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An Era Of Disparity

By Mir Adnan Aziz

22 July, 2008

So far humanity has had absolutely no luck creating a society without the ultra privileged. The earliest human societies, though having very little in the way of an elite class still had clan leaders. These were the high at the time. Although this often changed if someone seized power from the current leader, the clan leaders still had the most access to wealth, food and the best of everything.

In the former Soviet Union, one of the first communist nations, we had the Communist Party. The Party advocated equality and improved lifestyle for the proletariat. In reality it was always amassing wealth and luxury, fit for an industrial middle class capitalist, for its highest members.

In the French Republic of Virtue, we had Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife. While Napoleon advocated republican virtues and overthrew monarchs, he himself amassed great wealth for himself and established various dukes in France's dependent states. In Rome, even before the ascension of Julian Claudine family to leadership over the Empire, the Republic's Senate was made up of patrician land owners who came from upper-class families.

Coming down to our times when confronted with the latest evidence of the startling growth of income and the ever increasing chasm of wealth inequality around the world, we need to recognize obscene social arrangements for what they are and demand something different.

Presently, there are nearly 500 billionaires worldwide whereas 1.2 billion live on a dollar a day or less. Tens of millions of children are locked out of school because their parents are unable to afford school fees. More than a million children die a year from diarrhea because their families lack access to clean drinking water. More than one billion people worldwide do not get essential health care. On average, developing countries have one doctor for every 6,000 people whereas industrialized countries have one for every 350 people. Under developed countries face a nightmare of almost no healthcare for their teeming masses.

In 2001 the 497 billionaires registered a combined wealth of $1.54 trillion, well above the combined gross national products of all nations of sub-Saharan Africa ($929.3 billion) or those of the oil rich regions of the Middle East and North Africa ($1.34 trillion). The collective wealth of these billionaires is also greater than the combined income of the poorest half of humanity.

Per capita health spending in the world's least developed countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, comes to only about $11 a year. That compares with $1900 per person in developed nations, or almost 150 times as much. The richest 10 percent of households own 85 percent of global wealth whereas the 50 percent at the bottom share just 1 per cent. On an average, a person in the top 10 percent has accumulated wealth nearly 3000 times that of a person in the bottom 10 percent. It's not very easy to wrap one's mind around the inhumanity of these numbers.

The disparity becomes even more glaring when comparing per capita assets country-wise. The average wealth in the rich countries is estimated at $1, 81,000 in Japan and $1, 44,000 in the US. Denmark accounts for $70,000, New Zealand $37,000 while average for the UK is $1, 27,000. At the lower end of the ladder is Indonesia $ 1400 and India with $1100.

North America with 6 percent of world population accounts for 30 percent of all household assets, while Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and the African nations, with overwhelmingly large populations, get a bare minimal share of the total global wealth.

Among the 4.4 billion people who live in developing countries, 3/5 has no access to basic sanitation. Almost 1/3 are without safe drinking water, 1/4 lack adequate housing, 1/5 live beyond reach of modern health services, 1/5 of the children do not get as far as grade five in school and 1/5 are undernourished.

The divergence between rich and poor is accentuating as time goes by. The 3 richest in the world own assets that exceed the combined gross national product of all the least developed countries and their 600 million inhabitants. The richest 20 percent of the world's population enjoys a share in global income that is 86 times that of the poorest 20 percent.

More than 1.2 billion people in the world live on less that $1 a day. More than 50 percent of them are children. Nearly 1 billion cannot meet their basic consumption requirements. The assets of the 200 richest people are more than the combined income of 41percent of the world's people. A yearly contribution of 1percent of their wealth or $8 billion could provide total universal access to primary education.

Industrialized countries hold 97 percent of all patents, and global corporations hold 90 percent of all technology and product patents. Over 80 percent of foreign direct investment in developing and transition economies goes to just 20 countries, China receiving the maximum share. Debt relief for the 20 worst affected countries would cost between US $5.5 billion to $7.7 billion, less than the approximate cost of one stealth bomber.

Even starker though are the contrasts between basic and feminine luxuries and minimal resources such as sanitation and education of women. Basic education for all would cost $6 billion a year; $8 billion is spent annually for cosmetics in the United States alone. Installation of water and sanitation for all would cost $9 billion plus some annual costs; $11 billion is spent annually on ice cream in Europe.

Reproductive health services for all women would cost $12 billion a year; $12 billion a year is spent on perfumes in Europe and the United States. Basic health care and nutrition would cost $13 billion; $17 billion a year is spent on pet food in Europe and the United States. By comparison with these small items, $35 billion is spent on business entertainment in Japan; $50 billion on cigarettes and $105 billion on alcoholic drinks in Europe; $400 billion on narcotic drugs around the world and $780 billion on the world's militaries.

Poverty is not foremost among the criteria by which wealthy nations choose to disburse their aid. All aid has a measured degree of self-interest and strategic interest associated with it, rather than selfless altruism. Two thirds of the world's poor get less than one third of the total development aid. Donor nations routinely tie assistance to military spending.

In 1992, countries that spent more than 4 percent of their GDP on their military received $83 per capita in aid, whereas nations that spent less than 2 percent got $32. A large part of this imbalance is brought about by bilateral donors, who offer not just military but economic aid to strategic allies. For instance, Israel and Egypt received more than $3 billion of the $10.4 billion of US bilateral assistance. (The two nations receive an additional $5 billion in military assistance from the U.S. every year)

The US, Russia, China, France and the UK, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, supply the most weapons to developing countries. Although multilateral institutions are more even-handed, the World Bank gives about half its aid to two thirds of the world's poor. They do not redress the imbalance. As a result, a Brazilian woman living below the poverty line receives $3 in such support a year, whereas her Egyptian counterpart receives $280.

A new study terms inequality at home between men and women leads to poorer health for the children and greater poverty for the family. UNICEF found that where women are excluded from family decisions, children are more likely to be under nourished. There would be 13 million fewer malnourished children in South Asia if women had an equal say in the family. Where men control the household, less money is spent on health care and food for the family, resulting in poorer health for the children.

Trade, another means by which developing countries earn foreign capital, also benefits the more developed and illustrates the ambivalence of wealthy states toward the world's poor. Although poverty wins a measure of sympathy, the cheap work force of poor nations makes them an economic threat. By one estimate, if developed countries lifted all trade barriers to Third World goods, the latter would gain in exports twice what they now receive in aid. Foreign debt, another constraint on the development of the Third World, keeps growing. In 1970 the total debt was $100 billion; today it is almost $3.5 trillion, including service charges.

In essence these are the 'fruits' of economic globalization, a world of the haves and have nots. This staggering disparity of numbers is proof that we live in a world where all natural and human resources are exploited mercilessly, so that a small minority can consume far more than their rightful share of the world's real wealth. Now, as we push the exploitation of the earths social and environmental systems beyond their limits of tolerance, we face the reality that the industrial era faces a burnout, because it is exhausting the human and natural resource base on which our very lives depend.

We must hasten its passage, while assisting in the birth of a new civilization based on life affirming rather than money affirming values. All over the world people are indeed waking up to the truth. We should strive and take steps to reclaim and rebuild our local economy. It should also be our goal to create locally owned enterprises that sustainably harvest and process local resources to produce jobs, goods and services.

Ideally our economy should be local; rooting power in the people and communities who realize their well being depends on the health and vitality of their local ecosystem. We should favor local firms and workers, who pay local taxes, live by local rules, respect and nurture the local ecosystems, compete fairly in local markets, and contribute to community life. A global economy empowers global corporations and financial institutions, local economies empower people. It is our consciousness, our ways of thinking and our sense of membership in a larger community, which should be global.

Perhaps the most important fact of all, albeit forgotten, is that life is about living, not consuming. A life of material sufficiency can be filled with social, cultural, intellectual and spiritual abundance that place no burden on the planet. It is time to assume responsibility for creating a new future of just and sustainable societies free from the myth that competition, greed and mindless consumption are paths to individual and collective fulfillment.

( [email protected] )


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