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Economy: Analysis From Washington -- A Dangerously Deepening Divide

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 November 2000 (RFE/RL) - A recent World Bank study found that the income gap between the wealthiest and poorest countries has grown so great that it threatens to divide the world economically and politically.

In 1990, people in the wealthiest 20 percent of countries had incomes 60 times those of the incomes of residents of the poorest 20 percent. Now, that ratio has increased to more than 74 times.

Moreover, this increase in income inequality has come about not only because the rich are getting richer as the result of globalization -- something that has attracted much comment in recent years -- but also because the poor are getting poorer for the same reason.

According to the study, the number of poor people in the world has increased from 1,200 million in 1987 to 1,500 million now and is expected to climb to 1,900 million in 2015.

And these poorest people are often in desperate straits. According to UN figures, 2,600 million people lack access to basic sanitation, 1,300 million cannot obtain safe drinking water, 1,000 million are without adequate housing, and 840 million are chronically malnourished.

As a result of these factors, more than 18 million people die each year from poverty-related causes, according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, 40 percent of children in the poorest countries are stunted in their growth, and 250 million children in these countries are forced to work as soldiers, servants or prostitutes.

All this is taking place at a time when people in the richest countries are richer than they or anyone else has ever been and when these countries have had a peace dividend of more than $500 billion -- money that some activists could believe could be used to help the poorest of the poor.

And that development is occurring even as advocates of globalization argue that it will ultimately improve the living conditions of all people everywhere. In the long term, this argument may prove to be true. But for those living in poverty today, that long-term prospect appears irrelevant or illusory at best.

That is especially true because neither the governments of the world's wealthiest countries nor of the world's poorest countries appear willing to do much about the income disparity.

Despite their own economic prosperity, most of the world's wealthiest countries increasingly are focusing on their own needs rather than on those of others. The poorest countries, unless they provide some natural resource that the richest ones need, are often ignored or given lectures on what they should do to help themselves.

And their own governments, Thomas W. Pogge points out in the current issue of the American journal "Dissent," are frequently even worse. Most of these regimes, he notes, "have little incentive to attend to the needs of the poor, as their continuation in power depends on the local elite and on foreign governments and corporations" rather than on the attitudes of their own people.

The rulers of these countries, he continues, "can sell the country's resources, buy arms and soldiers to maintain their rule, and amass personal fortunes." For all these reasons, he argues, "they like the global economic order just the way it is."

But this situation is unlikely to be sustainable for long either within these countries or between them and the more developed world. Within these countries, the fundamental weakness and illegitimacy of regimes almost certainly will lead opposition groups to challenge those in power, sometimes via the ballot box but more often in the streets.

And the imbalance between rich and poor, if left unaddressed, seems likely to lead some wealthier countries to mobilize the poorer ones against other wealthy states, to tempt poorer countries to form cartels when they can, and to spur more waves of immigration from poorer to wealthier countries, something many in the latter do not want.

All these developments are likely to destabilize the current international order, not only directly but by challenging the self- confident assumptions of those among the wealthiest countries who believe that helping the poorest countries is not in their national or even personal interest.