Today, the annual “tradeshow” for the world’s elite begins in the Swiss resort town of Davos. The World Economic Forum (WEF) is a “who’s who” of corporate, financial, political and (western) cultural power. Heads of state, CEOs, media leaders and Hollywood Celebrities gather to discuss the global economic situation and make barroom deals that will impact us all. While they mingle under the slogan “Committed to Improving the State of the World” and invite a select group of fashionable social activists, it is difficult to see how this event will improve the state of the world for those who are poor. Unlike a major United Nations conference, participation at the World Economic Forum is not accessible to civil society groups and is not balanced by regional representation. Most participants are older European and American men (only 15% of participants are women and the average age is 52). To see the skewed picture of participants, see the nifty graphic on the WEF’s blog:
In his address to the WEF, Pope Francis reiterates familiar themes—albeit in a more conciliatory tone—from Evangelii Gaudium. After praising some of the major successes in providing more access to healthcare, education and communication technologies, the pope emphasizes that this is not enough:
I wish to emphasize the importance that the various political and economic sectors have in promoting an inclusive approach which takes into consideration the dignity of every human person and the common good. I am referring to a concern that ought to shape every political and economic decision, but which at times seems to be little more than an afterthought. Those working in these sectors have a precise responsibility towards others, particularly those who are most frail, weak and vulnerable.
He then continues:
It is intolerable that thousands of people continue to die every day from hunger, even though substantial quantities of food are available, and often simply wasted. Likewise, we cannot but be moved by the many refugees seeking minimally dignified living conditions, who not only fail to find hospitality, but often, tragically, perish in moving from place to place.
Earlier this week, the well respected humanitarian NGO, Oxfam International, issued a message to the WEF decrying the global economic system as rigged to favor the most powerful—precisely those who are meeting at Davos. In its detailed report (must read), Oxfam highlights a sobering statistic about economic inequality:
Wealthy elites have co-opted political power to rig the rules of the economic game, undermining democracy and creating a world where the 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world’s population…
Let’s think about that for a minute. The 85 richest individuals have the same amount of wealth as half of humanity- more than 2 billion people! The vision of a radically unequal futuristic world depicted by the film Elysium does not seem that far off.
The year, economic inequality has become a central theme in global political discourse from Pope Francis to the new mayoral race. The World Economic Forum has taken note of this and the topic of inequality is a topic of this year’s meeting. This is defiantly an improvement, but how can a meeting of mostly rich, white, powerful, older men address income inequality in a complex world?
In 2001, Catholic social activists from Latin America joined with others in creating the World Social Forum as an alternative to the WEF. The World Social Forum and its related events gathered tens of thousands of mostly young people, from Africa, Asia, and Latin America with the theme “another world is possible.” This movement also helped to spark other social movements, including Occupy Wall Street.
Unfortunately, the momentum around the World Social Forum (and Occupy Wall Street) has died down. While many of us decry the continued reality of poverty, conflict and injustice, we rarely take action. Yes, we profess our love for Pope Francis on Twitter and share various stories on our Facebook pages, but what are we (especially those of us in positions of power) really doing to change the reality?
I worry that with all the hype around Pope Francis we are missing the deeper challenge, the call to conversion and social action in the face of the globalization of indifference. It is not enough for us to simply “like” a social justice statement of Pope Francis on Facebook, we must also take action. Some have described this reality as “Slacktivism,” whereby we feel-good about ourselves through brief engagements on social questions on social media. Rather than supporting the message of Pope Francis, this Slacktivism, however, ultimately supports what Pope Francis describes as the globalization of indifference by lulling us into inaction in the real world.
What to do then about global economic inequality. Oxfam offers some practical policy proposals that need to be considered. Solutions to economic inequality, however, will not come from the powerful in Davos, Switzerland; nor will it come from “likes” and “tweets” about Pope Francis. Real change, lifesaving change, will only come if we join together in social movements and evaluate our lifestyle choices on how they support or challenge the structure of sin of extreme economic inequality.