are told to go back to the hotel room and apologise to the male guest. Such exploitation and such pain should have no place in our modern world.

Our world is not short of invention. New technologies transform our world in ways we could never have imagined. The washing machine and piped water have given women back years of their lives. Mobile phones have opened up the world to billions.

Yet all too often, these new technologies of the 21st century are married to a capitalism which belongs in the 19th century – designed to push risk onto those at the bottom and profit to those at the top. Technology is not at fault – it is what we make it. We can reimagine a “fourth industrial revolution” that serves all of humanity, not only the owners of capital and technology.

Business will help to take our economy in a different direction.

Far from rejecting globalisation, we need governments to cooperate with each other - and put in place new muscular rules and governance on issues from taxation to wages.


But it must be a different business to the kind got us into this crisis – that create decent jobs and pay living wages, restore the environment, pay their taxes and treat women and girls equally. The future of business lies in models that serve their workers, their suppliers and their communities, not just shareholders. That’s a break from current global trends. Take the UK: according to the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, in the 1970s, only 10 percent of company profits were paid as dividends to shareholders. Today, it’s 70 percent.

Governments ultimately must have the confidence to cede no more space to the one percent driving this crisis in the name of the market.


Markets are a vital engine for prosperity and growth, but we cannot continue to accept the pretence that it should be the engine that steers the car, or decides the best direction to take. Markets need active management in the interests of everyone to fairly distribute the proceeds of growth.

Far from rejecting globalisation, we need governments to cooperate with each other – and put in place new muscular rules and governance on issues from taxation to wages.

We all lose out when our governments compete to drive down poverty wages and enable the richest corporations and individuals from avoiding hundreds of billions in taxes. Just think of the way international cooperation (eventually) brokered progress to tackle climate change.

We must now forge an ambitious but common-sense design of an economy purposed to benefit the 99 percent, not the one percent. These are the makings of what Oxfam calls a more human economy. It is no less than the “global economic transformation” that is needed today. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.