If you could make one New Year’s wish for your country, what would it be?
For many Malaysians, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s wish for “a safer, more prosperous, and more equal society” likely resonated with their hopes for 2015.
Malaysians appear to be increasingly concerned about income inequality. According to a 2014 Pew Global survey, 77% of Malaysians think that the gap between the rich and poor is a big problem. The government has acknowledged that inequality remains high, and that tackling these disparities will be Malaysia’s “biggest challenge” in becoming a high-income nation.
How can Malaysia narrow the gap between the rich and poor? Global experience suggests two possible levers to achieve a more equitable income distribution.
In 1954, the World Bank’s first mission report on Malaya – as the soon-to-be-independent country was called then – expressed concern about its development prospects. The mission was “favorably impressed with Malaya’s economic potentialities and prospects for expansion.” But it questioned whether the “rates of economic progress and additions to employment opportunities can move ahead of or even keep up with the pace at which the population and the labor force are growing.”
Sixty years and 25 million more Malaysians later, hindsight proved such worries overdone as income per capita climbed from USD 250 at the time of the report to over USD$10,000 today.
With its successful economic and social development, Malaysia is now actively moving into a new role as a global development partner—supporting other countries in ending poverty and sharing lessons from its journey to become a regional economic powerhouse. This new role is a natural fit for a nation in transition toward a high-income status, and a big gain for the rest of us.
While the world has seen a rapid reduction in extreme poverty in recent decades, the goal of ‘ending poverty’ by 2030 remains ambitious. The latest estimates show that 1 billion people (14.5% of the world’s population) lived below the $1.25 threshold in 2011. Projections until 2030 suggest that even under optimistic growth scenarios, the global poverty target may not be reached. The latest World Bank estimates show that if developing countries were to grow at the (rather unprecedentedly high) rates they achieved during the 2000’s the global poverty headcount could decline from 14.5% in 2011 to 4.9% in 2030 – short of ‘ending poverty’. These projections assume distribution-neutral growth – that every individual’s income within each country grows at the same rate, essentially keeping inequality unchanged. As in the past, overall growth will be an important driver of future poverty reduction, but the inclusiveness of growth will also matter.
When I got that quote by the French philosopher tattooed on my arm, I wasn’t thinking about world poverty. I wasn’t thinking about the environment or peace or conflict or starvation or social justice. In fact, aside from puzzling over which recycling bin my coffee cup goes in, I didn’t think about much outside of my own world. Like so many others, I have plenty of my own problems to worry about, let alone ending world poverty. It’s easy to get caught up in our own lives. That daily crush of details — getting to work on time or paying the bills — can swallow up years. But if everyone only focused on what’s happening in their own world, then nothing would ever get better.
In Even it Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality, Oxfam has delivered another powerful report making the case that tackling inequality is essential to create a more just world and to eliminate extreme poverty. I was asked to comment on this newly released report at an October 31 event held at the IMF, and was as impressed by the presentation as I was with the report.
Oxfam effectively uses research findings to advocate for policy changes to reduce global inequality. This statistics-laden report also wisely features compelling stories about real people, helping the reader to better understand how vast disparities in wealth adversely affect wellbeing. Oxfam has consistently argued to bring inequality to the fore of policy discussions, and not surprisingly, this report appears to have created a groundswell for their global #Even It Up campaign. While there were instances where I found myself questioning the quality of some references supporting a few statements and estimates, my overall reaction was that the ‘big picture’ claims of the report were well substantiated. In my comments, I suggest that if this report is a call to action, a useful next step for Oxfam or a partner in this work, will be to bring more clarity to what it means to eliminate extreme inequality. Establishing a goal or a measure to monitor progress will help to create better policies, and ensure better collaboration across governments and institutions.
The 85 richest individuals in the world own as much as 3.5 billion of the poorest people, according to Oxfam. It's a staggering statistic, but it has friends.
The 2014 Global Wealth Databook by Credit Suisse reports the bottom 50% of the world's population own less than 1% of its wealth, the richest 10% hold 87%, and the top 1% alone possess 48.2%.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group also stated in the Global Monitoring Report that while the number of people living in extreme poverty is decreasing, the gap between the haves and the have nots is increasing. Today, the world's richest 10% earn 9.5 times more than the poorest 10% of the world. Twenty-five years ago, they earned 7 times more than their less fortunate peers.
Taking a closer look at East Africa, Ben Taylor (mtega), an Open Development Consultant with Twaweza, finds that the richest 1% in East Africa own as much wealth as the poorest 91%. The six wealthiest individuals in the region own as much as 50% of the region’s population or 66 million people.
The data and processes needed to measure global poverty and gauge improvements in the prosperity of the bottom 40% of people in each country present complex challenges and provoke considerable debate amongst poverty experts.
From the comparability of household surveys and their use in policy design to the utility of purchasing power parity data as a unifying standard for measuring the poor, the devil in global poverty analysis is in the details. It’s also vital to understand the World Bank’s recently adopted twin goals in a broader context, to see how they fit into a broader array of monitorable indicators that each come with their own specific features and insights. We must also listen to client governments and outside partners when they prefer to go beyond income to look at multidimensional social welfare functions.
The World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and World Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu had some answers in a live-streamed conversation, Building Shared Prosperity in an Unequal World, with Chinese media entrepreneur Yang Lan in the lead-up to the institution’s Annual Meetings on Wednesday morning.
In April 2013, the World Bank Group endorsed two ambitious goals: (1) to end extreme poverty by 2030, and; (2) to promote “shared prosperity” by boosting the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of the population in every country. The introduction of the second goal marked a shift in the World Bank Group’s poverty reduction mission. Some might consider the goal #2 to constitute a refinement of a longer-standing -- albeit implicit -- emphasis on growth, widely considered a necessary condition for poverty reduction.
Is goal #1, ending extreme poverty by 2030, paramount and is goal #2 subsidiary to that first objective? On the other hand, if these two goals are prioritized equally, what might this mean for the extreme poor? What are the trade-offs between boosting the incomes of the bottom 40 percent in every developing country and ending extreme poverty globally?