Equality watch: Rich & poor

According to the UN, the gap between rich and poor in the world has widened since the 1980s: a quarter of the world’s countries have become poorer, and a fifth of the world’s people live on less than a dollar a day.

Three families – Bill Gates, the Sultan of Brunei and the Walton family (which owns US retail chain Wal-Mart) – have a combined wealth of $135 billion. This equals the annual income of 600 million people living in the world’s poorest countries.

Worst affected by the growing inequality gap are sub-Saharan Africa and the countries of the former USSR – here the percentage of people surviving on less than a dollar a day rose from 6.1 per cent in 1990 to 20.3 per cent in 1999.

But even in the US some 16 per cent of the population are living in poverty. The US spends the most money in the world on healthcare yet has 40 million people without health cover.

In some countries in transition, such as India and Brazil, average per-capita incomes have increased. But while globalization has brought jobs to some areas – call-centres in India for example – it has taken away livelihoods from low-paid workers elsewhere and does not help those in more traditional sectors. Income is only one measure of poverty – having a sustainable livelihood and access to health and education are of greater importance. Farming, for example, which occupies a large proportion of athe world’s poorest people, has become unsustainable in parts of Africa, Asia and the former Soviet states due to a long-term drop in commodity prices, as both globalization and unfair trade rules bite.

Increasingly people in poorer countries have to rely on remittances from family members working abroad, prompting an increase in the numbers seeking to enter North America, Australasia and Europe. Migrants are often the lowest paid, most exploited and most insecure of workers in the rich world. If they have entered as ‘illegals’ they have little redress if abused by their bosses or paid below the legal minimum wage. Some trade unions, in the US for example, are fighting for the rights of migrants, recognizing that a fair wage for all workers benefits all.

In many countries, though not all, inequality began increasing during the debt crisis of the early 1980s. Debt repayments and structural adjustment policies have had a devastating impact on health and education systems. In the countries of sub-Saharan Africa primary school enrolment declined throughout the 1990s. As health and water services are privatized they become inaccessible to the very poor. Global hunger remains high, with six million children under the age of five dying of malnutrition every year.

But perhaps the most shocking indicator of global economic inequality is reflected in life expectancy, which keeps rising in the rich countries of the world. An average Japanese citizen can now expect to live to 80; one of Sierra Leone can barely expect to reach 37 years.

Sources: United Nations Development Programme Reports 2003 and 2001. Jeremy Seabrook, The No Nonsense Guide to Poverty, New Internationalist / Verso 2003.

New Internationalist issue 364 magazine cover This article is from the February 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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