Guest Column

Sensible economic policymaking

2017-04-30 06:20

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Winnie Byanyima

The importance of tackling inequality in Africa cannot be overstated. Inequality is undermining growth and threatens to reverse the gains that have been made in the fight against poverty. Four of the world’s five most unequal countries are in Africa.

In South Africa, three billionaires own the same wealth as the poorest half of the population. Decades of unprecedented economic growth have bypassed millions of Africans, all too often women and youth.

Oxfam’s new report, Starting with people, sets out how African leaders can do this. It starts with governments that are accountable to their people; that prioritise public services, and those economic sectors, new technologies and tax systems that bring the maximum benefit to society, particularly the poorest.

If the priorities were ending poverty and inequality, governments would invest in economic activities that have the biggest impact on poverty alleviation. In most countries across Africa this would mean small-scale agriculture. Agriculture is the main source of income for 90% of Africa’s rural population, yet only 10 out of 44 African countries have delivered on their promise to spend 10% of their national budgets on agriculture.

If the priorities were ending poverty and inequality, governments would foster business models that share the benefits of economic success more fairly – rather than corporations that churn out profits for wealthy shareholders regardless of the impact on workers, the environment and society. Alternative business structures, such as cooperative or social enterprises, are not new. More than 1 billion people globally are members of cooperatives that generate more than 250 million jobs.

If the priorities were ending poverty and inequality, governments would create tax systems that ensure big business and the richest in society pay their fair share of tax. African countries lose billions every year because of tax dodging by big corporations and wealthy individuals. They lose billions more from overly generous tax incentives in a misguided belief that this is the only way to attract foreign investment.

This is not about an economy looking backwards, but one that embraces the future, for all Africans. When I talk about small-scale farming, it is not peasantry that I see, but thriving rural communities producing food, adding value through local agriprocessing and meeting the needs of growing urban markets. When I talk about new business structures, I include businesses that embrace the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution in a way that shares the benefits of new technology, rather than concentrating them in the hands of those that own the tech. And when I talk about a strong role for government, I do not mean big-man politics. I mean open, inclusive democracies with freedoms for civil society.

This is all about sensible economic policymaking focused on the things that matter. As Africa’s government and business leaders meet in Durban this week, they must rip up the old economic conventions that are failing people across our continent and build a new African economic system that will deliver for all.

Byanyima is executive director of Oxfam International and co-chair of WEF on Africa 2017

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