In Focus: Inequality of Economic Access

In this blog, I talk a lot about conflict risk-factors, so I thought it would be worth-while exploring each of them in a bit more depth. Last post, I looked at inequality of political access. This week, I thought I’d focus on Inequality of Economic Access.

The name might sound a little clunky, but I want to emphasise that it’s not just a matter or ‘who has what’ that’s important, but also how resources are distributed. It isn’t just some having more than others, it’s about the systems used to distribute resources.

It is when a group of people feel that, no matter what they do, they can’t get a fair go.

Of course, the natural result of processes which distribute resources unevenly is poverty. However it is important to be clear that the risk-factor I’m focusing on here isn’t the poverty itself, but the unequal economic systems (of which poverty is a common result).

And as with all risk-factors, this looks different in different times, places and cultures. Not only will there be differences in what the resources themselves are (it might be water, or land, or cattle or money); but so too will there be many different resource distribution processes. What’s more, there may be more than one way of distributing resources even within a community. What is important to emphasise, is that there are not only many ways of unequally distributing resources, but that there are many different equal approaches too— and likely as not, most places will sit somewhere in between.

There are many different ways of distributing resources in a manner that supports peace. But that isn’t to say that ‘anything goes’. There are just as many different ways of unequally distributing resources too.

Risk-factors associated with unequal resource distribution processes can be direct, with explicit exclusions, and indirect, with structural exclusions. For example, a Feudal economic system in which no-one except the nobility are allowed to own land, directly excludes the majority of society. Alternatively, you can imagine a situation where only people of a particular religion, or ethnic group, or political affiliation, are allowed to hold high paying jobs (such as being a lawyer, or working for government), which is also direct exclusion.

However you might see more indirect exclusions in (for example) the loan systems. If one group is historically land-owning, and another isn’t (perhaps because of historical direct exclusions), then the land-owning group is better able to access bank loans to buy more land or to start businesses because they can use the equity in their existing asset. The group that doesn’t have that resource already, has to save for a much higher deposit. It isn’t impossible for this group to get a loan, but it is much more work for them than it is for the group who already has wealth.

Of course, this risk-factor type doesn’t exist in isolation, it interacts and overlaps with other risk-factor types. For example, it will be greatly influenced by the number of resources that there are to go around in the first place (resource scarcity). Or if one group is excluded from the political system, then it is surely much more likely that the legislation passed will exclude them economically too (inequality of political access).

And of course, there is no such thing as Utopia. In all our communities, there are groups which have more, and those who have less. But Proactive Peace emphasises that this is always something to try and address. Things may never be ‘perfect’, but they will certainly get worse without attention.

The lived experience we all have of our own communities is a good guide for working with this risk-factor. We all have a good idea of who our economic system seems to be working for, and who is isn’t.

And we need to put these inequalities under the spotlight for peace…and we need to do that before there’s violence. 

Economic inequality is bad for a whole range of reasons, but I talk about it here because it is also a risk-factor for violent conflict. Communities with inequality of economic access are more likely to experience violence… so lets pay attention to our Proactive Peace work before it gets to that point. Too often we diminish Proactive Peace work as somehow less important than peace work that occurs in war-zones. But if we do not take seriously the things which may lead to violence, then we cannot be said to be taking peace seriously at all. So, in what ways are we able to increase economic equality? How can we better distribute resources? I would love to hear the different ways in which you are undertaking this work in your own community.

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