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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Changing the Rules

November 30, 2012 ·

The rules aren't broken--they're fixed.

inequality-tax-shelters-shadow-economy-the-rulesqThe rules aren’t broken—they’re fixed.

They have created a social and economic system that does not work for the majority of the world’s people. The world’s 1,226 billionaires have more combined wealth than 3.5 billion people – half the entire planet’s population. The richest 10 percent of the world’s population takes 90 percent of the world’s income.  

The scale of inequality and poverty can appear overwhelming and unchangeable. Yet it is not inevitable. It is the result of conscious decisions by the people who make and enforce the rules we all live by – financial rules that create tax havens for the rich so they can extract wealth from countries with secrecy and impunity; land rights that allow governments to sell their citizens’ land from underneath their feet without consent or compensation; and trade rules that allow rich countries to sell their goods at subsidized rates while enforcing strict rules that prevent poor countries from competing in the global marketplace. These rules are made by people, and people can change them.

If we want to change rules that have been written by the few and for the few, we must look outside existing power structures to the power of the many. We know from history that when people demand their rights, they can move mountains and change whole systems.

Right now, there is a special moment of opportunity. Throughout the world, citizens have access to information in ways once unimaginable. Affordable technologies are revolutionizing our ability to communicate with one another and act collectively.

The opportunities for new citizen-powered movements to become catalysts for change have never been greater than today. Powerful elites are losing the structural advantages they once enjoyed to maintain secrecy, restrict information, and even to suppress popular movements.

This month, we are launching a new platform called /The Rules to help mobilize ordinary citizens around the world to challenge and change the rules – the most basic drivers of inequality and poverty. We have a special focus on organizing with people and grassroots movements in countries such as Brazil, India, Kenya, and South Africa. We are creating new ways for people to speak up using simple, cheap technologies like basic mobile phones.

The first campaign for /The Rules will target the system of tax havens, starting with one of the biggest all, the City of London. Tax havens are the product of rules that have been rigged by powerful corporations, lobbyists, lawyers, bankers, accountants, and government officials. They allow a tiny global elite to extract trillions of dollars from rich and poor countries alike, starving national treasuries and choking off funds essential for schools, medicines, social programs, and infrastructure.

New research has blown the lid on this secretive shadow economy, with at least $21 trillion estimated to have been stowed away in these tax havens – 10 percent of all the world’s privately held wealth. This is also more than 10 times the total value of development aid given to the world’s poorer nations in the past 20 years. The few who benefit from these rigged rules will fight long and hard to preserve them, but they can be defeated.

Rules express and entrench much of the injustice in our world today. But rules can be changed, and the opportunity to make those changes has never been greater. Instruments of power once monopolized by elites are now available to ordinary citizens – and we are beginning to use them. That gives us reason for hope. 

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