19 January 2016

Is a More Equitable Society a More Peaceful Society? UNAI-sponsored Conference Examines the Links between Poverty and Conflict

On 11 and 12 January 2016 more than two dozen scholars from universities, think tanks and non-governmental organizations gathered at United Nations headquarters for a two day conference examining the role poverty and inequality play in fostering conflict. 

The conference, co-sponsored by United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and People Programme International, brought together scholars from various disciplines including economics, sociology, psychology, politics and cultural analysis to discuss the causes of poverty and inequality, what could be done to combat these issues and what role the United Nations could play in the process.   

The United Nations celebrated its 70th birthday last year and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals in September, providing an opportunity to focus global attention on inequality as an impediment to achieving peace and security. 

Conference attendees raised and sought to answer questions on the relationship between poverty, inequality, and political violence, globally and on regional and local levels, and what relevant causes and contexts can help us understand how poverty and inequality contribute to this conflict.

Conference participant Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, demonstrated how income inequality often intersects with other types of societal exclusion and discrimination by analyzing the income gap between men and women in the United States.

According to the White House, full-time working women earn 77 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, which means female employees have to work approximately 60 additional days, or three months, in order to make the same amount of money as their male counterparts.

Francis Piven, professor of Political Science and Sociology at City University of New York, said that increasing jobs is not the direct solution to decrease the poverty rate given that most poor people do work, but at low wage jobs that offer little opportunity to improve their standard of living.  Instead, she suggested government should combine both cash assistance and more job opportunities to make a measurable difference in the lives of the working poor.  

But for some conference participants, research, education, critical thinking skills and problem solving hold the key to ending the inequality that can lead to conflict.  “One approach could be to turn the research studies and reports on topics such as potable water, clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and rural healthcare, among others, housed at the United Nations and related to the Sustainable Development Goals, into accessible information available to young people trained in entrepreneurship. These new entrepreneurs would study the techniques of problem-solving: learning to place oneself in another’s position, learning to define the problem, learning to ask for ideas, creating and testing a plan, etc.,” said Robert A. Scott, President Emeritus of Adelphi University. 

“They could then be prepared to turn the information held by the United Nations into business plans that would attract investors interested in addressing the issues of poverty and inequality by creating new opportunities for business development and employment. If successful in reducing poverty and mitigating the effects of inequality, these initiatives could also help reduce conflicts over scarce resources, whether water, land or oil,” he added.

Ramu Damodaran, Director of UNAI, summed up the conference by noting, "UNAI offers a forum for discussion of important issues, but the idea really is to sustain the conversation beyond these halls to make a lasting impact in people’s lives."