‘ACTION IN TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY’ Speech delivered by Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima at Progress 2017, Melbourne Town Hall, 6 June.

Media Releases, News article written on the 06 Jun 2017


 Respected leaders



Allow me to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation: the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. They are the custodians of this country and on behalf of all of Oxfam I pay my respects to their Elders, past, present, and future.

I also extend my respects to the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations who may be here today who have preserved their culture and practices across their countries.

And I acknowledge that this land, on which we meet today, was never freely given. It always will be Aboriginal land.


People of Progress:

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. It is an honor for Oxfam.

I know here at Progress I stand before the leading disruptors, thinkers and change-makers of this nation. You are not passive observers to the challenges that Australia and our world faces.

You’re right there: restless for change, on the front-lines, however uncomfortable that might be.


Taking the long flight to Australia, you got me thinking about the moments that shaped me as a young person and activist, and about how … this African girl born to teachers from the little village of Ruti in Uganda got on the journey that led me to lead Oxfam.

I grew up in an environment resisting the violation of human rights, and resisting cruel authoritarianism.

Idi Amin had come to power in Uganda when I was 12 years old. My father was in the opposition. Many people whose rights were violated came to our home. Our home became a centre for resisting oppression from the government. In this environment I really learnt to stand up for myself as a young person – my parents drilled into me: “do not get killed Winnie, but stand up for what is right” !

And I learnt early on how the discrimination of women went to the heart of struggles for a better world. My mother was an economic leader, opening up a hardware shop in our local town: not just the first business on the street owned by a woman, but the first owned by an African. She also was a community leader. With women in my village she stood together for their rights and those of their daughters. I am duty-bound to continue that mission.

My mother founded village women’s clubs fighting for girl’s education and against early marriage. I would join my mother in their activism: from this came the birth of my women’s rights activism – and the conviction that to experience power as a woman, was something both personal and political.

This was a time when the repression of the brutal regime was so often aimed at women and girls: from sexual crimes by soldiers to arbitrary rulings against lipstick, miniskirts or wigs ! With my friends we lived in fear of being kidnapped or assaulted.

The day came that I had to leave suddenly: with my mother I fled into Kenya by night. We were scared because many people had died before us. People helped us along the way to get to a country that at that time welcomed refugees: The United Kingdom.

And it was at the University of Manchester University on a refugee scholarship that I really began to learn who I was politically, and what I stood for.  I read anything I could on social justice and political activism, from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, to the Vietnamese, and the Mozambican revolutionaries.

In the last week of my exams I was contacted by the national resistance army in Uganda, asking me to sign up.  My response at this crossroads in my life was immediate: “Let me finish my two exams – then I’ll join you”. And so it was.


That was what we faced then. What of today?

The world that took me in as a refugee was a world confident from building the foundations of global cooperation and global dignity.

Today it feels like those very foundations are disintegrating beneath our feet.

I seized a welcoming hand when I arrived in the UK with a gratitude that remains deep within me.

But can you just imagine – just imagine – the welcome I’d have received today trying to get to Australia as a young person looking for a future?

And … from that same little village that I grew up in in Ruti, Uganda, all these years on I know so many talented African young girls and boys who … honestly, in fair circumstances could become our world’s greatest scientists, biotechnologists and philosophers and so on!  Yet our unequal world is brutally crushing that possibility for them.  And we all lose out on their brilliance. . They’re among the 800 million people who go hungry every day. Always it is girls that suffer the most:

Every child, every girl that is excluded from school because school is not free is a criminal waste of a future. Instead, they’re fetching the water, carrying the firewood, among the 800 million people who go hungry every day.

And – today I feel a palpable sense of fear but also anger at the direction our world is taking.

I know of the anger that has been felt by many of you in this room following the political shocks that came with moments like the US election or Brexit.

I also recognize how those with similar nationalist and regressive agendas – in places like Australia – seem emboldened to spread fear and seem happy to close off our countries, exactly at a moment when we need to be open.

To many activists across Africa and the developing world these shocks weren’t such a surprise.

To me, we’re seeing just the latest in a series of events stemming from a failed thirty-year economic orthodoxy.

So, I say welcome! To a problem in rich and poor countries we must now confront together.


Friends. The theme you have chosen for Progress 2017 is so fitting: we stand at a crossroads. Our world is at a crossroads.

At this juncture let me suggest what Oxfam sees as a fundamental problem we must contend with: the extreme gap between rich and poor.

8 men! 8 men today own as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity – that’s 3.6 billion people. The top one percent now own more than the bottom 99 percent.

Ours is truly an economy built for and by the one percent – and rigged against the majority, against women, against everyone else.

From Melbourne to Mozambique, our economic model marches to the beat of those with extreme wealth and extreme power.  Their path at this crossroads is the beaten track: the path which our economies have marched down around the world.

It makes no economic or moral sense to have so much wealth in the hands of so few people. I must tell you: this path has only disdain for the great causes of our world, – the fight against poverty and the fight for human rights and gender equality.

Today, in far too many cases money buys impunity from justice, elections, a pliant media or favourable laws. This in turn perpetuates policies which concentrate wealth, increase economic inequality, and enable poverty to persist.

President Obama was right to say in quoting Oxfam’s statistic that “A world in which 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99% will never be stable.”

In my own continent of Africa, decades of record GDP growth benefited a wealthy elite but are leaving so many ordinary Africans behind. Poverty has declined more slowly in Africa than any other region – in fact because the population continued to grow there were 50 million more people living in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012 than there were in 1990.

I saw last month what the most extreme end of the inequality spectrum looks like when I travelled to Northeast Nigeria.

This is Africa’s largest economy. Today it faces famine. Nigeria is one of the few countries where the number of people living in poverty increased, from 69 million in 2004 to 112 million in 2010 – a rise of 69 percent.

Ten million children are out of school. One in ten do not reach their fifth birthday.  All the recent economic growth in Nigeria has benefited the top 10%. The country’s richest man would have to spend $1 million a day for 42 years to exhaust his fortune!

But this isn’t just about Africa and the developing world.

Astronomical wealth that leaves the rest behind is global. Here in Australia the richest 1 per cent of people own – wait for it … – more wealth than the poorest 70 per cent of Australians combined.

At the same time, the wage gap between women and men in Australia is around 16 percent – and has wavered at about this level, without improvement, for the past two decades!

Many of you in this room will also be active supporters – as Oxfam is – of the Close the Gap campaign to level the health and life-expectancy gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This inequality gap, sadly, is also far from being closed.

Friends: It is time to raise our ambition on tackling the problem of extreme inequality. Here, in Australia, and around the world.


We know no amount of charity, or tinkering with a few friendly policies, will bridge this great structural divide that grows wider and wider, between rich and the poor.

Nor is this great divide part of some natural phenomena falling from the sky that we have no control over! It’s the product of political and economic choices.

Governments around the world have taken more of a back seat, and a privileged few – especially those who had ready access to wealth – were able to push ahead, driving today’s inequality crisis.  In giving economic freedom to those at the top, it is as if governments surrendered the needs and freedoms of the rest.  It is as if the teacher has retreated to the classroom, and left the bullies in charge of the playground!

There is so much you can do from countries like yours. Today I propose we make a new choice: that we “take back control”.

It means we turn our backs on this abusive economic model and break a new path.

We want to put forward and build together the ideas for a different economic model. One that tackles rising inequality, believes in the power of people, and – by its very design – realizes the potential of women and girls.

It’s a forward-looking economy. The kind of economy with the businesses that power opportunity: ones that create decent jobs and pay decent wages, that restore the environment rather than just extract from it, and that treat women and girls equally.

It’s an economy in which governments defend and respect the voice of citizens and listen to ordinary people, not powerful elites with their money and their lobbyists.

It’s an economy truly designed to realize and respect human rights. A more human economy…

——–TAX, WAGES——–

There are a few areas key to the economy of the 1 percent – which a human economy would redesign. These, too, are issues that our activism can break the deadlock on.

Let me pick an area where you can lead: The means by which the super-rich hold their money and avoid paying their taxes. I know many of you in this room have already joined this fight.

Friends, around the globe wealthy individuals are hiding $7.6 trillion offshore, according to one estimate. That’s more than the entire wealth of Australia!

Rich corporations are hiding far more – and that’s estimated to be costing developing countries well over $100 billion dollars every year.

Australia could be a leader in tackling this crisis. Some of Oxfam’s most recent research shows that the most powerful Australian-based multinationals are dodging around $3 billion of tax annually in developing countries as a whole. And they’re just as extractive at home: dodging taxes to the tune of an estimated $6 billion Australian dollars annually.

Just imagine the lives this money could save and the opportunities it could unleash.  In Africa, we wouldn’t need to have all those girls and boys fetching water and carrying firewood like they do in my village.

Taxes are not the only area where powerful elites write the rules in their own favour. Working people, and particularly women, sit at the bottom of big corporations that are keeping working conditions poor – and also hiding their taxes.

Nowhere is this clearer then for the hard-working women in factories producing clothes for high street brands like H&M and GAP, and Australian brands like Bonds and Just Jeans. Oxfam works on labour rights with these women. They work in developing countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Vietnam, six days a week, sometimes seven, sometimes working up to 23 hours a day. They earn less than $4 a day for their labour. They struggle to make ends meet. They frequently fall into debt.  If they get sick they don’t get paid, and if they get pregnant they lose their job.

This is where we can start to rewire our economies and turn them into human economies.

This part of the world knows better than most the importance of minimum wages. This state (the state of Victoria) was the world’s second place to see a minimum wage instituted. Your friends, the kiwis over in New Zealand were first to implement a minimum wage in 1894. People, in this region, organized to make this happen. The world followed.


You may not be surprised to hear that 80 percent of garment workers across Asia are women. Or how societies where the gap between rich and poor is greatest also see higher gender inequality.

These women make many of the items you and I use everyday: the clothes we wear, the plates and cups we drink from, the electronics you are using right now to tweet or comment on this talk!

The fight against economic inequality and gender inequality are sister struggles. This economic model is rigged against women as it is rigged against the majority – where rich men thrive on disempowering women at the bottom of the economic pile.


The power of people’s movements – of activists like yourselves – is needed to fundamentally change this economic model.

The stakes are high. Within this fraught, political space, the power of people is under attack.

We’re seeing how the powerful do all they can to silence people’s voices. There was a 22% increase in restrictions on people’s rights to voice and to free assembly in its latest survey of 141 countries according to the International Trade Union Confederation.

And at its most deadly: being an activist speaking out can be enough to put your life in danger.

No statistic will speak to the achievement of Berta Caceres and people like her. Berta was an indigenous leader in Honduras and Oxfam’s ally. I travelled to Hondas some months ago visit her family. She was brutally assassinated last year for defending her communities’ land rights against powerful interests. Her murder reflects a failure in governance – that which silences, criminalizes and kills citizens who dissent.

And even here in Australia, we have witnessed an attempt to stifle the voices of environmental defenders – struggling to protect our planet and people from the worst impacts of climate change.

Your Australian Human Rights Commission has also been the subject of attack – for speaking out about the abuses faced by children in Australia’s cruel off-shore refugee detention regime.

It is no surprise. Your power in this assembly, standing here today as a group of progressive leaders, is a threat to the winners of this rigged economy. Following down the path of the status quo would have been easy. We will be pushed back breaking our new path by those elites who believe in the sanctity of their privilege.

And it is, too, an assembly that can create the seeds of change.


Let’s embrace all that anger out there. We’re right to be angry. That anger can change the world. Let’s also stand in solidarity with people around the world – link up our struggles between people together in places as disparate as Africa and Australia, the UK and the Pacific. And let’s especially depend on the powerful and creative energies of the young people in this room and around the world.

We have already seen examples of just how powerful we can be.

The People’s Climate Marches were kicked off around the world here in Australia – and saw millions of people come together to make a stand ahead of the historic Paris Climate Agreement.

It is an agreement we must now hold Governments to everywhere – we all depend on it not being broken.

More recently look at how activists just a couple of months ago in over fifty countries got behind the women’s strike – and I was proud that Oxfam put its support behind it.

Or look at the movement to change forever the way big companies and the very rich can avoid paying their fair share of tax – this fight is playing out in rich and poor countries alike around the world. With the Panama Papers and the coming together of academics, journalists and civil society around the globe to campaign for change.

Friends: I I urge you: please, go forward with your peers around the world and challenge the inequality of our current economic model.

Have hope. Be optimistic. Be resilient.

Let us begin to forge a better future, for the lost scientists, for the women of the world, for dignity. For all of us.

Thank you.