generosity globalisation poverty wealth

Global inequality is an opportunity too

It’s 2016, and after decades of growth, the global economy stands at over $70 trillion. If that was divided evenly and distributed to every working person in the world, you’d get an income just short of $32,000. But of course that’s not how it works. In reality, half the world’s population gets by on less than $2.50 a day.

I won’t repeat the horrendous statistics on global inequality. We know it’s bad. And I’m not just talking about the billionaires and the extremely wealthy. I am in the top few percent myself. So when we’re thinking about our position of relative privilege, it’s not so much that we’re terribly rich, but that so many people are very poor.

This is something we need to fix – not because we want some idealised future where everyone earns the same, but because nobody should live on $2.50 a day, let alone $1. The global economy could be fairer, unjust power structures can be reformed, global institutions could be more representative. But while those things remain on the to-do list, we actually have a remarkable opportunity.

I hadn’t thought of it this way, but William MacAskill describes it well in his book Doing Good Better. He suggests that because so many people have so little, we can do a huge amount at little cost to ourselves. £2.50 may be the price of a coffee to us, but it’s a day’s wages to somebody else. That means it has far more value if it is spent in the global South – you’d hardly miss it, but it could make a big difference to somebody with almost nothing.

MacAskill calls this the ‘100x multiplier’, arguing that “the same amount of money can be of at least 100 times as much benefit to the very poorest in the world as it can be to typical citizens of the West.” That makes our giving extraordinarily good value. “We shouldn’t be able to do so much to benefit others at so little cost to ourselves, but we live in an unusual place during an unusual time.”

I like this idea, because it doesn’t suggest that we should give generously out of some kind of liberal guilt that we were born in a rich country. It’s not the language of duty or moral obligation so much as an irresistible altruistic bargain. Will we take that offer? The main way to do so is to make sure that our charitable giving is aimed as directly as possible towards the most needy parts of the world. No need to ignore local issues or things that we feel particularly passionate about, but be aware that money spent among the world’s poorest communities will deliver the most good.

Take that opportunity as a gift. As MacAskill says, “few people who have ever existed have had so much power to help others as we have today.”

3 comments

  1. I think it would be good for you to publish what you know on how to make sure that our charitable giving is aimed as directly as possible towards the most needy parts of the world.

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