Helen Clark: "Tackling Poverty, Inequality, and Environmental Unsustainability in the New Global Agenda: The Role of Solidarity and Advocacy"

May 18, 2014

Video Address to the Third World Congress of the International Trade Union (ITUC) Berlin, Germany

Many thanks for inviting me to address this Third World Congress of the ITUC.  I warmly remember attending your second Congress in Vancouver four years ago.  

At that time, all our minds were very much on the fallout of the global financial crisis on the world’s peoples, many of whom had already been battered by food and fuel crises and catastrophic natural disasters.  A not insignificant number were also living in nations experiencing outright war and/or high levels of criminal and armed violence – all of which destroy lives, dreams, and hopes.

The truth is that I can’t report a vastly better situation to you today – but I do want to bring a message of hope.  Trade Unions were founded on the firm conviction that through solidarity and collective action, working people could build a better world.  That is as true today as it ever was.  Your solidarity and your advocacy are an indispensable part of the fight back against the policies and circumstances which perpetuate poverty and hunger, unemployment, and a lack of decent work, high levels of inequality, and environmental degradation – all of which directly threaten the lives and livelihoods of many.

The good news is that the negotiation of the post-2015 development agenda presents an opportunity to make addressing these profound challenges a top global priority.  This is what the world’s peoples have been calling for through the extensive national and global consultations which the UN development system has facilitated.  Around two million people from all walks of life, including from the most marginalized groups, have had their say on their priorities for a better world.  It will be no surprise to ITUC that they are calling for better education and health services and jobs as top priorities, along with honest and effective governance which is responsive to their needs and will deliver.  

Yes, the challenges are great.  1.2 billion people continue to live in extreme poverty, and 870 million go to bed hungry every night.  The ILO estimates that almost 202 million people were unemployed last year, an increase of five million over 2012.  The ILO says that despite some encouraging signs of economic recovery, "little progress is being made in reducing working poverty and vulnerable forms of employment, such as informal jobs and undeclared work".  

Levels of inequality of power and wealth are also striking. The richest eight per cent of the world’s population earns half the world’s total income, leaving 92 per cent to share the other half. We estimate that 75 per cent of the world's population lives in societies where income distribution is less equal now than it was in the 1990s.

These high levels of inequality exist between countries and often within countries too.  There are countries, like Somalia, Chad, and South Sudan, where more than 1,000 women die in childbirth for every 100,000 live births, while in developed countries the number stands at sixteen.  

For many children born in the poorest households and countries, future prospects are limited from the beginning by poor nutrition and little – and in some cases no – education.

The poorest people in the poorest countries also suffer the most from natural disasters – many of which are climate-related and are becoming more frequent and severe.

The challenge of eradicating extreme poverty is to eradicate it in countries where natural disasters, instability -  and even outright war, weak governance and institutions, and little rule of law reinforce it every day.  I hope that the post-2015 development agenda will focus on the needs of the world’s poorest people and countries as a top priority.

This new global agenda is to be a sustainable development agenda.  By definition, that should make it ambitious and transformational.  It will also be a universal agenda – all countries face the challenge of how to link economic and social progress with maintaining the integrity of the world’s ecosystems on which all life depends.  What is happening to our climate is a stark reminder of what happens when our economic progress is built on rates of depletion of our natural capital which are unsustainable.

Turning the tide on carbon pollution while also meeting global needs for decent work, good services, infrastructure, and the opportunity for a better life is the defining challenge of our time.  It requires the whole approach to development to be turned on its head, so that promoting economic and social inclusion, greater equality, human rights – including gender equality and workers’ rights, and environmental sustainability together becomes central to development, rather than peripheral.  In this way we can build a better, fairer, more sustainable world.

Tackling inequality has to be at the heart of the new agenda – the evidence is that persistently high levels of inequality lessen the likelihood of reducing poverty and lifting human development. We also see the paradox in many countries of extreme poverty reducing while inequality rises.  That is not a recipe for peaceful and cohesive societies.

Yet the range of policies which tackle both poverty and inequality is clear.  There needs to be a focus on investment:

•    in job and livelihood-rich sectors – not least in rural areas where the majority of the world’s poor still live and work;

•    in social protection, to provide a floor below which no one should fall and a platform for further advances.  Times of economic adversity are not the time to be cutting back on social protection – it provides the glue which maintains social cohesion and builds the resilience of people to shocks and setbacks;

•    in universal quality services – across health and education, water and sanitation, housing and more, and

•    in initiatives which empower women, youth, and all others currently marginalized so that they too can benefit from the progress their countries make.

Countries like Brazil have shown how both inequality and poverty can be decisively tackled.  The Nordic model has long emphasized social solidarity and shared progress.  The constitution of South Africa is built on a notion of equal rights for all before the law.  India’s range of rights-based laws point in the direction of tackling entrenched poverty, inequality, and marginalization.  There are many such experiences to be shared and built on.

But this takes visionary leadership and strong advocacy.  Here at the ITUC, representing 176 million workers across 161 countries, you can provide that.  It is within the power of humanity to overcome the vulnerabilities and unfairness which are the daily reality of many of the world’s peoples.  Solidarity matters – within and across national borders.  Many of today’s challenges call for solutions at the global level – where there are huge power imbalances, exacerbated by a model of globalization which has aimed at a free flow of goods and services without acknowledging and addressing the needs of people.

Please see the negotiation of the post-2015 agenda and the new sustainable development goals as the big opportunity to make the addressing of all these challenges global priorities.  The ITUC’s voice counts and it resonates with the vast majority of the world’s people who dream of a better future.

I wish you all a very productive Third World Congress in Berlin, and look forward to hearing the outcomes of your deliberations.

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