“We cannot uplift everyone while making the multi-billionaires even richer”

Erik Solheim chairs the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee, which groups the world’s main donors to evaluate global development and contribute to major commitments such as the Millennium Development Goals. Here, he talks to Equal Times about what the fight against inequality should look like.


Before appearing at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) World Congress in Berlin this May, you tweeted that trade unions are “crucial” for development – how so?

We are living in a time of unprecedented progress for sure, but we need to uplift everyone. We need to create jobs. People cannot live from handouts alone. Jobs are at the centre of trade unionism, and job creation and decent jobs are at the centre of development.

There is a very strong case to be made for less inequality in the world. A moral case, for sure, as well as an economic and ecological case. More equal societies do better and are more productive. We cannot uplift everyone while making the multi-billionaires even richer at the same time. So trade unions are at the centre of demanding more equal societies globally, but for sure at a national level.


But how can we make sure aid lifts up everyone in society, and does not exacerbate inequality? In Ghana, for example, there are concerns about aid money going to private schools at the expense of the state system.

I do not know that particular example, but indeed, you need to bring everyone into education. However, you also need to improve the quality of education. You also need to have better higher education because unless you have good higher education you won’t get the teachers.

Teachers are at the core of it. Education is not about textbooks or school buildings: the main issue is good quality teachers. If you look to every successful nation in education in the world, that’s the core.


What can governments do through their aid budget to encourage companies to invest in developing countries?

Aid budgets can take some of the risk in the most difficult areas. The vast majority of investments are in middle-income countries, which is fine, they are needed. But in the most difficult places in Africa you need to use the aid budget as a risk-alleviation tool because business as such cannot have the long-term, normal profit – I’m not speaking about extreme or unrealistic profit. And aid budgets can take some of that risk, in cooperation with private business.


The IMF’s Doing Business report promoted countries with low labour regulations as a good place to invest. Is there a tension between strong unions and companies appraising a country and deciding to invest somewhere else with weaker labour laws?

I doubt that you will find a general tendency there. Brazil has been a big favourite for multinationals for investment over the last ten years, and at the same time had huge success both in reducing inequality and in improving the lot of the poor. They have put minimum wages in place, they have doubled them, in fact, and they have put this Bolsa Familia (family grant) for those basically outside the labour market. Brazil has been enormously successful in this.

Also, if we look at China there is a rapidly increasing number of people who are organised and moving into collective bargaining and I see no tendency there for people not wanting to invest in China.

There may be difficulties when trade unions in some cases are not just trade unions but also tools for different political parties and for other purposes. You can see this in some cases where you are only striking against some parties and not against others. That is negative trade unionism, and this is important to avoid.


Is there scope for aid to go directly to trade unions?

Sure, it is happening for a lot of purposes like training and capacity building. The most successful trade unions in some of the developed nations are also doing programmes to help weaker trade unions in developing nations.