Photo by Ratana Lay, World Vision
Australia has been captivated this week by the Oxfam report that found that just 62 of the world’s richest people own the same amount of wealth as half the world’s population. That’s more than 3.6 billion people – almost all of them living on less than $2.50 per day.
High levels of wealth inequality aren’t just eyebrow-raising statistics about the lives of the richest men and women in our world; they have negative economic, social, and political consequences across the world.
In Australia’s own region we have seen countries experience strong economic growth without a proportionate reduction in poverty (for example, Papua New Guinea, who had an 8.5% growth in GDP in 2014, has almost 40% of its people living below the poverty line). If the benefits of economic growth primarily flow to the wealthy, it will increase inequality, and reduce the wellbeing of the population. In vulnerable populations, such as with children, this inequality can have lasting and irreparable damage, including a lifetime of poor health and nutrition, poor educational and work opportunities, shorter life expectancy, and more adverse effects which contribute to generational cycles of poverty that are hard to break. With the majority of people living in poverty now located in middle-income countries including Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, reducing inequality – and helping the benefits of economic growth flow to everyone – is increasingly important to reducing poverty.
The level of inequality we see in 2016 is not an unavoidable or inescapable part of life – we can and should take action to reverse it with the right decisions, policies and cooperation.
It is more than possible to stimulate economic development whilst reducing the extreme levels of inequality that the Oxfam report has highlighted. With the right household-level income activity and governmental decision making, conscious and sustainable economic development can positively contribute to the wellbeing of the world’s ‘bottom half’ in two big ways.
Firstly, through creating and training for higher income jobs, it is possible to increase the income of families. Greater incomes at the household level mean that families can invest more in nutritious food, access to clean water and good hygiene, and effective health care. They can also afford more effective child care arrangements and education, leading to better opportunities for their children, which can help break generational poverty and inequality.
Secondly, economic development increases a country’s national resources, which allows governments to spend more on public goods such as health, education, and social services that benefit the entire population. Increased national income also contributes to poverty reduction by allowing for increased private spending on health and education.
Numerous studies of inequality trends have made clear that increased national income alone does not guarantee improvements for the total population, let alone for children. Sustained government commitment is needed to ensure better outcomes for a range of policies that use increased national income to reduce poverty and benefit children.
In order to reduce inequality, we must pay attention to the benefits of growth being shared with those at the bottom of the income distribution. In 2013, World Vision contributed to a report commissioned by the Russian Civil 20 (C20) in the lead up to the St Petersburg G20 summit, which recommended tackling inequality by:
World Vision is currently working in more than 90 countries with children, families, communities and governments to help break down the barriers to accessing the tools and incomes necessary to reduce inequality. In Australia’s own region, World Vision’s economic development projects in Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are changing lives for the better.
World Vision works with communities by providing small loans to create and expand businesses, and help improve access to local and international markets. We also establish community savings groups and provide education and training to foster entrepreneurship. By just doing something as simple as training families to produce more vegetables, families can have better access to the market, a better income, and better futures for their children through investments in their education and health.