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The unequal state of the world

The state of the world is not just one thing.

Each of the five big issues I have been highlighting in my recent blogs (wealth and poverty, war and peace, human rights and democracy, health of people and health of the planet) and in The State of the World Atlas is complex, prospects for progress on them are not the same for each, and the interactions between them add further layers of uncertain outcome. At the same time, people and their circumstances are highly diverse and a world system that gives a perfectly satisfactory state of affairs to one group of people is torturing another.

So I thought that in the next few weeks I would highlight a few of the facts and sometimes paradoxes about our condition today, that struck me as I prepared the atlas.

Readers of the atlas will know I am a qualified optimist. On three of the five big issues (peace, democracy and people’s health) progress has been made but there remains much to do. On the other two – wealth and poverty and the health of the planet – we are currently heading in the wrong direction. And among the biggest obstacles to making further progress is inequality.


Some inequality is all right, necessary, arguably even positive. It provides incentives for personal improvement. But when 0.000016% of the world’s population holds 16% of its economic output, something grotesque has happened. The relationship between those two figures is 1 million to one. So if you thought (as I do not) that everybody should own exactly the same amount, that 0.000016% of the world’s population owns a million times more than they ought to.

Increasing life expectancy is a good indicator of social progress and because it’s an average, it’s a reasonable indicator about the spread of the benefits of progress. But averages also mask a great deal. The average life expectancy in the UK these days is over 80. But for the homeless in England (and probably the rest of the UK but the England statistics are all I saw), the average life expectancy is reduced by 30 years to a level that’s about the same as in war-torn, impoverished Afghanistan and Central African Republic.


Billionaires by the way were hard hit by the financial crash of 2008 (as you would expect since so much of their wealth is paper assets). Before the crash, a world total of 1,125 dollar billionaires owned $4.4 trillion worth of everything. In 2008-9 the numbers sank: there were only 793 billionaires in the whole world and they owned by $2.4 trillion. But just 2011, billionaires were on the up once more, their numbers growing to 1,210 individuals owning $4.5 trillion.

This does, by the way, imply that there is a little more equality between billionaires these days than there was before the crash, which may or may not mean something.

The recovery of the billionaires is doubtless cheering news to the 400,000 residents of Athens who were receiving free food daily during 2012.

Many of the ways in which we have understood our divided world over the past 40 or 50 years have been becoming steadily less cogent in the last decade or so. In particular, a division of the world into poor countries and rich countries, in which we imagine that poor countries are where poor people live, is becoming actively misleading. There are more poor people in India than in any other country, India with a space programme, an overseas aid programme and 450% economic growth over the last 20 years (compared to the EU’s 130%, the USA’s 155% and China’s 1000%).

This looks likely to be a pattern for the coming period, with most poor people living in middle-income countries, not the poorest ones.

However, don’t run away with the notion that the distinctions between rich and poor countries have wholly collapsed. GNI per head is 200 times higher in the richest countries than the poorest.

The lead Millennium Development Goal was to reduce extreme poverty by a half by 2015, and the world is on track for that, mainly due to what has happened in China. That seems like progress, even if it is not reducing inequality because the richest few may be rising faster than the multitudinous poor. And indeed it is progress. But this the extreme poverty of living on less than 1 dollar a day (or 1.20 these days – inflation?). Meanwhile, the number of people living on less than 2 dollars a day is 2.6 billion – more than one-third of the world’s population.

Crossposted with permission from Dan Smith’s blog

The latest edition of The State of the World Atlas, a magnificent visual survey of current events and global trends, is currently on sale in the New Internationalist shop.

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