Rising inequality could set the fight against poverty back by decades. Oxfam warned today as it published a new report showing that the number of billionaires worldwide has more than doubled since the financial crisis.
The report, Even it Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality, details how the richest people in the world have more money than they could ever spend while hundreds of millions live in abject poverty without essential health care or basic education.
In countries around the world, prosperity is not trickling down to ordinary people, but up to those at the top, whose exceptional wealth is growing ever more rapidly. The richest 85 people - who Oxfam revealed in January as having the same wealth as the poorest half of the world's population - saw their collective wealth increase by $668 million per day between 2013 and 2014. That's almost half a million dollars every minute.
Worldwide personalities talk about tackling extreme inequality
From the IMF to the Pope, from President Obama to the World Economic Forum, there is a growing consensus that inequality is a crucial challenge of our time and that failure to act is both economically and socially damaging. Despite the warm words, little action has materialised.
The Oxfam report, endorsed by Graça Machel, Kofi Annan and Joseph Stiglitz among others (5), is the opening salvo of a new Oxfam campaign, also called Even it Up, to push world leaders to turn rhetoric into reality and ensure the poorest people get a fairer deal. Action is needed to clamp down on tax dodging carried out by multinational corporations and the world's richest individuals. Big global corporations and the wealthiest people must pay their fair share to governments' coffers, so that countries can tackle inequality and build fairer societies.
A barrier to prosperity
Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International Executive Director, said: "Far from being a driver of economic growth, extreme inequality is a barrier to prosperity for most people on the planet. Today wealth is trickling upwards, and will continue to do so until governments act. We should not allow narrow-minded economic doctrine and the self-interest of the rich and powerful blind us to these facts.
"Around the world millions of people are dying due to a lack of health care and millions of children are missing out on school, while a small elite have more money than they could spend in a lifetime.
"Inequality hinders growth, corrupts politics, stifles opportunity and fuels instability while deepening discrimination, especially against women," said Byanyima.
Investing for the many
The potential benefit of redistributing the wealth of the very richest, by even a tiny amount, tells a compelling story. A levy of just 1.5 per cent on the wealth of the world's billionaires today could raise enough each year to get every child into school and deliver health care in the poorest countries.
The effect of curbing inequality would be as dramatic as would be the failure to act. In India, for example, halting the recent increase in inequality could enable 90 million more people escape extreme poverty by 2019. In Kenya, 3 million more people could be pushed below the poverty line by the same year if inequality there remains at current levels rather than declining slightly.(8)
Byanyima added, "Tackling inequality is not about being envious of fast cars and super yachts - it's about the fact that the richest literally live longer and healthier lives than the poorest. We live in a world where there is plenty enough for everyone to improve their lot. Extreme inequality causes instability, conflict and even mental health problems that affect us all. It is time to even it up before it gets worse."
Investment in free public services will be crucial to closing the gap between the richest and the rest. Every year, 100 million people are driven into poverty because they are forced to pay for health care.
From 2009-2014, at least one million women died in childbirth due to a lack of basic health services. Meanwhile, education fees still exclude far too many. In Ghana, for instance, the poorest families would have to pay 40% of their income to send just one child to a low-fee school, underlining the importance of free education for all.
But for those at the top it's a different tale as they have enough assets to last them well beyond their years. If the world's three richest people were to spend $1m every single day each, it would take each one of them around 200 years to exhaust all of their wealth.(10) This is not a rich country story; today there are 16 billionaires in Sub-Saharan Africa, alongside the 358 million people living there in extreme poverty, while in South Africa, inequality is now greater than it was at the end of apartheid.
If African countries continue on their current growth trajectory with no change in levels of income inequality, then the continent's poverty rate won't fall below three percent - the World Bank's definition of ending poverty - until 2075. IMF (2014) 'Fiscal Policy and Income Inequality', IMF Policy Paper, Figure 8, Washington, D.C.: IMF, The target set by the IMF and the World Bank for ending poverty is 2030.
Oxfam research in early 2014 found that the 85 richest individuals in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. This figure was based on the wealth of the 85 billionaires at the time of the annual Forbes report in March 2013. W
In the period March 2013 to March 2014, Oxfam found that the wealth of the 85 richest individuals in the world, as identified in the Working for the Few paper, rose again by a further 14 per cent, or $244bn. This equates to a $668m increase a day; $463,888.89 every minute.
A 1.5 per cent tax on billionaires' wealth over $1bn in 2014 would raise $74bn - calculated using wealth data according to Forbes as of 4 August 2014. The current annual funding gap for providing Universal Basic Education is $26bn a year according to UNESCO, and the annual gap for providing key health services (including specific interventions such as maternal health, immunisation, for major diseases like HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, and for significant health systems strengthening to see these and other interventions delivered) in 2015 is $37bn a year according to the WHO.
In India, reducing inequality by 10 Gini coefficient points, the equivalent of a 36 per cent reduction, could almost eliminate extreme poverty altogether, by lifting 173 million people out of extreme poverty.
In Kenya, reducing inequality by 5 Gini coefficient points, the equivalent of a 12 percent reduction, could lift 3 million more Kenyans out of extreme poverty than if inequality remains at current levels.