The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The West and the rest. Developing countries and developed ones. These tired concepts dominate our view of the world – a world that, the way most of us see it, is divided between a mass of impoverished human beings struggling for their daily bread and a small, privileged minority who have all that they want and more.
The pandemic has only underlined this us-and-them way of looking at things. The virus has been kind to the super-rich and cruel to the poor. Low-income countries were battered by the global economic downturn. Moguls such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos saw their fortunes balloon.
But the real story of our time isn’t the further enrichment of the rich or the deepening impoverishment of the poor – in fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in dire poverty has halved in the past 20 years. The real story is the rise of those in between: the global middle. This world-shaking change goes all but ignored in the narrative of rich versus poor. It deserves more of our attention.
Not so very long ago, the world really was divided almost exclusively into rich and poor. The vast majority of people could look forward to a life that was truly nasty, brutish and short; a tiny elite lorded it over them.
The past few decades have seen this old system steadily crumble. The expansion of global commerce, the fall of communism in Europe, the industrialization of China and India, advances in science, medicine, computing and communications tech – all these things lifted living standards to new heights. Where 200 years ago 90 per cent of people lived in extreme poverty, the figure today is just 10 per cent. The great majority – about three-quarters – live not in very poor countries or in rich ones, but in middle-income places such as Argentina, Costa Rica, Indonesia and the Philippines.
A new report from Credit Suisse says the number of people with wealth between US$10,000 and US$100,000 has more than tripled since the turn of the century, growing to 1.7 billion. “This reflects the growing prosperity of emerging economies, especially China, and the expansion of the middle class in the developing world.” Today, the report says, “about one person escapes extreme poverty every second; but five people a second are entering the middle class.”
That is a triumph by any measure. It means that more and more people can afford to send their kids to school, get access to clean water and good food, buy refrigerators, televisions, mobile phones and motorbikes. It means they live longer, healthier, more productive lives and even have the means to enjoy a little leisure.
Yet most people in rich countries are barely aware of this transformation. The Swedish global-health professor Hans Rosling used to quiz people on what they knew about global development. One of the questions was: “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has … A: almost doubled; B: remained more or less the same; C: almost halved.” Less than one in 10 correctly picked C.
Most people simply refuse to believe that things can be getting better for so many millions – no, hundreds of millions – of people. We are too firmly locked into our clichéd view of a world split between the very rich and the very poor, separated from each other by a yawning, widening gap. The media, I’m sorry to say, feed that perception. We like drama and conflict. The “growing chasm” between rich and poor makes for good copy.
It is just not true. Comprehending that is a key to global progress.
Those who fight on behalf of the poor tend to talk mainly about the continuing struggles of the world’s dispossessed. That’s understandable: Far, far too many people still live in desperate, unacceptable conditions. But it’s just as important to talk about how many people have climbed out of poverty into something better. The “developing world” – that term should be retired – is not a collection of broken-down countries. It is a dynamic, growing, changing place, full of striving people who have managed to improve their lives and the prospects of their children.
We should applaud their success and resolve to help even more people make the leap to the global middle.
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