The world could be so much fairer: an introduction to inequality

Seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the last 30 years. In this introduction to inequality Deborah Hardoon, Senior Researcher at Oxfam, explains why extreme and increasing inequality is a threat to poverty reduction, and to humanity at large.

As a human race, we have done pretty well keeping ourselves alive and healthy. A human being born today can now expect to live 71 years. There is plenty of food on the planet to feed all seven billion of us and now there is a mobile phone connection for each and everyone of us too.

So, why does inequality matter?

There is enough for everyone, but we have done a terrible job of sharing the world’s resources in a way that is fair and just. Each of us is born into this world with very different prospects and opportunities to enjoy these resources. We are citizens of different countries each with unique geographies, economies, demographics and policies. We belong to different social and economic groups, rich and poor, educated and non-educated. We have different individual characteristics, of different genders and abilities, with different skills and talents. And all of this
affects how much money we can expect to earn in our lifetime, how likely you are to die before your fifth birthday or go to bed hungry tonight. This is an injustice. And this is why Oxfam is increasingly concerned not just with absolute poverty, but with the unjust distribution of resources that
keeps people poor. …we have done a terrible job of sharing the world’s resources in a way that is fair and just.

The country in which you are born has the biggest effect on measures of human development. Multiple Indexes have been developed which highlight the differences between countries, including for example the Human Development Index, the Social Progress Index and the Better Life Index, and the differences can be stark. A person born in Japan can expect to live 13 years longer
than the global average, with a life expectancy of 84. In Sierra Leone a baby born today is expected to live just 46 years.

Whilst the gap between rich countries and poor ones is still huge, we are moving in the right direction, as poorer countries grow faster than richer ones. The life expectancy in Sierra Leone for example has increased by eight years since 2000 and by three years in Japan. Economic growth rates in Africa over the last decade have been double that of Europe and whilst labour has become increasingly productive in poorer countries, productivity has stalled in many developed nations.

Inequality within countries is increasing

But despite this equalising force working between countries, at the same time within countries themselves, social, economic and political forces are pushing people further apart, resulting in the same obscenely unequal distribution of outcomes between global citizens. As poorer countries like Nigeria see their economies grow to become the largest in Africa, the poor are still left behind, with more Nigerians living in extreme poverty than ever before. In rich countries too, the riches are not being shared with the poorest, in countries like the US and Germany the
difference between the incomes of the richest and the poorest has grown too. In fact, seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between the rich and the poor within their own countries has increased in the last 30 years.

…seven out of ten people live in countries where the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in the last 30 years.

In countries across the world, people are born with the same citizenship, but very different lives and opportunities. It matters where you live within a country. In England, a man born in the lower income city of Blackpool can expect to live a full eight years less than a man born in the wealthy city of London. It matters what gender you are, in China a married man is three times more likely to own
property than a married women. In Ethiopia 88% of the wealthiest urban men will have attended school, only 30% of the poorest rural women have. The income of your parents perhaps matters more than anything, as this determines your health and education from birth. Within a country, all these inequalities compound to see marginalised groups fall further behind whilst the elite at the top leap ahead. This matters not just for the sake of those
left behind, but for all of us if we want our countries to be safe and just places.

How can we make our countries and our world fairer?

Each country has its unique challenges and around the world Oxfam is working at the national level to identify the main drivers of inequality within countries and the solutions that can tackle inequality. This can include making access to quality health care universal, ensuring workers get a fair deal and are paid a living wage and making access to
productive resources like land fairer for the poorest. For more ideas on what governments can do, take a look at our Even It Up report, which presents some progressive solutions.

If governments are to inject some justice into how our resources are shared though, they need to be listening to the people to whom this matters most. That’s all of us, citizens, but particularly the poorest and most marginalised people must be heard. Instead, we find all over the world, from the US to Lebanon,
policy makers and politicians that we entrust with power are instead acting in the interests of the lobbyists and their inner circle of private interests. This is because money and privilege brings power and influence, creating a vicious cycle reinforcing and exacerbating inequalities.

To effectively tackle inequality we not only need well designed policies, but we also need to break down the capture of our policies by vested interests. We need a more equal political space so that progressive policies are passed and implemented. As such at Oxfam we believe that empowering people, particularly women, to make their voices heard and
hold those in power to account is critical to a fairer world.

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Photo: Tondo slum in Manila, Philippines 2014. Credit: Dewald Brand, Miran for Oxfam.

Author: Deborah Hardoon
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.