How did the world come to this – the poorest 40% of the population only account for 5% of global income. What’s even crazier is that the 8 most wealthy people in the world (only 0.0000001% of the world’s population), combined, have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the total population. That’s $426 billion in the hands of just 8 men. At first glance, this definitely looks like a massive problem! You would think that the likes of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg (who are all part of these 8 men) would be a bit more generous. I mean, under 5% of their total wealth ($20 billion) was the GDP of Afghanistan in 2016!
How did this come to be? There are more than enough resources in the world to cater for the needs of every single human being who lives on it – is the problem just that some people are more selfish than others? It has to be the case: people are not willing to share. This certainly supports the utility maximisation theory (i.e. that consumers always want the most satisfaction possible), so maybe we, the economists, were right all along. After all, if people really were morally conscious and empathetic towards others, then 1 person wouldn’t die every 4 seconds due to a lack of food.
Ok, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions too quickly – I mean you, a caring, friendly person, cannot be responsible for the severe malnourishment of millions of children. But tell me something, when you walked past that homeless man on the street on your way to work this morning, did you offer him any money? I’ll admit it, I didn’t. For me, the possibility of the homeless man using the money to fuel a drug or alcohol addiction was too great – how could I guarantee that the money would buy resources to improve his situation? Well, I could have bought him a sandwich. But how would I know which sandwich fillings he likes? He may have allergies that I’m not aware of. Ok then, I could perhaps buy him some warm, comfortable clothes. But I don’t know his clothing size, or his colour preferences. You could argue that if his situation is so desperate, then he won’t care whether I get him a blue jacket or an orange one, however, wealthy people walk past him every day so I’m sure he must care about his appearance as his clothes are probably his only possessions. Alternatively, you could also argue that I should just ask the man about his tastes and preferences but doing this would show my lack of trust in him – why should I go with him to buy him some food/clothes when I could just give him the money and let him do it alone?
From the above discussion, I’ve come to the conclusion that helping the few homeless people in our neighbourhoods isn’t as easy as it seems. If we can’t meet the needs of the poor in our local communities, what hope do we have to help a whole developing country where the majority of the population is poor? To this day, the extreme living conditions of some people in the world astound me. For example, in Mumbai, each person has 1.1 square metres of open space; compared to the equivalent figure for London which is 31.68 square metres, 1.1 square metres seems like living in a small, cardboard box.
However, from experience I can tell you that the poorest of people can be the happiest. Likewise, the richest of people can be the most dissatisfied. The truth is, maybe we’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem this whole time – maybe the aim should be to alleviate stress, sadness and discontent in the world instead of trying to alleviate poverty.
Who knows, the poor people in the world might be happy with their lives – subjecting them to the developed world through financial aid and other acts of ‘kindness’ might be making them worse off. Think about it, if you were living with a tribe in a remote part of Africa with no knowledge of the luxuries of living in New York, you would have no reason to be resentful of your situation. In fact, you wouldn’t even need things like financial aid from the developed world. I bet you would be happier if charities like Oxfam didn’t keep hassling you and reminding you of the life you could have had if you were born in the rich suburbs of Chicago. Introducing the poor to these luxurious lifestyles through the provision of televisions and Internet access probably makes them more depressed, don’t you agree?
Therefore, although I’m sure that charities like Oxfam have good intentions and beliefs, they might be better off doing nothing at all. I propose that they let people live their lives, whether that be in a remote, poor village in India, or in a filthy rich neighbourhood in New York. After all, money isn’t what we need to have a happy life. We need food, shelter and strong relationships with others. I have confidence that anyone in the developing world can live their own happy life, so long as the guilty conscious of the wealthy don’t interrupt it.
Nonetheless, this still doesn’t solve the issue of the homeless man on the street whom I walked past this morning. For him, I’m not really sure what the solution could be. In my eyes, his situation is worse than those living in the most impoverished areas of the world because here, in the developed world, he is a minority. As a homeless man, he isn’t trusted with money (due to drug/alcohol addictions as described before) and he is forced to watch all of the wealthy people around him enjoy luxuries every single day. A sense of community and belonging is what the man needs the most so maybe this is what we should provide (if you have any ideas please let me know in the comments below!).
This post was partly inspired by the Poor Economics book – the start of the post talks about ideas from the book but then my thought process took over… due to this, I am aware that there may be some inaccuracies in this post so if you have read anything hugely invalid then please let me know in the comments below. Thanks in advance.
Also, the book I linked above is one of the best books I’ve ever read – it’s taught me so much so I would highly recommend checking it out.
Here’s a podcast episode from Freakonomics which you might like if you enjoyed this post.
The featured image for this post is from the Scottish Housing News.
These are some sources where I got some statistics from: