06/15/2012 06:22 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

The Future We Want: Demanding Social Justice and a New Distribution of Opportunity

In coming days, as countries meet for the G-20 and gather in Brazil for Rio+20, the future -- our future -- will be shaped.

With the world striving to define a new agenda for sustainable development we cannot forget or forsake what must underpin any future -- social justice.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." These words were composed in the aftermath of World War II, when many nations were engaged in fierce struggles for national independence. The authors recognized that the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in the world must be built squarely on principles of human equality.

The need for equality is both ethical and pragmatic. From early childhood, we yearn for fairness. To embrace the idea that everyone deserves an equal chance is intrinsic to our common humanity. And evidence shows that the greater the equality within a society, the greater is its stability and the healthier are its citizens. Greater income equality lowers infant and all-cause mortality rates, and people at similar income levels will have lower mortality rates if they live in more equal communities.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz once reflected, "Growing inequality is the flip side of something else: shrinking opportunity ... which means that we are not using some of our most valuable assets -- our people -- in the most productive way possible." But despite the imperative to unleash our collective potential, inequality is on the rise in many parts of the world. A report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that the gap between rich and poor has reached its highest level in over 30 years. In 1979, the top 1 percent of American households accounted for less than 8 percent of total income earned. By 2007, their share had more than doubled, to 17 percent. Meanwhile, the share of national income received by the poorest one-fifth of Americans fell from 7 percent to 5 percent over the same period.

We see growing inequality in other countries, too. And where significant progress is being made, such as in Brazil, the income gap between the richest and poorest 10 percent is still 50 to 1. Middle-income countries like these are home to three-quarters of the world's poor, who struggle on the margins of existence.

Although all people are born equal, our chances to enjoy health, prosperity and justice are fundamentally shaped by circumstance and geography, whereby hundreds of millions of people are condemned to suffering and unrealised potential.

Global distribution of disease provides another lens through which we can view injustice. Africa is home to only 14 percent of the world's population, but accounts for half of all child deaths from diarrhoeal disease and pneumonia. The rate of years of life lost to premature death was seven times higher in Africa than in high-income countries. Today it is extremely rare for a child to be born with HIV in a developed country, but in 2010, more than 350,000 children in Africa were infected with the virus because their families could not access a simple, inexpensive intervention to halt HIV transmission. I am glad to be working with a powerful alliance of global partners who want to end this injustice by 2015.

Discontent can lead to major change, and this gives me hope. A recent international survey found that people's perceptions of economic unfairness are widespread -- and growing. In 17 of 22 countries, over 50 percent of respondents believe economic benefits and burdens are not fairly distributed in their own nation. It is not surprising that we see growing numbers rejecting inequality and calling for solutions that could help create a new distribution of opportunity.

The Arab Spring and Occupy movements reflect people's demands for greater political freedom, but also fairer economic structures and better access to employment, education and health. The OECD has sounded the alarm over the "unraveling" of the social contract, as disenfranchised youth express frustration with the growing gap between people and politics. This new generation will not tolerate power being concentrated and held beyond the reach of common people.

At Rio+20, the international community must seize the opportunity to set a bold agenda for development post-2015. Today, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to undertake a major overhaul that fundamentally shifts the distribution of opportunity and delivers a compact of global solidarity. Such a framework demands that we all work to dismantle policies that perpetuate inequality between countries, and establish dynamic, participatory mechanisms that ensure all countries are investing in human development to advance equality and expand opportunity for people everywhere.

If the international community chooses to seize this moment to promote a new distribution of opportunity -- one that empowers people to challenge and overcome injustice -- we can unleash the potential of individuals and society as a whole to live in health, dignity and justice.

Today, the financial sector has returned to massive profitability in the capital markets across rich and middle-income countries, but millions of people living in poverty have seen no financial recovery -- only unemployment, cuts to AIDS and health programs, and expanding inequality. If the international community adopts a tax of less than half of 1 percent on financial transactions, we can mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars each year to address the global drivers of inequity: AIDS, climate change and poverty.

It is a bold idea that focuses on creating a sustainable and innovative revenue stream from transactions that generate billions of dollars in profits, steering us away from disparity, and toward social justice, equality and fairness.

It is an idea whose time has come.

For more by Michel Sidibe, click here.

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