Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Oxfam, Narrow Definitions and South Africa

Oxfam is on an inequality mission (see here). This is good. Inequality is a huge, huge development issue.

There are, however, some fairly glaring problems in the way they're hyping their cause. Yesterday, I linked to some posts and discussions about the first shock stat of their campaign - that the richest 100 people made enough money last year to end extreme poverty four times over.

Now they're taking on South Africa, with Oxfam in South Africa claiming that inequality has "gone up in the last 20 years, despite government’s efforts (to reverse this trend)". It is unclear where this is coming from - it may be in the full report, which I haven't had a chance to read. 

This is where the problem comes. Inequality, like poverty, can be defined very narrowly - some people have more money than other people. By a narrow definition (of, for example, income from formal work) some argue that inequality has, in fact, increased. Others think South Africa is as unequal as it was 20 years ago.

But it's more complicated than that. Despite service delivery protests and an awful lot of South Africans who constantly insist on thinking the worst of the government, the lives of South Africa's poor have, over the past 20 years improved in many ways. For example (link [PDF]), 
- 84% of people now have access to basic electricity
- 73% access to piped water
16 million people receive social grants (of a population of 50 million) 
- Government funded ARVs at government clinics
- Government clinics
- Free basic education (for families earning below cut-off point)

Inequality remains a problem in South Africa but sweeping statements do not help. Instead they risk alienating the powers that be even further from the civil society sector. South Africa's inequality does not look like "everything is bad". It looks like unequal performance of municipalities delivering services PLUS high unemployment. That difference is important. 

Advocacy that just says "inequality is bad" feels an awful lot like the occupy movement with it's complete lack of impact. If Oxfam is so far off in South Africa (the poster child for inequality), perhaps the use of a narrow definition of inequality and poverty in calculating and advocating against inequality is really a very serious issue in the broader campaign as well. 

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