Take Uganda. According to yet another recent study (this one by the World Bank), it's a country that can look back on a recent record of rising GDP, averaging between four and five percent over the past two decades. And yet, as the experts point out, 94 percent of that growth has come from urban areas, which are home to only 13 percent of the population lives. The difference is easy to see with the naked eye. If you live in Kampala, the capital, you'll have no problem finding a private school for your kids, good internet access, or a perfectly fine hospital (assuming you can afford them, of course). None of these things would have been a given a decade or two ago. Even today, though, you only have to travel a few miles into the countryside to find situations that haven't really changed in years: minimal electricity, no running water, limited opportunities for economic advancement.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the sense of widening inequity has become a sensitive political issue in Uganda -- and not just because many of those who are enjoying the fruits of relative prosperity belong to the political elite as well. (In Uganda, they often turn out to be members of the ruling party of President Yoweri Museveni.) One area where this tension manifests itself is in the debate over public education, which is viewed by many Ugandans (quite rightly, say economists) as the great leveler. If the local public school is failing to give your child the means to compete, you're probably going to be upset about it. Many Americans can undoubtedly identify.
Some might object that such problems are more or less inevitable in a developing country like Uganda. But that's just not true. East Asia's experience over the past fifty years has shown that rapid growth and social equality don't have to be mutually exclusive. So it's all the more disturbing when you hear that people in precisely those countries are complaining about the same problems as Ugandans.
Case in point: Singapore. Over the years the little city-state in Southeast Asia has turned business success into something like a national mission, and its living standards are among the highest in the world. Perhaps even more importantly, no one got left behind. Like so many other East Asian tigers, Singapore managed to spread the wealth even as it created it, maintaining a remarkable societal consensus about the equitable distribution of growth.
So it's all the more surprising that voters in Singapore chose to deliver a startling rebuke to the ruling party last year. While there were undoubtedly many reasons for the result, perhaps the most important, according to this remarkable paper from Singapore National University, was popular discontent fueled by rising economic inequality. Regardless of which measure you take, the authors of the study note, "Singapore has become more unequal in the last ten years or so." Stagnating wages and decreasing social mobility, they say, potentially threaten the remarkable social compact -- implicitly based on the principle of "growth with equity" -- that has characterized Singapore's development for so long.