We Are Nothing Without Others
9 June 2017 at 3:14 pm
Winnie Byanyima is the executive director of Oxfam International and was the keynote speaker at this years Progress 2017. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Born in Uganda, Byanyima served 11 years in the Ugandan Parliament where she led Uganda’s first parliamentary women’s caucus, championing ground-breaking gender equality provisions in the county’s 1995 post-conflict constitution.
She co-founded the 60-member Global Gender and Climate Alliance and chaired a UN task force on gender aspects of the Millennium Development Goals, and on climate change.
She has been leading Oxfam International since 2013 and last week she flew to Australia to deliver the keynote speech for Progress 2017.
In this week’s Changemaker, Byanyima calls for hope in times of despair and outlines how everyday Australians can make a difference.
What message do you have for an Australian audience?
You have a great country, a rich country. Australia needs to be a bigger leader on the global stage particularly in the area of tackling climate change. We need all the other countries to step up, not just in words but to be more ambitious in targets to reduce carbon emissions, and to put down the resources to help the poorer countries adapt to climate change. Australia can be a stronger and bigger leader in this area.
How can an ordinary citizen make a difference?
On your own every individual can feel helpless, even a person with a big position like I have in Oxfam, you can feel hopeless on your own, but you can make a difference with others. The message to every citizen is be part of a collective; work on something that is bigger than yourself.
Make a difference in the world by belonging to an organisation that is fighting for a cause you connect with very strongly. It might be fighting poverty, it might be rights of women, it might be children with disabilities. Be part of a cause that is greater than just you, you are stronger with others.
One of the things that came across very strongly in your speech at Progress 2017 was a need to challenge the existing economic model, how can we do this?
The current economic model works for big companies and traps so many others in poverty. We know that the big companies have created new rules that allow them to hide their profits and not pay their fair share in taxes. So governments depend on the taxes from poor people and miss out on the big profits from big companies.
So you can be part of a movement to increase transparency and force the powerful big companies to pay their fair share. You can be a part of movements that are fighting for the rights of workers, who are in the supply chains of business and don’t get paid a fair price for their produce or labour. You can be part of movements for young people who want to have a stronger voice in political decisions. There are many ways you can join these movements.
In addition to joining these movements are there other ways? How about our power as consumers?
Absolutely. You have raised a very important area, all of us are consumers and there is a power in ensuring that the products and services you buy are sourced in a fair way; that they pay fair wages in their supply chain, to force them to be environmentally sustainable, to use water in a careful way, to pass the carbon targets that our governments have committed to. Consumers now have a lot of power and we see a lot more younger people using their consumer power to influence business and political decision makers. This is a huge positive.
Is purchasing ethical products enough?
Of course it is not enough. Pressure needs to be applied from a number of angles. Consumer power is one form of power you can use but it’s not enough to influence organisations. The important thing is that as a citizen you can find your greatest power by connecting to a group. A consumer group, a women’s group, a workers group or just a community group.
You can find your voice by connecting with others.
A lot of political commentators are saying there is a rise in narcissism and our society is seeing the rise of the individual. What are the implications of this?
You know I don’t think a human being can find their true potential without finding a connection with others. Individualism is something that had grown particularly in the western world and we see a lot of its negative consequences. From where I come from there is an African philosophy that is about people and humanity: you are defined by your connection with others. You are because you are part of a community. That’s what we believe. I think all we have achieved throughout the last century with the United Nations is about that, our common humanity. We are nothing except when we see ourselves with others. I completely don’t connect to those who believe in being narrow and are individualistic in their views.
There are people who view our current global climate as a cause for despair, you certainly mentioned a feeling of anger in your Progress 2017 speech, how do you view our current situation?
I am much more optimistic. Look at what we have achieved, refugee law, women’s rights, rights for gay and lesbian, rights of workers – for me, the 20th century was great progress for human rights and that is what we have to defend now. For me, the backlash from the right-wing populous is short term. It is something we must step forward and oppose and keep the march forward for a more just world, a more equal world, a more sustainable world.