Turning Development Upside Down
A book about reforming relief and development

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Chapter 1- 4 Poverty and Distribution of Wealth

Probably half the world's population is poor and hungry. Even while the world's aggregate wealth has been growing enormously over the past fifty years, faster than at any time in history, the number of poor people has grown as well. Debilitating poverty still affects about half the whole of the world's population or around 3 billion people.

Very few countries are rich, most are poor. Some people are rich, many are middle income but most are poor. The problem is the way resources are used and the way there has been economic value destruction in poor countries and economic value creation in rich countries. The problem is the process of economic value creation and the way it is managed for the benefit of the managers.

The same economic drivers serve to help rich people get richer and poor people stay poor. The fact that so many are poor is a worry to the rich, but it tends to be a reason for defending wealth and the wealth creating processes rather than being a catalyst to understand how more wealth can be created by the poor and indeed to benefit the poor.

The possibilities and promise looked for when the old European empires gave up their colonial possessions has not be realized to anything like the extent anticipated. But something is wrong when the world has half its population excluded from the possibilities.

The basic institutions that are being used to “govern” are not working very well, or at any rate are not working for the benefit of everyone. In fact the basic institutions seem to function in a way that ensures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This is not by accident. It is because the basic economic model and the corporate business model that has emerged and proliferated during the past fifty years has a very limited planning horizon and short term focus.

Even though economic wealth has been created in the last fifty years at a pace never ever anticipated, it has concentrated to an extent that is dangerous. And the pace of concentration has continued to accelerate even as the boom times of the 1990s evaporate.

The role of “market economics” and the role of “globalization” have been discussed at length in a lot of places. But there is little in either of these themes that serve to explain how development has performed, how it is managed and how it can be reformed.

Just as the great fortunes of the industrial revolution and the early days of the oil industry and the automobile industry live on as major philanthropic foundations, the Carnegie Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, etc. the new fortunes of the more recent past are spawning a new era philanthropic organizations. The Templeton Foundation in finance and the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation from technology are examples.

But the underlying fact is that the same economic mechanics that made concentration of wealth happen in the “robber baron” days of 19th century capitalism still work the same in the much more highly sophisticated capitalism of modern times. And it also possible to say that the same foolishness that dominated the market in every boom time in history are still in play today.

And some of the same economic mechanics that worked in the mercantile empire era for the European empires still works for the economically powerful NORTH in its economic relations with the SOUTH. Just as colonial possessions provided raw materials for Europe's factories, now the SOUTH provides raw materials for the NORTH, and especially the United States.

And while much raw material production in colonial times had a big local labor content, modern raw material production is highly capital intensive with very little local labor and economic value adding.

In political terms the SOUTH has independence, but in economic terms the SOUTH is ruined and is facing disaster.

The world's wealth is now more concentrated in the financial centers of the NORTH than it was at the peak of empire. The difference is that New York is now bigger than Europe and Tokyo (and Beijing and Hong Kong) have important financial centers and function as part of the NORTH.

But the SOUTH is poverty stricken. Its financial base is almost non-existent. Even the oil rich exporting countries have failed to move solidly into the NORTH and remain outside the exclusive club of global leadership.

The idea that a single individual can get paid $1 million for a year's work raises lots of questions.
The idea that more and more at the top people of the NORTH are getting paid $10 million, $100 million or more is even more questionable. While a family in the SOUTH may not even get paid $500 a year. And a poor family in the USA may only be getting $10,000 a year, a lot more “money” than they would get in the SOUTH, but still true poverty because of the high cost of a lot of essentials in the NORTH.

The global economic system as it has been operating for the last few decades is doing some things very well, but it is a long way from perfect, and the way that rich and those in control positions are able to augment their riches while the poor are on an everlasting cycle of working to survive. In the NORTH the survival is “economic”. In the SOUTH survival is “staying alive”.


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