Why We have to Fight Global Income Inequality

By Francine Mestrum · 24 Aug 2009

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Picture credit: Igorlazunna
Picture credit: Igorlazunna

Since the international organisations put poverty on the political agenda in the 1990s, little has been heard about inequality. This is quite amazing, since it was the income gap between rich and poor countries that gave rise to the development project after the Second World War. The first UN resolutions on development do not mention poverty, but they do refer to the huge inequalities between developed and under-developed countries.

With the new poverty agenda of the World Bank and the human development programme of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), both introduced in 1990, people, if not individuals, clearly have become the objects of development. There certainly are good reasons to welcome this shift, since development without benefits for people would be rather meaningless. But one also has to recognise the perfect convergence of this shift with the emergence of a neoliberal agenda that tried to weaken states and deprive them of their economic role. If countries are neither the objects nor the driving forces of development but only have to create an enabling environment and care for the extremely poor, there clearly is a new development agenda and there are good reasons to analyse all its consequences.

One of these consequences is the semantic change in the concept of social development. Poverty is defined in absolute and not in relative terms. The PRSPs (Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers) promoted by the World Bank and the IMF as well as the MDGs of the UN perfectly fit into the liberal agenda. Redistribution is no longer mentioned, whilst inequalities concern all matters of social life and rarely incomes, and equality of opportunity is the most ambitious objective. There is a global consensus, even with NGOs (non-governmental organisations), to give priority to poverty reduction. Yet, there are no convincing arguments to explain why poverty is more important than income inequality. As I will explain below, there are reasons to believe that inequality is more threatening than poverty and can be considered to be a more urgent global problem. 

Whatever the reasons for the shift from inequality and (re)distribution to absolute and extreme poverty, it should be clear that two totally different agendas are concerned. On the one hand, the development agenda of the 1960s and 1970s as designed by the UN and its new majority of poor countries. Development was supposed to enhance economic growth and social progress; it was a collective project for the modernisation and emancipation of countries and societies. On the other hand, the poverty agenda of the 1990s aims to help extremely poor people and especially women gain access to education and health services, in order to boost their productive capacities. Economic development is left to market forces and free trade is supposed to boost economic growth. (In)equality and (re)distribution are no longer on the agenda.

The (Re)emergence of an Equality Agenda

It would be wrong to state that inequality has completely disappeared from the current political discourse.

In Latin America, the world's most unequal continent, even when poverty is declining, inequality can be rising. The concept has always played an important role in development thinking and even recent World Bank documents on Latin America recognise its major role in producing poverty.

In recent years, a number of researchers and international organisations are again looking at inequality, even if they do not always link political conclusions to their findings.

The first and major organisation that has to be mentioned is the UNDP. Since it started publishing its Human Development Reports in 1990, it has provided yearly statistics on the growing inequality at the world level. In 1992 it published the now famous glass of champagne showing how the richest 20 per cent of the world's population possess 82.7 per cent of global income, while the poorest 20 per cent have to share 1.5 per cent. "The world's richest 1 per cent of people receive as much income as the poorest 57 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of the US population has an income equal to that of the poorest 43 per cent of the world. Put differently, the income of the richest 25 million Americans is equal to that of almost 2 billion people". However, despite these shocking statistics, the UNDP never has political proposals to reduce these income inequalities. It seems as if the examples were just mentioned to encourage all political actors to engage in more solid human development efforts. It is one of several points where the UNDP is found to be slightly schizophrenic.

Just as is the case with poverty, there are many different ways to measure inequality, and they are not ideologically neutral. Many researchers have looked at the possible links between globalisation and inequality but come to divergent conclusions. Some find a growing level of inequality among or within countries. Others are more cautious or state that inequality may have declined worldwide but that leaving China and India out of the analysis, inequality is clearly rising.

These diverging conclusions are in fact inevitable because there are too few reliable data to measure income inequality, because different measurements are possible and different methods can be used. The lack of data is even worse than in the case of poverty measurements, where 67 countries lack any data and 93 countries lack trend data on the 1 Dollar a day poverty line. The main differences however come from the ideological stance the authors are taking, the different values about what constitutes a just distribution of the gains from globalisation.

One of the major researchers on inequality, Branco Milanovic, works with three different concepts of inequality. The first is unweighted international inequality. It uses income or GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita and disregards population. This inequality has clearly been rising over the past decades. He makes a distinction between four groups of countries, the rich ones, the contenders, ready to catch up and join the rich club,  the third world countries and the fourth world countries. From the nineteen non-western countries that belonged to the rich club in 1960, only four remain there in 2000. Four new non-western countries joined the club of the rich. The group of contenders almost disappeared. Twenty out of the twenty-two original contenders in 1960 were either in the third or in the fourth world group in 2000. The Group of fourth world countries increased from twenty-five in 1960  to seventy-one in 2000. This makes Milanovic conclude that there has been an Africanisation of poverty and a westernisation of wealth.

His second concept is population weighted international inequality where one assumes that everyone in a country receives the same income but the number of representative individuals from each country reflects its population size. It assumes that within-country distribution is perfectly equal. Measured in such a way, inequality has decreased in the past twenty years, though it has increased if one takes out India and China.

The third concept treats, in principle, everyone the same, disregarding individuals' nationality. This is no longer an international measurement of inequality but a global one. It goes beyond methodological nationalism. Here we see a sharp increase in inequality between 1988 and 1993. The poorest 5 per cent have lost almost 25 per cent of their real income, while the top quintile has gained 12 per cent. Most of this increase can be explained by the rise of between-country inequality. 50,000 rich people receive as much as 2.7 billion poor people. 75 per cent of the world population lives with less than the world mean income of 3,526 Dollars in PPP (purchase power parity) terms.

Measuring inequality with the third concept, Milanovic notes that only 17.4 per cent of the world population is middle class and that they receive only 6.5 per cent of the world 1998 income. Milanovic concludes that "people are poor because they live in poor countries".

Why Should Inequality be Back on the Agenda?

In preparing its second major poverty Report of 2000, the World Bank published various articles on the new poverty data, on its new social protection policy and also one on the reasons why inequality is making a slow comeback. Equity and efficiency are not separable phenomena, the authors note, because markets are never perfect. Even if inequality does not change much over time, the task is to find combinations of instruments that will deliver both growth and equity. The world seems to be converging towards two clubs: a rich one and a poor one. Policy matters, and a country's evolution can be altered by intervention.

Ravallion was the first to show that inequality can be an impediment for pro-poor growth and that in countries with high inequality it is perfectly possible that growth has no impact at all on poor people.  These findings are confirmed in other articles and formally integrated in the World Bank's thinking. "High levels of inequality and deprivation can be harmful to efficiency and growth", states the World Development Report of 2003.

In 2006, the World Bank's World Development Report was dedicated to equity. "Equity and equality overlap quite extensively" stated one of the outlines of the report in which both concepts were used without ever making a clear distinction. If this focus on equity is a major achievement for the World Bank, it should also be noted that the final report exclusively focuses on equity and ignores equality. The policy aim is not equality of outcomes. Outcomes matter, but mainly for their influence on absolute deprivation and their role in shaping opportunities. Individual incentives should not be blunted by income redistribution schemes, because that could lead to less growth. "The history of the twentieth century is littered with examples of ill-designed policies pursued in the name of equity that seriously harmed [...] growth processes... A balance must be sought..." The report constitutes a real shift in World Bank thinking by mentioning social protection as opportunity-enhancing, minimum wages, human rights and core labour standards, even taxes, though all these elements are said to imply serious trade-offs. In fact, the report does not concern income inequality but merely inequality of opportunity and it does not give statistics on income inequality. Moreover, this seemingly positive shift at the World Bank is contradicted by another series of its reports that classifies countries positively when they have little or no labour market regulations, and gives them a negative score when labour markets are regulated.

And Some Other Good Reasons to Fight Inequality

The reasons mentioned by the World Bank why inequality is back on the agenda are rather limited though not unimportant. Its 2006 report shows that the Bank is not really convinced of the usefulness of analysing income inequality. In fact, its reasoning on the links with the poverty-reducing potential of growth could lead to a kind of optimal inequality: small enough not to hinder poverty reduction, large enough not to hinder growth.

There are other reasons for tackling inequality.

The first reason is moral indignation, not only faced with the magnitude of inequality, but also faced with the profound feeling of injustice many people have. Milanovic gives the example of a room full of people where one person gets 20,000 Dollars and all others between twenty-five and seventy-five cents. Everybody's welfare improves, yet most people will not accept this unfair distribution. The income people receive is not only a means whereby to acquire more goods and services, it is also a tangible recognition of how society values them. Equality is a fundamental value in each society, and that is why the point of inequality becomes relevant when so much attention is focused on globalisation. The inequality between Africa and Europe is not relevant as long as there is no human interaction between them, but once there is, inequality becomes very important.

This argument becomes very important when newspapers and television have daily stories on the huge wealth accumulation of CEOs and report mass lay-offs in companies making profits. According to the Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report, there are now 9.5 million people worldwide with more than one million Dollars financial assets (HNWI or high net worth individuals), an increase of 8.3 % compared to 2005. 1 per cent of them own more than thirty million Dollars in financial assets. The accumulated HNWI-wealth went from 16,600 billion Dollars in 1996 to 37,200 billion in 2006, an increase of 8 per cent per year and much more than the rate of economic growth. According to the ILO (International Labour Organisation), 1.39 billion people or 50 per cent of the total labour force and 58.7 per cent of the labour force in developing countries earned less than 2 Dollars a day in 2003. 550 million people or 23.3 per cent of the labour force of developing countries earn less than 1 Dollar a day. Half of the world's workers are thus working poor. Less than 10 per cent of the population in the poorest countries has adequate social security protection. In December 2006, 4000 financial workers in the City of London received each a bonus of 1.5 million Euros.

A second reason again is linked to globalisation and the paradoxical need of borders linked to growing inequalities. If one beliefs in the desirability of one world community in which not only goods and capital but also people can move freely, inequality is clearly a major problem. The gap between rich and poor countries, as well as the lack of perspectives in large parts of the world, makes people migrate in search of better opportunities. It is not the extremely poor people that leave their country, but mainly middle classes with professional skills that are needed in rich countries. However, rich countries lack the social basis for mass migration, welfare states are under severe pressure, so-called illegal migrants are often exploited on the labour market or die on the Mediterranean beaches or at the Southern electronic border of the United States. There clearly is no free movement of people, today's migration is a kind of survival strategy and borders have to be raised in order to stop mass migration. In turn, this is one of the reasons why rightwing populist and often racist or xenophobic political forces gain momentum in most rich countries and threaten democracy. Huge inequalities, then, make borders necessary and hinder the free movement of people. In other words, huge inequalities are not compatible with globalisation or with democracy.

A third reason is linked to political instability. Since 2002 and the RIO+10 UN conference on sustainable development, the World Bank speaks of "social sustainability". Social matters are part of a government's portfolio and are to be managed in the same way as environmental matters. Problems arise when these assets are at risk and can lead to "social stress - and at the extreme, social conflict" Contrary to the Club of Rome's statement of 1971 calling for limits to growth in order to preserve the environment, the World Bank calls for poverty reduction and environmental protection in order to preserve the growth process and avoid conflicts. However, there is no evidence at all that extremely poor people are a root cause of political instability or terrorism. Extremely poor people, living on less than 1 Dollar a day in a market economy, have to use all their time and energy in trying to survive. By contrast, middle classes threatened by impoverishment, young graduates with no employment perspectives, professionals frustrated by the non-met promises of development, all faced with the constant western good-news-shows of globalisation may have reasons to resist and revolt. Growing inequalities can only worsen this situation. The most urgent task then should not be to reduce poverty - howev

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