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Seeds of Poverty & Forests of Wealth

Hal Hixson

"... and in his determination of what he needs he must be governed to a great extent by the gravity of the needs of others."
Thomas Merton - New Seeds of Contemplation

What do we need? How do we determine what are our basic needs and what are luxuries? Once we do this on a personal level, how can we transfer these decisions to a national or even an international level? How can we ensure that the basic needs of every person on earth are met?

Obviously, these questions are hypothetical, since it would take the participation of a high percentage of the population of the world before any real redistribution of resources would take place. The goal of wealth redistribution seems even more far-fetched when we consider the tight grasp with which wealthy powers hold on to their fortunes. And when we add that the gap between the rich and the poor of the world is growing at an exponential rate, the potential for change seems drastically out of reach.

This article seeks to illustrate the vastness of this global wealth gap and, through the use of various economic indicators, show that there really are only a few who sit atop a mountain of money at the expense of a suffering majority. This inequality will be further explored through an analysis of the factors that encircle and contribute to it, such as the massive debts burdening developing nations and the increasing reluctance of the West to respond to emergencies in the developing world. Specific consideration will be given to the economic relationship between the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa, a dichotomy that clearly expresses the magnitude of the gap. Through these various observations, a picture of the economic inequity in the world will hopefully emerge and, with it, some possible steps toward its remedy.


It is always interesting to note the origins of an argument and the foundations on which it stands. The seeds that grew into this article came from several sources, all of which moved my thoughts toward the desire to write an analysis of the current international economic milieu. The initial inspiration came as I milled my way through a mass of African children, their small hands grabbing mine as a multitude of tiny heads bobbed along. In January 2000, I was in Jos, Nigeria, being led by a team of missionary doctors through the narrow streets of "Blind Town," a subsection of a city that is a virtual sea of hunger and want. Here, first-hand, I saw the realities that people in developing nations face in the shadow of the unprecedented success of global capitalism. And as I sat through the 16-hour plane ride from the heat of West Africa to the crisp chill of Midwest America, the divide between the richest and the poorest of the world's populations took rigid form in my mind.

The second source of motivation was a National Public Radio commentary that aired around July 4, 2000. The commentator, Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and editor of The American Prospect, sought to let a gust of air out of the bulbous red-white-and blue economic balloon that is the United States by pointing out that though it has become the richest and most powerful nation on earth, America's altruistic impulses are most certainly waning: "Independence Day is a great occasion to celebrate our nation's greatness, but if we think that we're really independent of the rest of the world and won't suffer the long-term effects of global poverty, we're not nearly as great or as smart as we think we are" (Reich, U.S. Gives, 2000). As fireworks cracked and millions of flags flew, I once again thought about the enormous economic gulf that separates America from the rest of the world.

The third and most direct impetus for the construction of this analysis was a single sentence, a portion of which provides the opening quotation for this piece. They are the words of Thomas Merton, monk, activist and poet, and they speak to the central theme of this article -- indeed, they speak to a fundamental mandate of life, a principle that should inform any action. But Merton's words do not simply demand a compassion for other people. They instead require that we take others' needs into account when we determine how much we ourselves need. So, in turn, these words not only condemn the proliferation of poverty but also the acceptance and glorification of gluttony. This idea is, of course, central to any criticism of abundant opulence, but the way in which Merton phrases the thought cuts right to the center of greed and leaves us to justify our rapacity in the eyes of the great equalizer. And so, from these collective "seeds of contemplation," gathered over many months, grew the following discussion and all its subsequent conclusions.

Basics of Distribution Inequities

It seems logical that if we want to look at the distribution of wealth in the world, we should begin by looking at the extreme ends to the spectrum. Of course, at the top of the heap is America, a country that has an economy that is growing at a faster rate than any other time in its history. In fact, in the past twenty years, the wealth of America grew from $7 trillion to $32 trillion, a rate that exceeded federal expenditures by 400 percent (Reich, It's the Year 2000 Economy, 2000). This is a staggering statistic, but when you consider that not only is America the richest country on earth, but its internal distribution of wealth is wildly disproportionate, you begin to appreciate the conclusion that it is truly a tiny few who control the majority of the world's wealth. To illustrate this disparity further, consider that the richest 20 percent of Americans have incomes that have risen twice as fast as those of the middle 20 percent while the average annual income of the poorest 20 percent has actually dropped from $10,000 in 1997 to its current level of $8,800 (Reich, It's the Year 2000 Economy, 2000). As the richest members of the richest country on earth are getting richer faster, the poorest members of the richest nation on earth are getting poorer. Now, if you throw the rest of the world into the equation, the distance between the top (the richest 20 percent of Americans) and the bottom (the poorest of the developing world) is nearly too great to fathom.

In relation to the rest of the world, America is the economic superpower. With its population comprising only five percent of the world total, America produces 27 percent of the world's total economic output (Reich, U.S. Gives, 2000). This leaves 73 percent of the wealth to be divided among the remaining 95 percent of the world's population and of course, this is not distributed evenly. In fact, the share delegated to the poor of the world is slowly dwindling. In the past decade per capita income has dropped in 80 nations, and 20 percent of the world's population live in degrading poverty, each member of this bracket struggling to survive on less than $1 per day (Bekele, 1999). And as this substantial population of the world is plunged further into poverty, the West continues to turn its back. In the past ten years the proportion of wealth spent by the West on humanitarian aid has gone down by 30 percent (Oxfam, 2000). Specifically, the U.S. falls next to last among twenty-one industrialized nations in per capita aid, giving only $29 per year per American to poor nations (Reich, U.S. Gives, 2000). So not only is the wealth divide widening, but the amount of money that rich countries are willing to give to compensate is rapidly decreasing.

Another prominent indication of the West's unwillingness to face the problem of international inequalities is its growing reluctance to tend to emergencies in the developing world. A review issued by the World Health Organization in July 2000 reports that nearly a quarter of its appeals to international donors to support life-saving health programs for victims of war, population displacement and natural disaster yielded zero response. Overall, the WHO has suffered major losses in support recently that affect its ability to provide adequate health care in the developing world. The WHO has received only a fraction (less than 27 percent) of the funds that it requested through the United Nations Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP), the process by which the UN gathers humanitarian aid funds from donor countries and distributes these funds to organizations (WHO, 2000). To give perspective to this statistic, consider that for 2001 the total amount requested from the CAP by all organizations is $2.26 billion -- the price of two jet fighters (Mountain, 2000).

Not only is total response dwindling, but levels of response vary with respect to geographical region. For instance, in a briefing issued by Oxfam, statistics indicate that the monetary response of the West to the crisis in the former Yugoslavia was far greater than to any of the comparable African crises. In the height of emergency, the former Yugoslavia garnered crisis funds equivalent to $207.29 per person while Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola, all countries with raging civil wars, received only $16, $8.40 and $47.98 per capita respectively (Oxfam, 2000). In addition to these regional disparities, organizations also suffer from inequities related to the type of work that they do. For example, the World Food Program received 48.6 percent of its required CAP funds while the WHO received only 22.7 percent. This shows an increasing trend toward support of food-related programs over non-food assistance. This is troubling because non-food assistance, including health, education and sustainable livelihood projects, are essential to building peaceful and self-enhancing societies. Although emergency food aid is vitally important, reluctance to fund non-food assistance only contributes to future difficulties. Thus, even within the small amount of money that is contributed toward humanitarian aid, discrepancies in funding persist.


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