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‘Some are in super yachts while others are clinging to the drifting debris’ – Guterres

António Guterres delivered the 2020 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, held online for the first time, and warned that vast inequality is edging the world to ‘breaking point’.


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António Guterres outlined the main drivers of inequality, including systemic racism, the legacy of colonialism, patriarchy, gaps in access to technology, and inequalities in global governance.

The lecture series, staged annually by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on the birthday of the first democratically-elected President of South Africa, aims to encourage dialogue by inviting prominent personalities to discuss major international challenges.

Guterres began by noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted growing inequalities, and exposed the myth that everyone is in the same boat, because “while we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in super yachts, while others are clinging to the drifting debris.”

Global risks ignored for decades – notably inadequate health systems, gaps in social protection, structural inequalities, environmental degradation, and the climate crisis have been laid bare, he noted.

Guterres warned the world is at a “breaking point” and called for a new model for global governance to tackle inequalities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN chief also took aim at the vast inequality of wealth, lamenting that the 26 richest people in the world hold as much wealth as half the global population.

Guterres: The effects of colonialism felt today

Guterres referred to colonialism as a historic aspect of inequality.

“The Global North, specifically my own continent of Europe, imposed colonial rule on much of the Global South for centuries, through violence and coercion.”

This led to huge inequalities within and between countries, including the transatlantic slave trade and the apartheid regime in South Africa, said Guterres, adding that it left a legacy of economic and social injustice, hate crimes and xenophobia, the persistence of institutionalised racism, and white supremacy.

The UN Chief pointed out that inequality takes many forms and that life-chances depend on factors such as gender, family and ethnic background, race and whether or not a person has a disability.

Guterres, who has described himself as a proud feminist, said he was committed to gender equality, and has made gender parity a reality across senior UN posts.

He also announced the appointment of Springbok rugby captain, Siya Kolisi, as a global champion for the Spotlight Initiative which aims to engage men in fighting violence against women and girls.

‘Everyone must pay their fair share’

Turning to contemporary inequality, Guterres said the expansion of trade, and technological progress, have contributed to “an unprecedented shift in income distribution.”

Low-skilled workers are bearing the brunt, he warned, and face an “onslaught” from new technologies, automation, the offshoring of manufacturing and the demise of labour organisations.

Meanwhile, he continued, widespread tax concessions, tax avoidance and tax evasion, as well as low corporate tax rates, mean that there are “reduced resources for social protection, education, and healthcare — services that play an important part in reducing inequality.”

Some countries have allowed the wealthy and well-connected to benefit from tax systems, but “everyone must pay their fair share,” emphasised Guterres, and governments need to tackle the “vicious cycle of corruption which weakens social norms and the rule of law.”

Stand together or fall apart

The UN chief ended his strategic vision statement, by invoking the importance of international cooperation and solidarity.

“We belong to each other,” he said. “We stand together, or we fall apart.”

“The world is at breaking point, and it is time for leaders to decide which path to follow… chaos, division and inequality, or righting the wrongs of the past and moving forward together, for the good of all.”

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