JUST a bit over a week ago, the World Inequality Report 2022 was released. Among its notable but not surprising findings were the fact that half of the world is indescribably poor, with about two per cent of the world’s wealth to divide among itself. By contrast, the richest 10pc of the world control a whopping 76pc of the world’s wealth. This isn’t surprising; of late, the decadence of privately financed space flights by the likes of Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, among others, have revealed just how much the world’s wealthiest people possess and how flagrantly they are willing to spend it. The reality is that in the image of the world that is produced by such theatrical displays of plenty, those who do not have at least tens of millions of dollars to spend are really not living at all.
The predictability of the data produced by such compilations year after year, empirical evidence of the poor getting ever poorer and the rich getting ever richer, makes one wonder of its utility. Even given the availability of large databanks that make such tabulations possible, must we tell the poor that they are poor and will keep getting poorer? It is a worthy question; if we consider inequality to be a sign of the general immorality of a population or country, then the report is not just a ranking of relative inequality but also a rough indicator of the place where the people are most moral and the place where they are least so.
Considered this way, the breakdown of the most and least unequal countries is perhaps also a ranking of where people believe it is important to ensure that the poor have at least a livable and subsistence-level existence and that the rich are required to give away the majority of their wealth in taxes to make this possible. According to the 2022 report, the world’s least unequal place is Western Europe and the world’s most unequal region is the Middle East. Rich countries are not automatically unequal; the United States, which is one of the richest countries in the world, has, relatively speaking, astronomical levels of inequality. Brazil and India are middle- to low-income countries and have tremendously high levels of inequality. At the other end, China has very low levels of inequality.
Another key statistic tells us that the level of inequality in the world is roughly equal to what it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Western imperialism was at its zenith. It has been noted that individuals from the richest 10pc of countries make 40 times as much as those from the bottom half of countries. Even more depressing is the fact that the poorest half of the world has about 50pc of what it used to have during the colonial era to divide up among itself. In fact, the report’s authors assert that this reveals that the framework of inequalities that were created in the colonial era, where raw materials from poor countries were processed then shipped to the factories of rich colonising countries, more or less endures today.
The colonial rulers of yesteryear have simply created new organisational mechanisms to ensure that they have the upper hand in the global market.
The colonial rulers of yesteryear have simply created new organisational mechanisms, such as the World Trade Organisation and a plethora of other similar entities, to ensure that they have the upper hand in the global market. Poor countries grant access to their markets to corporations that are headquartered in the white and Western world, but do not get access to wealthy consumer markets themselves. As a consequence, the poor half of the world continues to remain dependent on wealthy countries to throw some scraps their way. Self-sufficiency remains an unrealised dream for them.
At the same time, it would be incorrect to say that individual countries do not have control over inequality at all. The example of China is very instructive in this regard. By prioritising economic equality, the Chinese have managed to lift millions out of poverty despite the existence of a West-centric world trade regime and everything else associated with it. At the same time, Muslim countries like Pakistan and others in the Middle-East pay lip service to the Islamic values of equality and freedom from corruption, while unabashedly looting the coffers of their own countries and hoarding their spoils for generations upon generations of their children.
In Pakistan, December is a particularly apt month and time to closely observe society’s vast inequality and the audacity with which the rich flaunt their wealth as the celebration seasons gets underway. All the moral edicts of simplicity and equality disappear, to the extent to which they existed in the first place. If the inequality between the wealthy, swathed in gold and diamonds and outfits that cost more than most individual Pakistanis will earn in a lifetime, is immoral than Pakistan, unfortunately, is a world leader in the trend. Those who make this money justify their dodging of taxes, their whimsical zakat contributions (one rich woman once told me that she believes that all the salaries she pays to poor people are really zakat), their refusal to pay living wages, the eagerness for shortcuts that will further abuse the poor. And the system is such that they are allowed to get away with this.
It is possible even for a poor country to be moral and to prioritise equality. We are learning many things from China these days, relying on the Chinese for everything from building ports and extending mobile phone coverage to a long and hefty list of other things. Perhaps one more item on the agenda for the next Pakistan-China summit could be how income equality can become as valued a goal for Pakistan as it has been for China.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2021