The rich grow ridiculously rich, the poor grow exasperatingly poor, and that’s an ever-increasing trend – you have heard that story before. Here’s what to make of the newest statistics and debates, and what to do with your own wealth:
Global anti-poverty charity Oxfam has produced a new briefing paper on global wealth inequalities, warning that as the rich have ever more and the poor ever less to live on, “societies are drawn apart”. It presents some figures which have grabbed media attention – such as the supposed fact that 8 people own as much wealth as the poorest 50 % of the world. These eight are, to no one’s surprise, all white and male.
Also to no one’s surprise, there are voices immediately rejecting the Oxfam report as “fake”, and decrying its statistics as fabricated through a “shoddy methodology” (again, to no one’s surprise, largely white men).
To a certain extent, criticism on this statistic is legitimate and necessary – because indeed, looking at people’s net wealth, i.e. subtracting debt from income, is a simplistic and sometimes misleading way of looking at “poverty”. The world’s poorest people are unlikely to get a loan of a sum comparable to that of the average American house owner, for example. Someone at school taught me to “never believe a statistic that you didn’t fake yourself”, which is probably radical, but since every single statistic is based on so many hidden human decisions (which measures are in- or excluded? How are comparisons made possible?), questioning them is absolutely vital, in my view.
However, that figure is what is being taken up by the official and social media – it is not the main argument of Oxfam’s report, or of their policy, or international development as a whole. I would encourage you to read the report, or at least the first 8 pages executive summary – there is a range of interesting figures and more importantly links between those figures and real-life stories, people and systems.
What the report calls for is not debates on whether it is right or wrong. It calls for action. Because frankly, yes, the world is extremely unfair.
What action? Here are some ideas:
Look beyond the headlines about inequality and economic justice. Look at stories behind other numbers. Read, learn, assess, criticise, decide whom to trust. Bear in mind that every person writing something, presenting a “fact”, has a motive. Oxfam had the motive of engaging a large number of people for its cause – which has worked phenomenally. I have a similar motive, want to make people act and speak out against inequality, though not necessarily by supporting Oxfam. People on Twitter dismissing the report as useless have the motive of discrediting the charity, and quite possibly defending their views regarding free market economies. You will have a motive when you choose which side you believe, and I believe it is important to know that motive for yourself.
Rethink inequality, and get away from headline-grabbing figures. Numbers such as the eight billionaires statistic are shocking and great to attract attention, but social justice is not about numbers. The only workable definition of international development is in my view provided by Amartya Sen, as “a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy”. Development is not about money, and it is only to a small extent about economics in the strictest sense. It’s about whether a child born today in a slum of Nairobi would have the same chance of getting a good education, a job he or she can live on and enjoy, the same opportunities to develop, make friends, influence politics, and to found a family in the way he or she wants, as a child born today in London Kensington, or any other place.
Measure your own wealth in choices. Have you gone to school, or to university even? Have you chosen a profession you can live on, and do you have options to influence decision-making in your country? Education means you can teach yourself anything you like about social justice and how to get there, a sufficient salary means you can decide which corporation and which charity to give it to, and having the right to vote, petition, attend demonstrations and organise means you can influence how freedoms and choices are distributed among people.
Don’t focus on those that are “above you” on the wealth ladder in money – yes it is incredible to what extent such few people control so much money and influence, and go ahead and tell them to do better with all that wealth – but focusing only on them blinds us to billions worth of opportunities lying elsewhere.
Make the choices for the better. If you answered “yes” to any or all of the above, use that capital. Find out what organisation helps people in the most effective way, and find out how to support it. Challenge stereotypes and assumptions, such as “poor people need rich people’s help“, and find out what really causes inequality. Grapple with the complexities of attempts to reduce inequality and decide which bit you support. Spend your money on products that are produced in a fair way, or at least in a way that doesn’t damage livelihoods. Let your representative in politics know what you think and make other people do the same. (There are deliberately no links here.)
I actually don’t need to tell you all of this. You know that better than I do. The same applies to all the warnings about inequality – we all know that a society in which the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer will run into trouble for both. Truth is, we have run into trouble, and massively so (Western media focus on populism, but how about those non-headline stories at the lower end of the income scale, conflicts over resources, migration?), and if we don’t start bridging that gap, then when do we?