The economic fallout from the global COVID-19 pandemic risks plunging half a billion more people into extreme poverty, the first time poverty has increased globally in three decades. This would nearly double the 700 million people already living below the World Bank-defined threshold of $1.90 a day.
“We need to be more ambitious about inequality,” said Edward Ndopu, the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, while addressing the session on new standards for social justice at the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit.
“We have counted people moving from $1 to $3 a day and we called that progress,” he said, but the pandemic has shown that $2 or $3 a day is not enough to survive the impacts of coronavirus when added to those of climate change and racial inequality.
Ndopu called on policy-makers and leaders to stop treating the SDGs in a compartmentalized way and to reimagine the world from the perspective of the world’s poorest. “The way we do policy is so far removed from the way people experience global crises,” he said.
Also speaking at this session on the opening day of the Summit was Bo Young Lee, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Uber Technologies. Challenged by moderator Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post that Uber has been accused of virtue signalling, Bo replied: “We welcome your scepticism because that scepticism improves our accountability.”
She described how the company has extended flexible working arrangements to care-givers during the pandemic and is working to overturn “some very arcane laws” that prevent the company offering freelance workers healthcare benefits. She added that Uber is piloting the delivery of prescription drugs, especially for disability communities who, concerned about contracting the virus, “are afraid of the outside world right now”.
Does virtue signalling do enough to make the powerful question their privileges? Laura Morgan Roberts, Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School, answered her own question by criticizing the affirmative action movement for backing off when those in power start to feel uncomfortable. She called for a radical shift in focus towards “helping people of all backgrounds to feel they truly belong in their work organizations… just as we want them to feel safe and belong in society”. That means “not being pulled over, carded and racially profiled” because they are presumed to be lower status through how they look.
When asked by a participant, “Can we truly advance the Black community to more leadership without current (white) leaders stepping back?”, Roberts agreed that little will change unless the “black and oppressed” are given the opportunity to lead.
She cited the answer given by the late Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court bench. Ginsberg replied: “When there are nine.”