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The Summit of the Americas Must Focus on Economic Inequality

04/07/2015 05:41 EDT | Updated 06/07/2015 05:59 EDT
RODRIGO ARANGUA via Getty Images
Workers give the last details in the Atlapa Convention center for the upcoming VII Summit of the Americas to take place next April 10 and 11, in Panama City, on April 6, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ Rodrigo ARANGUA (Photo credit should read RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Seventh Summit of the Americas will take place in Panama on April 10-11, 2015 and it is set to be an historic occasion, given Cuba's participation for the first time since the founding summit in 1994. In the 2012 Summit, all Latin American and Caribbean countries voted to give Cuba a seat at the table. The United States and Canada opposed Cuban participation.

I will be following this year's summit live. When I arrived in Panama City Monday, it was clear that Cuba's presence at the summit is generating significant media attention. Another major focus is on the 10 million-strong petition that president Maduro of Venezuela is planning to give to President Obama -- demanding an end to sanctions against Venezuela. And extreme inequality, while not garnering the high profile seen at the recent Davos summit, is nonetheless a profoundly important issue for the region. The summit's theme is "Prosperity with Equity" and it remains to be seen government leaders will take this opportunity to commit to concrete actions in addressing the extreme economic inequality in the region.

Although Latin America and the Caribbean have been able to make some headway in reducing economic inequality, it is still the world's most unequal region. Approximately 167-million people now live in poverty, while a further 200 million are considered economically vulnerable. Meanwhile, the richest 1 per cent have continued accumulating huge amounts of wealth. Oxfam's analysis of the Forbes Billionaires list shows that in 2002 there were 25 billionaires in the region with a combined wealth of $60.8B. By 2014 this number ballooned to 114 billionaires with combined wealth of $439.55B.

Inequality and poverty go hand in hand. And extreme inequality threatens to roll back gains in reducing regional poverty. It's no coincidence that Latin America, the most unequal region in the world, is also the region with the greatest levels of insecurity in the world, outside of active war zones

At this year's Summit of the Americas, government leaders will work to enhance collaboration on education, health care, energy, the environment, immigration, security, citizen participation and democratic governance. In the run up to the summit, governments have been negotiating the Mandates for Action as the foundation for summit deliberations and prospective agreements.

However, much more will be needed to address extreme inequality than what is contemplated in the Mandates for Action. At Oxfam, we believe that leaders must commit to: greater investment in health, education and social protection; alternatives to primary commodities exports as the engine of growth; diversified job creation policies and programs for youth and women; closing the wage gap between men and women and making the fiscal system a more effective tool in the fight against inequality.

Some of the solutions that Oxfam proposes include the following:

- Balance domestic tax systems toward more progressive models. Currently, more than half of all tax revenue in Latin American Countries comes from consumption. This is regressive, as the poorest devote a greater share of their income to consumption than the rich;

- Diversify the sources of revenue and reduce dependence on natural resources;

- Ensure prudent, effective corporate taxation and reduce the race to the bottom on tax incentives;

- Fight tax evasion and avoidance;

- Support an international tax summit aimed at reforming the global financial system.

Oxfam is calling for a World Tax Summit to take place in Addis Ababa in July this year, encouraging all countries to address the limits of the current system and embrace a new and fundamentally democratic approach to ending inequality in a globalized economy.

I will participate at the Forum of Civil Society Organizations, where members of civil society organizations will demand that leaders act in the interest of the many -- not the few: We will put forward sound proposals and reforms that, once implemented, would benefit all Latin Americans equally. Working in the public interest and tackling extreme inequality should be the guiding principles behind the agreements and strategies at the Summit of the Americas.

I will be following the IIV Summit live, representing Oxfam-Québec,Oxfam Canada and CCIC's Americas Policy Group, a group of approximately 40 Canadian civil society policy group focused on development and social justice issues in the Americas.

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