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What is equality?

May 16, 2013

These days it’s very confusing to figure out what people really mean. People use the same language to describe entirely different values. Equality, social justice, root causes, systemic change… What does it all mean?

The term ‘equality’ has many different interpretations. Surely striving for equality is simply about creating a world where we are all equal? But for many, all that matters is that we all have an equal opportunity to climb to the top of the social ladder and become rich and powerful. That’s what the equality and diversity laws exist for. It seems less people are interested in doing away with that hierarchy altogether, to create a society where we are all equal.

Equality is not just about wealth but also about having the power to make decisions that affect your life. The Spirit Level and other studies have shown that a more equal society benefits everyone in it; an unequal society is an unhappy one. If we are all to live full, healthy and happy lives we must all have equal wealth and power, and to achieve that we need to completely change the way society is structured.

Because of the way society is currently run, we are not all born with an equal chance of living a fulfilled and happy life. If you’re white, male, middle-class, heterosexual and are not disabled, you’re much more likely to get what you want out of life than others. It’s not a matter of giving individuals a hand, but creating a society that is structured in a way that no matter who you are, you’ve got what you need to live a good life.

Social justice is another term that is used in different ways. On the name alone, the Centre for Social Justice sounds like the kind of organisation Edge Fund might be well aligned to. Maybe we should get our application in quick for their upcoming Social Justice Awards. But let’s look a bit closer. The Centre for Social Justice was set up by Iain Duncan Smith – yes, the very same Conservative MP behind many of this government’s welfare reforms. Social justice surely means treating people fairly and with respect for their human rights, and in whichever way is needed to put us all on an equal footing. However, it doesn’t seem this understanding of social justice is what Iain Duncan Smith had in mind when he formed the organisation, if his latest antics are anything to go by.

It gets more intriguing. The Centre for Social Justice explains on its website that it addresses the ‘root causes’ of poverty. The first thought is, surely, that as an organisation set up by the Conservatives, it’s not actually supporting work to challenge its own commitment to take everything from the have-nots and give it to the already-haves? No, of course not. According to the Centre for Social Justice, the root causes of poverty are family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, debt and addiction. The likes of CSJ are doing well in convincing people of their way of thinking; recent reports from Joseph Rowntree Foundation and BritainThinks show a rising number of people believe the main reasons for poverty are linked to behaviours and characteristics of parents (e.g. addictions, not wanting to work, lack of education) rather than wider societal issues.

Some people are very good at reaching conclusions that suit them, rather than digging a little deeper. Why are families breaking down? Why is there educational failure, unemployment, debt and addiction? Could it be anything to do with us living in a world where our political and economic systems put profit and personal gain before the common good? Where public services are torn apart and benefits taken from the most vulnerable people, leaving communities with nothing while the rich continue to prosper?

Continuing to ignore the real root causes of poverty, inequality and injustice is a significant barrier to creating the change we need. When this is done in a charitable sense it can be even harder to understand. Take Chris Hohn, one of the UK’s most generous philanthropists.  In one year alone he gave nearly £500m to his charity Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), which aims to help children living in poverty in ‘developing countries’.

So how is Chris Hohn able to donate so much money to charity? He runs a hedge fund and gives a proportion of the profits to CIFF. The hedge fund has apparently invested in companies such as Lockheed Martin, Philip Morris, News Corp, Japan Tobacco, Porsche, Coal India and Enagas. Not only do many of these companies directly cause harm to communities in the Global South but the whole financial system that allows people to make huge profits from investing in unethical, exploitative industries is the very same system that causes poverty and inequality. If Hohn used his undoubted intelligence and skills to tackle capitalism, rather than playing it to raise money for its victims, he might find his fundraising efforts are no longer needed.  The same goes for environmental NGOs investing their endowments in fossil fuels – their decision to place their financial resources in these dirty hands seems just a little counter-productive to their stated aim of saving the planet. Save the Children is another recent example; they’ve just agreed a £15m partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, with a shared aim of saving the lives of a million children. Save the Children have criticised GSK in the past for pricing their drugs (particularly HIV drugs) out of the reach of the people who need them most. How many millions of lives would GSK have saved by now if they’d have made their drugs more accessible? But then if they prioritised saving lives over making a profit, perhaps they wouldn’t have money to give to Save the Children…

A better world for all of us surely lies in creating a world where we are all treated fairly according to our situation and means, and where we are all equal. That’s going to take radical social change that only seems possible through addressing the real root causes of inequality and injustice, such as the power imbalances in society and the systems that maintain them. Whether you interpret ‘systemic change’ as us needing to reform capitalism (and other systems that create inequality), or whether we need something else entirely different in its place, it’s clear we need a massive change.

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