Scratching the surface of inequality

The politics of inequality has made a comeback. This week’s UK budget translated the public mood into new taxes on high earners.

People have discovered how rich the rich have become, often in undeserving circumstances, and they don’t like what they see.

Our purpose in publishing OneWorld Guides is to accelerate the discovery of just how poor the poorest countries have become, often in undeserving circumstances. We want the politics of inequality to stretch beyond parochial English envy to a vision of global justice.

Perusing the dire budget figures, I wondered whether we should suspend our work on developing countries and publish a UK Guide instead. We could help to explain how poor the banking fiasco has left us, a task unlikely to be performed by politicians, with an election looming next year.

We’re quite good at extracting the truth about poverty from vague government data. We could start with a reality check on the prospects for some of the benefits that the British take for granted. An axe is undoubtedly now poised over our pensions, subsidised university education, free children’s centres and the mollycoddling army of public servants.

This unfamiliar territory of rich country anxieties ironically serves our higher purpose of explaining the lot of the poorest countries. Unpopular diminution of public services contrasts with their non-existence for the majority of the world’s population. Even a stable, democratic and economically disciplined country such as Mali can only aspire to offer a welfare “safety net” to its people.

Likewise, our obsession with rates of taxation betrays the presence of formal employment for the vast majority, with excess resources available for consumerism. Most developing countries offer real jobs only to minority elites.

This capacity to tax underwrites our ability to embark on the most indulgent peacetime borrowing in our history. Our pension funds will lend money to the government in the belief that 50 year index-linked debts will be repaid. Mali is not in a position to carry off that trick.

Finding these symptoms of the global divide amongst the ruins of the UK recession illustrates how the experience of near-bankruptcy makes us less rich rather than poor.

It’s also a cautionary reminder that traditional development strategies seek to envelop the world’s poorest countries with the same old economic tools of boom and bust. This might be the moment for the poor to reject such a poisoned chalice. We need a new economic tool box, informed by goals of inclusion and ecological wisdom.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK