New Internationalist

The Facts - Measuring privilege and power

November 1980

Any measure of elitism in society has to begin with distortions in the distribution of power. In the Communist bloc, power is centred on party membership and position. Elsewhere, it is more closely aligned with wealth.

Wealth can be translated into power directly, through employing others, corrupting others, buying others; and indirectly through controlling the media, financing lobby groups or political parties and utilising investment portfolios.

Fundamentally power rests with those who own the wealth-producing institutions and agencies: industrial plant, banks, insurance companies and other finance institutions.

Trying to establish who owns how much is impeded by the understandable secrecy of those who own most it. More available are figures for the distribution of national income. However these produce a very modified picture of inequalities, ignoring the assets and wealth already owned by each sector of society. Some idea of the difference between income distribution and wealth distribution figures are shown from the examples of Australia and the United Kingdom.


Distribution of national income

In the Third World the richest 10 per cent of households receive about 40 per cent of the income. The poorest 20 per cent receive about five per cent.        (World Bank)


Distribution of wealth


Distribution of education facilities

Despite widespread illiteracy, 50 per cent of all Third World educational spending is at the secondary and tertiary levels.

In societies where illiteracy is significant, then power rests with those who read, write and understand abstract ideas. Where priority is given to expanding primary education, there is some redistribution of power toward the poor and illiterate. Where priority is given to spending on secondary and further education facilities - whilst all the nation’s children do not have satisfactory primary schooling - then this redistributes future power to the children of the rich who would be disproportionately represented at the higher educational levels.

Contrasting examples of elitist and non-elitist educational policies over a 10 year span are provided by Egypt and Zambia - which both have roughly similar gross national product figures per head of population.


Distribution of health facilities

In the Third World 80 per cent of health budgets are spent on the richest 20 per cent of the population. (World Health Organisation)

With far greater problems of ill-health in the underdeveloped than the developed world, the health care system caters to the needs of far fewer. The health policies of most Third World nations have been to pursue Western-style solutions to ill-health, albeit with far less resources to spend on major hospitals or highly trained staff. Where most of the diseases can be prevented by better housing, sanitation and nutrition or treated by paramedics and health care workers, the expensive Western approach devotes the nation’s health budget to the lucky few.

This feature was published in the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 093

New Internationalist Magazine issue 093
Issue 093

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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