We love to ruminate about globalization and how we've all become citizens of a worldwide community, but it's not always clear what these grand abstractions have to do with our everyday lives. So perhaps it's worth noting that right now there happens to be one particular issue that is prompting passionate debate in all countries, regardless of their living standards. Well-off Westerners are just as exercised about it as Pakistanis and Egyptians.
The topic I have in mind is the apparently widening gap between rich and poor. We used to worry obsessively about the divide between wealthy countries and less-developed ones, but the spread between them is arguably diminishing as once-poor giants like China and India grow, edging towards living standards in the developed world and adding billions to the global middle class. At the same time, though, political debates about inequality are heating up inside many countries, and this seems to be true regardless of where each nation stands in the GDP tables.
Americans, of course, are agonizing over astronomical CEO compensation, institutions that give disproportionate political influence to the wealthy, and the fate of the 99 percent. Europeans are fixated on skyrocketing youth unemployment and the challenge of sustaining bankrupt welfare systems. Japanese and Koreans, proud of their past success at lifting all boats, now fret about a growing gulf between haves and have-nots.
But these privileged populations are not the only ones who are worried. "If you look at most of the countries that have grown rapidly, absolute annual growth rates have been quite robust," says Glenn Firebaugh, a sociology professor at Penn State University who has studied the issue for years. "But it hasn't been distributed proportionately. The rich people have been getting rich faster. That's been the case in most countries."
Last week saw the appearance of two reports on completely separate parts of the world that advance strikingly similar themes. The Asian Development bank's latest annual study of economic development in that region, Outlook 2012, bears the subtitle "Confronting Rising Inequality in Asia" - a phenomenon the ADB attributes to "technological change, globalization, and market-oriented reform." As the report notes, these are precisely the factors that have contributed to the rapid growth in Asia over the past few decades. According to the report's findings, inequality widened in 11 of the 25 countries covered in the survey -- including China, India, and Indonesia, the three giants that have shown some of the strongest growth.
A similar finding emerges from another paper, The State of East Africa 2012, published last week by the Society for International Development. The local newspapers who wrote about it zeroed in on a particularly revealing factoid: the rise in the number of the region's poor, from 44 million to 53 million, over the six-year period covered in the study. Yet, just as in Asia, this comes against a background of otherwise encouraging figures on growth. The report observes, for example, that the number of mobile phone subscriptions in the region rose from 3 million in 2002 to 64 million in 2010 - which means that those subscribers now have easy access to a whole range of services (such as mobile banking) that they may not have enjoyed before.