Billionaires’ blind optimism on world poverty?

February 14, 2019
These workers are harvesting potatos for $4 a day, which is above the official measure of poverty.

As some of the rich and powerful gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month, Oxfam International issued a report revealing that the combined fortunes of the world’s billionaires rose by 12% last year as the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11%.

On the eve of the Davos meeting, one of the lucky billionaires, Bill Gates (estimated by Forbes to be the second richest person in the world) sent out a tweet to his 46.4 million followers hailing the great progress that was being made in combating poverty, disease, illiteracy and tyranny.

“A lot of people underestimate just how much life has improved over the last two centuries,” Gates tweeted, along with six graphs that purported to show that life was improving dramatically for most people.

But Gates' optimism has been strongly challenged by progressive British anthropologist Jason Hickel

In an opinion piece in the January 29 Guardian, Hickel wrote: “Of the six graphs — developed by Max Roser of Our World in Data — the first has attracted the most attention by far. It shows that the proportion of people living in poverty has declined from 94% in 1820 to only 10% today.”

“The claim is simple and compelling,” Hickel writes, adding that “Gates [has] gone even further, saying we shouldn’t complain about rising inequality when the very forces that deliver such immense wealth to the richest are also eradicating poverty before our very eyes.”

“It’s a powerful narrative. And it’s completely wrong.”

Hickel notes that the graph purporting to show a huge decline in extreme poverty since 1821 completely glosses over the real experience of billions of people who were forcibly deprived of any means of subsistence and left with no alternative but to become wage slaves.

It whitewashes the bloody history of colonisation, Hickel wrote. “Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons — land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity.

“They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well — so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor.

“This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.”

Hickel also challenges the totally inadequate official measure of poverty, US$1.90 a day: “Scholars have been calling for a more reasonable poverty line for many years. Most agree that people need a minimum of about $7.40 per day to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy, plus a half-decent chance of seeing their kids survive their fifth birthday.”

If we applied this poverty line, 4.2 billion people would be considered to be living in poverty, with the number dramatically rising since 1981, when the first comparable statistics became available.

This is not to argue that there have not been huge strides in technology, production and education. Indeed, given these advances, it is only reasonable to expect that extreme poverty should have been abolished altogether by now instead of inequality racing to obscene new records.

“This is a ringing indictment of our global economic system, which is failing the vast majority of humanity,” Hickel writes.

We at Green Left Weekly strongly agree.

Hickel concludes: “Our world is richer than ever before, but virtually all of it is being captured by a small elite. Only 5% of all new income from global growth trickles down to the poorest 60% — and yet they are the people who produce most of the food and goods that the world consumes, toiling away in those factories, plantations and mines to which they were condemned 200 years ago.

“It is madness — and no amount of mansplaining from billionaires will be adequate to justify it.”

It would be naive to accuse Gates and his fellow billionaires of blind optimism. It suits the super rich to assure us that their system is working. Let us get richer and the benefits will eventually trickle down, they say.

Only it isn't.

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