Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

We Have the Power to Change the Rules

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November 29, 2012

It’s time we called out the great myth that mass poverty just is, as if it were a natural part of some universal moral order. Such thinking is profoundly untrue and disastrously misleading.  Unfortunately, it’s also the underpinning logic of most narratives about development.

We’re talking about statements like this:  “Sadly, more than 7 million children die every year before they reach their 5th birthday due to preventable and treatable causes”—a headline taken at random from the website of a major NGO.  The only active agents here are the diseases; everything else just is.

We’ve all done this. NGOs tend to do it because it allows them to say to the potential supporter, “you can be the active force, the saviour”; other agencies possibly because it’s received wisdom that slips beneath conscious notice. Whatever the reason, we express this logic of passivity consistently in our basic story, such that the development industry is now the biggest proponent of the belief that mass poverty is both natural and inevitable. And this logic is one of the biggest barriers to transformative change we face.

The rules have created a social and economic system that clearly does not work for the majority of the world’s people. The world’s 1,226 billionaires have more combined wealth than 3.5 billion people – half the entire planet’s population. The richest 10 per cent of the world’s population takes 90 per cent of the world’s income.

This is the outcome of financial rules that create tax havens for the rich so they can extract wealth from countries with secrecy and impunity; land rules that allow governments to sell their citizens’ land from underneath their feet without consent or compensation; social rules that deny women equal rights as men; and many others. But these rules are all made by people, and people can change them.

  We mask this truth every time poverty is framed in the passive voice.

We mask this truth every time poverty is framed in the passive voice.  The depiction of poverty as a background reality with no human cause conceals the active role of decision makers to create and perpetuate it.

Right now, there is a special moment of opportunity. Throughout the world, citizens have access to information in ways once unimaginable. Affordable technologies are revolutionising our ability to communicate with one another and act collectively. The opportunities for citizen-powered movements to grasp and promote new logics, and become catalysts for transformative change, have never been greater. Powerful elites are losing the structural advantages they once enjoyed to maintain secrecy, restrict information and even to suppress popular movements. We can now introduce our own frames through the collective voices of millions who self-organise.

This month, we are launching a new platform called /The Rules, to help promote accurate narratives around poverty, and collaborate with people around the world to challenge and change the rules – the most basic drivers of inequality and poverty. We have a special focus on organising with people and grassroots movements in countries such as Brazil, India, Kenya and South Africa. We are creating new ways for people to speak up and organise themselves using simple, cheap technologies like basic mobile phones.

The first campaign for /The Rules will target the system of offshore tax havens, starting with one of the biggest and most connected of them all, the City of London. Tax havens are allowing a tiny global elite to extract trillions of dollars from rich and poor countries alike, starving our nations’ treasuries and choking off funds essential for schools, health facilities, social programs and infrastructure.  

New research has blown the lid on this secretive shadow economy, with at least $21 trillion estimated to have been stowed away in these tax havens – ten percent of all the world’s privately held wealth. This is also more than ten times the total value of aid given to the world’s poorer nations in the past twenty years.

Human-made rules express and entrench much of the injustice in our world today. But rules can be changed, and the opportunity to make those changes has never been greater. Instruments of power once only in the hands of elites are now available to all of us – and we are beginning to use them.

Together, we can change the rules.

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