current affairs equality

World Economic Forum says inequality matters

It’s still an invisible issue in British politics, but it getting more and more difficult to ignore inequality. The list of warnings is growing, and number of institutions taking an interest rising all the time. This week we learned that President Obama is to meet the Pope at a summit on the topic. The IMF is talking about it, so is the OECD. To that list we can now add the World Economic Forum.

The World Economic Forum is meeting this week for their annual discussion of the world and where it is heading. If you’ve glanced at their Outlook on the Global Agenda that came out last year, you’d have seen that they place inequality as the second biggest risk facing the world in the next 12 to 18 months.

The Outlook surveys 1,500 experts across a variety of fields, and this year’s includes youth opinions for the first time. It attempts to identify key trends for the next year or so, spotting risks to global stability and opportunities for action. Here are their top ten trends for 2014, ranked in order of importance:

  • Rising tensions in the Middle East and Asia
  • Widening income disparities
  • Persistent structural unemployment
  • Intensifying cyber threats
  • Inaction on climate change
  • The diminishing confidence in economic policy
  • A lack of values in leadership
  • The expanding middle class in Asia
  • The growing importance of megacities
  • The rapid spread of misinformation online

There’s plenty to discuss in a list like that. One notable thing about this list is how many of them are inter-related. The order of these trends is interesting too. There are probably no surprises about the top one. The revolutions of the Arab Spring are incomplete or failing in many places, leaving the region in greater instability than before. As always, global energy demands make any trouble in the Middle East into global issue.

Placing inequality at number two is quite striking, but given that these things are interrelated, it has a role in the Middle East, in diminishing confidence in economic policy and a couple of others there. “Widening wealth disparity affects every part of our lives” says Helene Gale of CARE USA in her commentary in the Outlook. “It’s impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale, and looking ahead to 2014, it’s essential that we devise innovative solutions to the causes and consequences of a world becoming ever more unequal.”

Indeed, and there are some key words there – ‘innovative’ and ‘causes’ in particular. If the topic comes up and all we talk about is redistributive taxation, then we won’t be solving the problem. We need a bigger and more intelligent debate on inequality, and that’s not happening yet. The survey asked people how satisfied they were with the media and business coverage of each of these issues, and inequality came bottom.

I don’t expect the World Economic Forum to make much difference, but it’s all part of a drip-feeding into a wider discussion. Is 2014 the year that we start taking inequality seriously? By the end of the year, will it have established itself enough to be an election issue in 2015? I hope so.


  1. I wonder why they think the expanding middleclass in Asia is a problem. I doubt they acknowledge the limits to growth, and they’ve ranked widening income disparity (i.e. more very rich and very poor people) as a critical problem so why don’t they want more middleclass people?
    Also funny they rank climate change as slightly less important than ”cyber threats”!

    1. It’s not so much that it’s a problem, but a trend that may destabilise the status quo – a rising middle class tends to start making political demands and asking for certain freedoms. For a country like China, that’s going to be disruptive. In my opinion, those are good problems to have, but it could still be messy.

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