“Justice delayed is justice denied” is an ancient legal concept, but it’s been cast in stark relief in the last few months. The new pressures of the current pandemic have heightened the reality of inequality and injustice. Systems that most of the world contently ignored have reached a breaking point—or, perhaps, a boiling point. Now is the time that leaders must act to rectify generations of discriminatory systems.
This year, the 2020 Resnick Aspen Action Forum took Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to action: “the fierce urgency of now,” as its theme. Four Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellows from across different Fellowships joined in conversation for its third plenary session. In this series of Spark Talk influenced conversations, Tina Fernandez, a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and the founding CEO of Achieve Atlanta, and James Abraham, a Kamalnayan Bajaj Fellow and the founder and director of Solar Arise, moderated the Fellows as they discussed their experiences confronting injustice in the world and their perspectives on what we owe to each other through four lenses: income inequality, gender parity, action against climate change, and racial equity.
Many people are familiar with the reality of income inequality, but they may not understand how it operates on a global scale. Henry Crown Fellow Kenneth Ofori-Atta, Ghana’s Minister for Finance and Economic Planning, tells the story from an African point of view, where richer nations are “sucking money out of the continent.”
There is, he said, an unofficial “Africa premium,” in which lenders impose a higher cost of capital on African ventures—a surcharge that is completely out of line with historic repayment rates. This has led to undercapitalization and underinvestment, and COVID-19 has only made things worse. While the aggregate economy has been moving briskly for the previous two decades, the costs of the pandemic have erased those gains; GDPs are estimated to be down by 15 percent. The world’s largest economies, putting their reserve currencies to use, have “broken all the rules of classical economics” to save themselves, but this is a luxury that African countries do not have.
The inequalities run deeper than fiat and finance, however. Ofori-Atta argues that there is a troubling devaluing of tangible goods and resources in global trade.
“The fundamental equity is the raw material, but somehow we have upended this to make intellectual capital to be more profitable than that,” he said. He cites the example of cocoa farmers in Ghana; they feed the world’s craving for chocolate and “get snake bites and cutlass wounds” in the process, but reap only a small percentage from the $100 billion international chocolate industry. All that value-add doesn’t leave much for the actual producers. To rebuild Africa’s economy, we need to center and value the producers first.
“We have enough data and compelling business cases and human rights cases that show gender parity has a fundamental bearing on whether or not economies and societies thrive,” said Alexandra Kissling, a Fellow from the Central America Leadership Initiative and the president of the Vital Network in Costa Rica. “Women have a huge impact on growth and competitiveness and readiness.” Unfortunately, she said, “we live in a world in which people have unconscious biases based on male and female stereotypes.”
Societies have harnessed the differences between men and women to build systems of injustice, rather than using those differences to transform society. The math is simple: “When we invest in women, we improve the world. We are half of the world’s available talent.”
Kissling’s experiences working with women who face limited access to opportunities have led her to rethink how we should approach the problem—and her answer is in proximity. “If you want to help a community to transform itself… go and be with them, understand how they live and become empathic, proximate, and then design by putting human needs at the center of the equation.”
Jianyu Zhang is a Fellow in the China Fellowship Program and the managing director of the China Program for the Environmental Defense Fund. He thinks about climate change in two dimensions. The first is spatial, in which the rich countries of the north produce the carbon that disproportionately affects the countries of the south. The second is temporal. Humanity, in aggregate, is drawing all the benefits of fossil fuels right now, “but the consequence is more to be seen for the generations to come, so we’re leaving this issue to our children, our grandchildren, and even for future generations.”
There is a metaphor in the pandemic. “Right now, every country is fighting the pandemic by themselves,” Zhang said. “I think we already seen the shortfall of having a global alliance of fighting back together, quarantine-wise and vaccine-wise. And I think that’s just really a preview of the fight that we’re having with climate change.” He believes we cannot succeed if we’re not united.
“One of the things that’s so pernicious about race is that it operates sort of at an automatic level,” said Stephen DeBerry, a Henry Crown Fellow and the managing partner of Silicon Valley’s Bronze Venture Fund. “It’s something that we’ve been socialized to think or act around, and it’s not something that we’re necessarily being conscious of or intentional about all the time.” This has led to inequitable systems designed around things like the fiction of race—something DeBerry, as a scholar of anthropology, is acutely aware.
But there are other aspects of our current system that create inequity because they are also based on wrong or outdated ideas.
The systems of our everyday lives, he says, were built largely in the context of the industrial era, which had a lot of zero-sum thinking. “It also happened to be, particularly in the United States, the era of legal segregation,” he noted. “And so the fundamental logic that we use to think about systems and the way that things flow starts from a place of assuming that there will be an us-versus-them.”
DeBerry believes we will see a better future, one in which technology eases our workloads, and societal strife. “I think if we do take on this challenge of thinking more inclusively, that’s where we’re headed,” he said. “We’re not headed to a place of conflict and constraint and a lack of resources—we’re headed to a place of ease.”
View the entire discussion, recorded live but distanced, and scroll through the page for other plenaries from this year’s 2020 Resnick Aspen Action Forum.