Eight People Own As Much As Than Half The Planet - Time For Common Sense And Decency To Be Put Back Into How We Run Our Economies
By Katy Wright (Head of External Affairs at Oxfam)
Even as a veteran of numerous Oxfam global inequality reports I was shocked when our latest research found that just eight individuals own the same wealth as the poorest half of the planet. That’s 3.6billion people. This year better data, particularly in Asia, shows that the world’s poorest have even less than we thought - and the inequality crisis is far worse than we feared.
For all the talk of growth over the last 40 years, we have to face the fact that most of this economic success has been pocketed by the rich. Since 1988 the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population have seen their incomes rise by just $3 a year. For all the progress made reducing poverty - and there has been welcome progress - one in 9 people around the world still go to bed hungry.
Contrast that with the private jets, champagne and world-class cuisine that characterise the annual World Economic Forum in Davos this week and you have to wonder: do the elites gathering to discuss the state of the world have a clue?
Well, on paper, they seem to be getting it. WEF’s annual risks report has consistently listed inequality among the biggest risks to the global economy. This year it is number one.
But observing this crisis through the pages of the Financial Times is one thing, feeling it is quite another. Many people around the world don’t need another report to tell them what they already experience every day.
Oxfam works with people who know exactly what it’s like to be on bottom end of the spectrum in an unequal world. To give you an idea, picture a young Vietnamese woman called Oanh, too sick to work but too poor to get the kidney transplant she needs. Each day she walks the streets of Hanoi - past flashy cars and Dior boutiques - to work illegally selling tea to finance her dialysis.
Consider Thailla, a bright young student from São Paolo in Brazil. She is fighting the government to keep her school from closing, even though the roof is falling in and there are no desks, because she wants an education.
Their governments have chosen not to invest in poorer citizens like Oanh and Thailla. Brazil is currently pushing through a 20-year freeze on education spending. Meanwhile, wealthy Vietnamese people can receive excellent healthcare and Brazilian kids from rich families attend great schools.
Here in the UK we’ve got a situation where the top 1% own a quarter of all the country’s wealth. One in five people live in poverty.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the political turmoil last year has brought the message home - the undeniable discontent that led to votes for Brexit or President-elect Trump, or Duterte in the Philippines. Maybe these things do keep the elites awake at night, gnawing at them as hunger gnaws at the poorest?
Deep down, I suspect the political and business leaders at Davos know that people are right to feel cheated.
Let’s be clear: today’s broken economy is no inevitable force of nature. The increasing power of the financial sector, ever cheaper labour, the “fourth industrial revolution” of technological advances, such as driverless cars - all of these trends are shaped by political choices.
There is no reason why Apple paid only 0.005% tax on its European profits in 2014 except that it - and other multinationals - can get away with it. There is no reason why the average FTSE CEO is paid 129 times the salary of their average employee, other than un-checked greed.
We live in a distorted world where wealth is so concentrated at the top that the richest one percent own as much as the rest. Oxfam’s report “An Economy for the 99 percent” calls for some common sense - and common decency - to be put back into the way we run our economies so that they work for everyone.
That means an end to tax havens, and higher taxes on the rich so that governments have enough revenue to ensure everyone gets good-quality healthcare and education.
It means a re-think about the role of companies, so they offer a fair deal to workers, producers and customers instead of pushing ever greater profits to shareholders.
And behind all this we need politicians that listen to the voices of the poorest as much as the louder voices of the rich. As Oanh told us: “If I was the minister for health, I would put poor people first.”
So let’s hope there are a few sleepless nights in Davos this year: because things really do need to change. Barack Obama said it well: “A world where the one percent own more than 99 percent of humanity will never be stable.”