Reward work, not wealth

At the close of 2018, all eyes were on international conferences in Poland and Hawaii, dealing with global commitments to climate change and fisheries management respectively. However Oxfam in the Pacific’s Regional Director, Raijeli Nicole, was at an important meeting dealing with another and related issue for the Pacific, the Blue Economy in Nairobi, Kenya. Highlights from her speech to the conference follow.

I hail from the blue continent, specifically from the large ocean state of Fiji. Fiji and its 13 independent island nation neighbours are great ocean powers. We are custodians of more than 155 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. I say custodians, rather than owners, as we hold the Pacific Ocean in trust for future generations, as our ancestors have done for generations before us. We are accountable to, and responsible for the Ocean. For Pacific people, the ocean is the source of our identities, our creation and migration stories, our ancient gods, our ancestral connections, our food, and the key to our future prosperity.

So while concepts such as ocean governance and the blue economy may have recently gained currency and focus in the international political space, our connections and responsibilities to the ocean are ancient. Our blue continent is not a collection of Exclusive Economic Zones or political boundaries or enclosed spaces, it is a complex, interlinked organism that connects and sustains us.

I would like to ask you to imagine that you are in the year 2031. Specifically, it is October 2031 and you are witnessing the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. The chair of the Nobel Committee walks up to the microphone and says: “Ladies and Gentleman, the Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2031 to “Reward Work, not Wealth Partnership” for their efforts to create a more equitable economy by prioritising ordinary workers and small-scale food producers and not the highly-paid owners of wealth.

This partnership formed at the first Sustainable Blue Economy Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya in November 2018 dared to put into motion transformative solutions to address the key global challenge of poverty in all its forms and dimensions. I start with this vision as a way to inspire us to act on our commitment for a just, inclusive and sustainable world. However, this vision raises some questions about the realities in 2018 that need to
be addressed if we are to reduce poverty, and what daring and transformative solutions are necessary to get us there.

Any discussion of the Blue Economy is intrinsically linked to the need for action on climate change. Following the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, we now know that we have just 12 years to make massive and unprecedented changes to global energy infrastructure to limit global warming to moderate levels. Staying at or below 1.5°C requires slashing global greenhouse
gas emissions 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050. Meeting this IPCC goal demands extraordinary transitions in transportation; in energy, land, and building infrastructure; and in industrial systems. It means reducing our current coal consumption by one-third. It also demands a vast scale-up of Reward work, not wealth emerging technologies, such as those that remove carbon dioxide directly from the air. All in the very narrow window of the next 12 years while our momentum pushes us in the wrong direction.

A year ago, Oxfam released its report “Reward Work, Not Wealth” at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The report reveals 82 per cent of the wealth generated last year went to the richest 1 per cent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth. Not only that, but 2017 saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, one more every two days, and
billionaires saw their wealth increase by US$762 billion in 12 months. This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over.

Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few. Women are in the worst work. Across the world, women consistently earn less than men and are usually in the lowest paid and least secure forms of work. By comparison, nine out of ten billionaires are men. We need to ensure the Blue Economy does not marginalise women.

Samoa’s Prime Minister has described our blue continent as an increasingly contested space. We know that much of the discourse around oceans governance and the blue economy is really about jostling for control of a space that is important for regional and global order, capitalist accumulation and ecological conservation.

Let’s use the Blue Economy to create a more human economy that puts the interests of ordinary workers and small-scale food producers first, not the highly paid and the owners of wealth. This kind of economy has greater equality as a primary aim. It is about humanity and it could end extreme inequality while guaranteeing the future of our planet.

There are three ways we can make this difference. We need to ensure all workers receive a minimum ‘living’ wage that would enable them to have a decent quality of life, eliminate the gender pay gap and protect the rights of women workers.

We need to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of tax through higher taxes and a crackdown on tax avoidance, and increase spending on public services such as healthcare and education.

And as with climate financing, we believe in the importance of social accountability when it comes to income generation in this sector. The international community, national governments, and regional and international organisations also have an obligation to ensure that the most vulnerable – including women, children, people with disabilities and our elders, are able to benefit from the investments in decarbonising the transport sector and have access to safe, affordable, accessible and transport systems.

If we do this as an international community and press the reset button, we can imagine that future, when a Nobel peace prize is conferred because we worked together for a just, inclusive and sustainable world for all.