U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. Photo by: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA

Well that didn’t last long! Post-election relief is drifting back to anxiety again: Will a Biden-Harris administration deliver much for those on the wrong end of poverty, injustice, and inequality around the world?

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That debate is already raging in development circles and reflects a wider argument between progressives and moderates: Is it better to seek and celebrate incremental reforms with the current range of possibilities, or shift that range entirely? Is a deep “Power Switch that reverses extreme inequality a possibility or pipe dream?

This debate between international activists will reshape our world, one way or the other.

Moderates concede that fighting global inequality won’t be high on Joe Biden’s agenda. With tattered diplomatic relationships and a bloated defense apparatus increasingly fretting about China’s economic power, moderate internationalists want to push Biden for “reasonable” development wins: some foreign assistance from the next stimulus, a stronger profile for USAID and other development bodies, no more stigmatizing multilateral bodies and cooperative leadership on vaccines, and climate and foreign aid investments.

In short, a restoration of international civility and faith in institutions that the Donald Trump administration did not share.

Progressive activists are in a different place. They want a reckoning and are willing to be “unreasonable” in their expectations. They helped elect Biden not to restore but to transform old rules and institutions. They want a re-think of the role of the United States in international development. They question whether current U.S.-championed global economic norms, investments, and institutions are going to make enough difference with the economic, planetary, and human crises now upon us. They fret that vaccine nationalism by rich countries and communities will leave billions of people waiting to kickstart their lives after this pandemic.

I can’t pretend to be neutral here. I believe that the kind of power and money that will matter most next year is finite and redistributing it to where it is needed most will demand transformative leadership. In the face of a global economic downturn, a planet under existential threat, a pandemic that may signal a new “normal” in global health, and human rights under siege at home and abroad, there will be a power switch between the haves and have-nots in the next four years. The only meaningful question is which way it goes.

If Biden’s more conservative instincts dominate, the rich north will be awash in vaccines while remaining unaffordable or unavailable for most people on earth. His efforts to kick start global growth will enrich billionaires and corporations while redistributive innovations will languish as ideologically suspect and our world cracks further from fossil-fueled expansion.

The decades where “growing the pie” was a salve for unfair distribution are over. How the economic, climate, and health pie is shared matters now more than ever. If 2021 divides our world even further, I believe the U.S. will lose more influence. It will experience a slow death for 70-year old multilateral institutions, a revolt by southern governments who have other choices and youth activists who won’t wait for more post-colonial charity, and yes, a very hard time for billions on the wrong end of austerity, economic inequality, and autocracy.

So what’s the way forward? Biden and Kamala Harris should put rising global inequality on the front in their first year. They need transformative investments, institutions, leadership, and authority behind U.S. soft power. They need to work with others now to find trillions in debt relief, global reserves, tax reforms, and a different order of magnitude in foreign assistance.

In short, they need to put the global economy back into balance. That will take a power switch between U.S. development, diplomacy, and defense institutions to avoid even greater reliance on our military to tackle growing anger and hostility.

President-elect Biden may be a reasonable internationalist, but he is also a lifelong politician. He will only lead a transformative struggle with the winds of change at his back. My moderate friends don’t disagree about this or what the world needs. They just don’t want to waste energy and credibility on what is not politically feasible now.

But if activists take refuge in the “politics of the possible” and rest on recent victories over xenophobia, racism, sexism, and economic division, millions will remain in lockdown in Kibera, Orangi Town, and Neza slums throughout 2021. Billions more will be left behind. The relentless growth of global inequality demands a power switch between the haves and have nots. Anything less won’t be enough for the future health of the U.S. or the world.

Paul O’Brien will be speaking at Devex World. He is also happy to debate his new book “Power Switch with Devex readers, either here in the comments below, on Twitter @dpaulobrien, or at redistributepower@gmail.com. Views expressed in the book are his own and do not necessarily reflect Oxfam positions.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Paul O'Brien

    Paul O’Brien is vice president of Oxfam America. He is the author of "Power Switch: How we can reverse extreme inequality."