With Inequality Rising, Does the World Really Need Billionaires?


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LONDON - As world leaders rub shoulders with billionaire executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of cities around the world demanding action against growing inequality.

The WEF, in the ski resort of Davos-Klosters, has been an annual event for the world's richest elite since its foundation in 1971. It has also become an anathema for those who claim global inequality is out of control. In cities around the world including Nairobi, Delhi, Manila and London, thousands of people joined street protests in the run up to the forum.

Antonia Musonga, who is coordinating protests in Kenya under the Fighting Equality Alliance, explained why his group has taken to the streets of Nairobi.

"The time to abolish billionaires is now," Musonga told VOA. "Because what it means for us is that those people with a lot of wealth, they also have access to power, privilege, influence over our democracy and how we live our lives today."

There are over 2,100 billionaires in the world. A report by charity group Oxfam says they own more wealth than the poorest 4.6 billion people on Earth -  and the gap between rich and poor is widening, with half the world's population living in poverty.

Anti-government demonstrations have erupted in more than 30 countries in recent months, from Chile to France, South Africa to South Korea. Their political aims may vary but they share the same anger, says Oxfam's Amitabh Behar. "

Across the world, there is a narrative of anger," Behar said. "People are coming to the streets and they're essentially asking, 'do we need billionaires in this world?' And that's the critical question that the World Economic Forum should try and answer. The billionaires need to pay their taxes but I think the real responsibility lies with the government. Government needs to ensure that everybody pays the right taxes."

A global survey by the American public relations firm Edelman shows that rising income inequality is undermining confidence in capitalism around the world, with 56 percent of respondents saying it was doing more harm than good, despite a year of economic growth in many developed countries.

"I think people in the developed countries had had an idea that, in fact, you work hard, you're going to make it to the next level in the next generation. That's not true now," says Edelman's Chief Executive Officer, Richard Edelman.

The forum's founder, Klaus Schwab, insists Davos is not just a mountaintop billionaire's party.

"It's a place where you really can talk to the leaders of governments, business and so on, and you'll find good open ears to listen to you and to act together with you," Schwab said on the eve of the summit.

With the focus this year on the climate emergency and campaigner Greta Thunberg a star speaker, Davos is doing its best to shed its image as a hideaway for the super-rich. Most observers say there's some way to go yet.