On April 28th and 29th, Harvard’s Center for International Development (CID) and the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy co-hosted CID’s flagship annual Global Empowerment Meeting (GEM22). Top business leaders, policymakers, and academics came together in this two-day in-person conference to discuss the theme, “Healing an Unequal World”. While the two days brought to stark relief the pervasive issue of inequality in each facet of humanity, they also allowed for reflection and convening towards change.  

Welcome Remarks: Doug Elmendorf, Dean, HKS (Harvard Kennedy School) & Asim I. Khwaja, Director, Center for International Development

Panel Session One—The Politics of Inequality: 

  • Jacob Hacker, Stanley Resor Professor of Political Science at Yale University
  • Pratap Mehta, previous president and chief executive of Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
  • Alisha Holland, Associate Professor, Department of Government, Harvard University
  • Moderator: Dani Rodrik, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy, HKS

Setting the stage for GEM22, the first panel opened with, “inequality not only creates serious economic problems, but it also damages our society and damages our politics.” Looking at the U.S., Jacob Hacker remarked that rising inequality in has prompted a significant decline in the quality of our democracy, as leaders have become less responsive to the concerns of Americans. In the case of Latin America, Alisha Holland noted that high inequality has left disenfranchised constituents disengaged from politics and with diminished expectations from government. Surprisingly, when inequality is reduced and the middle class grows, greater demands for civic and economic inclusion tend to arise. As Pratap Mehta observed, India is experiencing a similar reality; economic inequality has not directly translated into political discontent. Rather, inequality has eroded the quality of democracy by breaking the social contract that economic power should not automatically translate into cultural or social power. The key lesson from this panel is that the relationship between politics and inequality is neither straightforward nor formulaic. 

Panel Session Two—On Macro-Policy: 

  • Antoinette Sayeh, Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund [Virtual Panelist]
  • Gordon Hanson, Peter Wertheim Professor in Urban Policy at HKS
  • Lucas Chancel, Co-Director at World Inequality Lab, Affiliate Professor at Sciences Pro, and Associate Researcher at Paris School of Economics at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations
  • Moderator: David Deming, Academic Dean and Director Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at HKS

How do growing concentrations of income and wealth affect the global economy, and what should we do to address it? Antionette Sayeh highlighted the critical need to address global inequality due to the long-lasting impact of the pandemic. Outlining the difficult balancing act for governments and central banks to control inflation and create inclusive fiscal policies, Sayeh called for the wider international community to help the most vulnerable economies. Gordon Hanson remarked on the two goals macro policy should achieve: risk management for vulnerable households in the short run and foundations for future economic growth in the long run. Macro-policy should act as a kind of wage insurance to protect people from income shocks; it should also be a safeguard for people to save and invest in themselves and their children. Finally, Lucas Chancel pointed out that despite technological changes, there is a significant inequality disparity between the U.S. and Europe, demonstrating the importance of macrosocial policies. Chancel then discussed macro policy design methods, calling for less focus on GDP statistics and more on segmented, granular data of the target population. 

Panel Session Three—Strengthening Health Systems and Improving Health Equity: 

  • Louise C. Ivers, Executive Director of the Center for Global Health and the David Bangsberg MD, MPH Endowed Chair in Global Health Equity at Mass General Hospital; Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute and a Professor of Medicine and Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School; and a practicing physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Mass General
  • Mary Travis Bassett, New York State's Health Commissioner [Virtual Panelist]
  • Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations [Virtual Panelist]
  • Opening: Marcella Alsan Professor of Public Policy, HKS 
  • Moderator: Jason Beaubien, NPR Global Health and Development Correspondent

How do systemic inequalities drive differences in health outcomes around the world and what needs to be done to shrink these disparities? Panelist Louise C. Ivers cogently argued that “inequity happens by choice, not by chance,” and the rest of the esteemed panel agreed that the inequitable COVID response was managed by the privileged but suffered by the poor. Thus, to prepare for the next global health emergency, nations must commit to providing universal access to healthcare, turning away from a system that puts profits over people’s lives, and building the political will to do what is necessary and possible to solve health inequity.  

Panel Session Four—Quality Education for All: 

  •  Rukmini Banerji, Chief Executive Officer of Pratham Education Foundation [Virtual Panelist] 
  • Bridget Long, Dean of Faculty of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education 
  • Jishnu Das, Professor at McCourt School of Public Policy and The Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
  • Moderator: Asim I. Khwaja,  Director of the Center for International Development and the Sumitomo-Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development Professor of International Finance and Development at the Harvard Kennedy School, and co-founder of the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP).

What effect has COVID had on education? Is it like a dye that illuminates hidden issues, a chisel with the power to destroy, or a receding wave that reveals the wreckage that lies beneath the sea? These are just some of the colorful ways that the noontime panel made meaning out of the new threats and opportunities in education due to COVID. From kindergarten all the way to the tertiary level, educators, students, and policymakers are faced with issues and questions for which there are no simple solutions: should we have stopped schooling during the pandemic? How do we recover from the massive, worldwide learning loss? What can we do to reverse education’s role in perpetuating inequality? Amidst these questions, panelist Rukmini Banerji reminds educators everywhere: seize the moment! There is a window of opportunity to do education better than it has ever been done before.  

Panel Session Five—From Skills to Jobs: 

  • Stefano Scarpetta, Director for Employment, Labour, and Social Affairs at the OECD
  • William (Bill) R. Kerr, D’Arbeloff Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Bill is the Unit Head of Entrepreneurial Management, co-director of Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work initiative, and the faculty chair of the Launching New Ventures program
  • Annamaria Lusardi, University Professor of Economics and Accountancy at the George Washington School of Business (GWSB)
  • Moderator: Peter Q. Blair, Assistant Professor of Education, HGSE

What is the relationship between skills, credentials, and jobs, and how can it be changed to better support equitable hiring practices and the future of work? The diverse panel of experts opened the discussion with a few critiques of the status quo: the commodification of credentials reinforces inequalities in the labor market, as non-credentialed workers are shut out from certain opportunities even when they have the skills necessary to do the job. The panelists then turned to the topic of training and retraining opportunities for the current labor force and discussed how to make sure these opportunities are available and useful to all workers. They explored how to truly address existing skills gaps while also recognizing the value of skills acquired on the job. Lastly, the panel added that decisions made about skills and careers are inherently financial decisions, for financial literacy helps people evaluate the tradeoffs of training and job decisions. However, there is great inequality in financial literacy amongst workers, which reinforces the gaps between so-called “high skilled” and “low skilled” workers. 

Panel Session Six—Gender and Inequality: 

  • Katherine B. Coffman, Piramal Associate Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
  •  Isabel Saint Malo, former Vice President of Panama 
  • José Francisco Aguirre, Executive Director, Fundación Santo Domingo
  • Moderator: Hannah Riley Bowles, Co-Director of the Women and Public Policy Program & Co-Director of the Center for Public Leadership

In the final panel of the conference, experts in the fields of gender and inequality came together to unpack global gender gaps, particularly focalizing on how the pandemic has heightened many systemic issues related to gender. They analyzed different issues such as poverty, promotions, and representation, through a gendered lens as gender disparities are common among these fields today. There are many solutions that were offered to address inequalities, including building platforms in alliance with private entities to mitigate harassment, eliminating penalties that prevent women from participating despite qualifications, collecting data on gender inequities, and increasing the representation of women in the governance of companies.  


Summaries authored by CID Student Ambassadors