Oxfam has been successful in highlighting the gross and rapidly growing inequalities in the world in international fora, but their approach of asking the rich elites and their allies in governments to do the right thing is not bringing change and worse it is perpetuating the myth that we have no alternative other than to depend on large corporations. It is in people’s everyday practices, not from the elites that we are far more likely to find meaningful solutions to inequality and the seeds of a more human economy.
In January 2014, during the 44th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Oxfam announced that just 85 billionaires (“a tiny elite whose numbers could all fit comfortably on a double-decker bus” ) owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the world population. Subsequently, Oxfam has continued drawing attention to rising inequality, now in 2018 the headline was that “82 percent of all wealth created in the last year went to the top one percent, while the bottom 50 percent saw no increase at all”. Such “killer facts” have captured global attention and are widely quoted by government, business and civil society leaders. Despite the effectiveness of this communication and repeated visits to Davos by Oxfam executives, the inequality Oxfam is so effectively highlighting is only increasing at an even faster pace.
Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of Oxfam, tweeted on her way to Davos this year that “voices of ordinary people must be heard. I will be speaking up 4 interests of those trapped in poverty”. Byanyima is of course anything but “ordinary” and those trapped in poverty did not ask her to speak up for them any more than they asked Bono to. Oxfam and Byanyima did bring a few short stories of individuals to Davos, stories that painted them as little more than victims, the fullness of their lives, their agency and their voices were not present. Reference to existing widely supported movements and demands of “ordinary people”, such as the international peasant movement La via Campesina with their goal of food sovereignty , are also conspicuously absent from Oxfam’s report.
Writing for Al Jazeera after Davos, Byanyima acknowledged that “[T]here is no appeal for capitalist elites to be nice” . Yet, in a somewhat a resigned tone, she concludes the article saying “[w]e are beginning to be left to trust that those at the top will rescue those below”. Oxfam’s own reports correctly argue that the rich use their wealth and political influence to prevent change, but she and Oxfam still do not seem to have strategies beyond talking to those same rich elites in the empty hope that they may listen and act. Byanyima goes on to say “the worst-case scenario is – they won’t [rescue those below]. There will be no value in it. The masses will be left adrift to fend for themselves.” Byanyima’s worst-case scenario is in fact the most likely scenario, but that is not such a bad thing. Firstly, any “rescue” designed by those on “top” will further consolidate their power and secondly, the “masses” are from being as helpless as Byanyima seems to think. The majority of the world’s population is not waiting to be rescued by those on “top” – whether from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), corporations or governments.
The “masses” use their agency to act to shape and advance their lives in a myriad of different ways, rejecting some elements of the capitalist economy and reshaping others to fit their purpose and ways of operating. They create different modes of organising production and distribution, to not only survive, but to prosper in their own way, not because of, but more often despite the corporations and their state allies that are increasingly collaborating to facilitate greater rent seeking at the expense of the majority. It is in people’s everyday practices that we are far more likely to find meaningful solutions than in elite boardrooms of Davos and elsewhere. As the Human Economy Programme at University of Pretoria asks: “[H]ow might a more equal economy be built by harnessing and expanding what people already do for themselves?” .
Examples exist all around us. In research that I did on the feeding of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I found what I call a “symbiotic food system” made up of a multitude of small-scale and interdependent actors who together produce the food and get it to urban eaters at a city feeding scale, without any vertically—or horizontally—integrated corporate structures and with high levels of equity between those involved . Over the last four years, South African based Shoprite (the largest supermarket group in Africa) has pulled out of Tanzania and both the Uchumi and Nakumatt supermarket groups from Kenya have collapsed in Tanzania. This doesn’t mean a crisis for food supplies in Dar es Salaam, far from it. The symbiotic food system continues, grows and evolves; it is not static or simply survivalist. The city has grown by well over two million people in the last 15 years, but food supplies have kept up. Rice production in Tanzania, still overwhelmingly in the hands of small-scale farmers, doubled in the ten years from 2004 to 2014, potato production, also by small-scale famers, increased 2.5 times in the same period .
The people shaping the symbiotic food system of Dar es Salaam and beyond are certainly impacted by and under constant threat from the encroachment of corporate capitalism, backed consistently by the state and increasingly also justified and supported by aid agencies and some NGOs. But they are not passive victims of it, they resist it through their everyday struggles, they have no interest in Davos, yet they shape the nature of the economy (certainly at national level) as much as they are shaped by it. They are rarely involved in overt confrontation, they don’t get much media attention, but they pursue “struggle” through sustaining and expanding circuits of production and distribution that give them greater autonomy and deliver the food they and others need. It is in such existing struggles, by those that make up much of “the bottom 50 percent” that I believe we can find the practices and lessons to build a human economy.
Instead, Oxfam’s analysis and formulation of a “human economy” solution has been both limited and orientated to richer country contexts. For example, in the recent paper, Oxfam draws heavily on International Labour organisation (ILO) data that is from rich and emerging economies, with South Africa the only African country appearing in parts of the data sets used. South Africa and Nigeria (the two biggest economies in Africa) are the only African countries included in survey of opinions on inequality Oxfam supported and draws on. Unsurprisingly the solutions appear remote from the realities of most people in the poorest countries of the world. The Oxfam proposition is essentially social democracy with regulation, progressive taxation, spending on public services, corporations being nicer and a few “economic democracy” ideas thrown in. The specific recommendations are a rather strange mix, none of them bad in themselves, but not constituting a coherent proposal for systemic change.
It is hard to get excited today about the social democratic option, given that it has been rolled back for decades with the steady reduction in state provided social services and safety nets even in the model of Scandinavian countries. More important perhaps, a functioning social democracy has never materialised in any African country. One example of success that Oxfam refers to – just like many other advocates of cooperatives, self-governed enterprises and economic democracy before them – is the Mondragon group of cooperatively owned companies. 30 years ago, when I was first working with cooperatives in South and Southern Africa, Mondragon was an inspiration to me. The fact that it is still the poster child for economic democracy 30 years later is both testament to its longevity and to the failure of its example to spread. Even managers in Mondragon appear resigned to it being a model with limited appeal beyond its home in the Basque region of Spain. They now employ around 14,000 workers in other countries that have lower labour costs, but these are not members or owners of the cooperatives. “There was a time when we tried hard to get workers who were not members to join… But it is not that easy. People do not always understand the culture of co-operativism,” said a Human Resource Manager at Mondragon .
There is little in Oxfam’s report presented at Davos – or in related papers, such as “An Economy for the 99 percent” and the “Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index” – for addressing asset redistribution, such as tackling land inequality. That would be a far more important intervention than labour regulation in countries where the majority of people are self-employed in agriculture and related activities. It is unfortunate that Oxfam has not drawn more on its own country and regional reports on land inequality that show how important it is as a central factor in political influence, conflicts, and as a basis for wider societal inequality . Such limitations may explain how Oxfam can find South Africa to be performing well, even see it as a taxation role model (“Governments should follow the lead of Chile and South Africa”), despite the reality that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world and has daily protests by the disenfranchised and disgruntled. Perhaps some of these limitations will be addressed in Oxfam’s forthcoming analysis of small-scale food producers, but to do so they will have to go beyond their apparent focus on those involved in corporate supply-chains.
What makes Oxfam’s approach not only weak, but counter-productive, is that it gives more power to the large corporations and their leaders. They are given power through relying on them for the solutions to the problem they have caused, and through attending and legitimising their forums with the addition of a few critical voices, while never challenging the structural power they hold. The myth is perpetuated that we cannot possibly meet our needs and aspirations, even feed ourselves, without these corporations. The organising, production and demands of “ordinary” people are undermined through being ignored and the people involved being presented as victims only fit to be rescued.
Fighting inequality and clearly defining and promoting a truly human economy is an enormous yet vital task. It requires a wide range of movements and organisations collaborating together. I have no blue print, but I believe important principles should be to create greater autonomy for those involved and to broaden, rather than further concentrate, ownership and control of economic activities. Despite my reservations, Oxfam has played an important role in raising the profile of these issues and can hopefully contribute to a more collaborative effort to build a human economy. A starting point must be to better understand and value the solutions people create for themselves.
* Marc C. A. Wegerif is a post-doctoral fellow at the Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria, South Africa. The views expressed are his and do not necessarily represent the programme. He was until recently an employee at Oxfam.
 Winnie Byanyima, quoted in Bustle https://www.bustle.com/articles/13093-oxfam-85-wealthiest-people-as-rich-as-poorest-half-of-world-or-35-billion-people
 Oxfam report, “Reward work not wealth” https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/reward-work-not-wealth
 La via Campesina, “What are we fighting for” https://viacampesina.org/en/what-are-we-fighting-for/food-sovereignty-and-trade/
 Winnie Byanyima, “How can we bridge the widening global inequality gap?” http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/bridge-widening-global-inequality-gap-180123085415512.html
 Keith Hart and John Sharp. 2015. “The Human Economy Project” in People, Money and Power in the Economic Crisis. Berghan Books, New York, Oxford.
 Marc Wegerif and Paul Hebinck, “The Symbiotic Food System: An ‘Alternative’ Agri-Food System Already Working at Scale” http://www.mdpi.com/2077-0472/6/3/40
 Marc Wegerif and Johannes Wiskerke, “Exploring the Staple Foodscape of Dar es Salaam” http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/9/6/1081
 Giles Tremlett, “Mondragon: Spain's giant co-operative where times are hard but few go bust” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative
 Oxfam, “Unearthed: Land, power and inequality in Latin America.” https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/unearthed-land-power-and-inequality-latin-america Oxfam, “Who is growing: Ending inequality in Uganda.” https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/who-growing-ending-inequality-uganda , Oxfam, Colombia's challenge: addressing land inequality and consolidating peace