Event Summary: Time to Act on Inequality and Exclusion

On September 24, a group of world leaders came together to respond to the UN Secretary-General’s call for a decade of accelerated actions for Sustainable Development Goals by releasing a statement that affirms their commitment to promote equality and inclusion.

“Today we are coming together, here at the United Nations, to show that there are paths towards more equal societies for all citizens,” the statement proclaimed. “We commit to working together to identify practical and politically viable solutions to the challenge of inequality and exclusion in our own societies and globally.”

L-R: Timor-Leste Foreign Minister Dionisio da Costa Babo Soares, Uruguayan delegate, Irish Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste) Simon Coveney, Namibian President Hage Geingob, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Tunisian delegate. 


At the invitation of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, heads of state and government from Ethiopia, Spain, Sierra Leone, and Namibia; the Vice President of Indonesia, the Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland, and the Foreign Minister of Timor-Leste; and representatives from Uruguay and Tunisia gathered in the SDG Action Zone for a photo opportunity celebrating the release the statement, which was also endorsed by the Republic of Korea.

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven


Global anti-poverty network Oxfam and NYU’s Center on International Cooperation helped bring these countries together as part of the Pathfinders Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion. Following the statement’s release, Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Annika Söder, Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, and CIC Director Sarah Cliffe held a short panel in the Action Zone to discuss the importance of this public statement and the commitment to multilateralism it represents.

L-R: Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Annika Söder, and CIC Director Sarah Cliffe


Each of these countries has sought bold and innovative solutions to promote equality and inclusion, as detailed in the Pathfinders challenge paper. CIC Director Sarah Cliffe called them “a cross-regional group [of] pathfinders for policies that actually make a difference.” Söder emphasized that the grand challenge is an effort to identify and promote ideas “built on research and the political knowledge that all the members of the group bring.” Byanyima said that the aim was to build momentum for governments, civil society, and the private sector to rally around the goal of creating a more just world. “We see many countries that are making positive gains,” she noted, with “simple but tested policies that reduce inequality, like workers’ rights, women’s rights, like fair taxation that’s progressive, like social spending that’s adequate on health, education, and social protection. These are the things that make the world fair for everyone.”

According to Cliffe, this group of countries are sending “a very powerful signal” that they understood the connection between inclusion and democratic consolidation, “which has to be underpinned by practical action on economic and social inclusion and progress.” Widening inequality “is among the most potent political grievances of our time,” she observed, and these countries recognize that fact. Söder underlined this point, noting that if participation and egalitarianism are absent citizens start to lose trust in democracy. She also stated that the data is clear that “trickle-down” approaches don’t work—countries that are active in pursuing policies that combat inequality are more successful.

These countries are both geographically and economically diverse, the panel noted, but they are all share a common commitment to taking inclusion seriously. Byanyima highlighted Sweden’s role as a global leader on action to tackle inequality, but pointed out that many other countries share this goal: “We have poor countries that are doing so much more than richer countries—it’s a question of political commitment.” We know which policies are effective, she added, so “it’s political mobilization” that is needed, and the statement and gathering in the Action Zone are about generating and supporting that kind of mobilization.

Next week, the advisory group for the grand challenge is holding its inaugural meeting in Mexico City to talk in more detail about the innovative solutions these countries have developed to deal with issues like fiscal compromises, social protection, access to housing and regional inequality, the digital economy and the future of work, and more. Söder, who is the chair of the advisory group, stated that this is an opportunity to help countries that are facing similar challenges come up with proven approaches to solving them. As Cliffe noted, “this is really an initiative that is working very hard on solutions—not just in the abstract, since “it’s often the case that we know technically how to do this” but by finding ways to build the kinds of coalitions that can bring about political support for taking action.

Finally, Cliffe observed, this particular group of countries is coming together not only because they realize they face common challenges, but because “this is a group that is firmly committed to multilateral solutions. There are some issues that no nation-state can address alone,” like tax evasion. The grand challenge on inequality and exclusion represents a shared belief “that by working together, we will end up with better international solutions.”

For more information, see the Oxfam press release about the event and Winnie Byanyima's op-ed at the World Economic Forum.

Image credits: Ayano Hisa Photography

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