In The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, Jason Hickel challenges the progress narrative that has shaped perceptions of global poverty, arguing that there is a widening gulf that is a direct product of the political order. This is a well-written and highly readable diagnosis of the current causes and state of global inequality, writes John Picton, and an optimistic manifesto for change.
The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions. Jason Hickel. William Heinemann. 2017.
It is now often thought that extreme poverty is disappearing. That view has far-reaching political implications. If it can be said that the global system ain’t broke, then there is no need to fix it. In The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, Jason Hickel attacks our contemporary ‘progress narrative’, arguing that global poverty is both an urgent issue and a direct product of the political order.
The book is written in a highly readable style and is accessible to a non-expert. It provides an overview of the world system and contains three stand-out themes: the persistence of extreme poverty; the environmental impact of global growth; and the claim that charity does little to help.
The Persistence of Extreme Poverty
Hickel lances the contemporary progress narrative surrounding global poverty. If unacceptable poverty is understood as living on $1.25 a day – the success level used by the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals – it might reasonably be said that large numbers of people have been lifted up since 1990 (51), taking into account the astonishing state-led growth of China and East Asia.
But even if we accept $1.25 as an aspirational target, because the fruits of global growth are unevenly distributed, it would still take 100 years to eradicate poverty at current rates. It would take an epochal 207 years to eradicate it at a more realistic – but still very low – $5 a day (57). When we account for hunger, the picture is even more bleak. People in low-wage jobs are likely to do calorie-consuming manual work and also suffer from calorie-consuming diseases. Accounting for the high activity levels of the very poor, global malnutrition is also rising (46).
However, the key point for Hickel is not an argument over the data. It is that the statistics chosen to underpin the progress narrative make up the palette of a highly political picture. Framing the world economy in terms of fast improvement justifies the status quo.
Image Credit: (Sento CC BY SA 2.0)
The Environmental Impact of Global Growth
Economic growth is only half the story. In order to achieve a future world in which the mass of the world’s poor are lifted to $5 a day – itself a minimal standard – global GDP would have to increase 175 times (57). Even if this is the plan, it is not environmentally possible.
Following current projections, if the planet heats up by 3.7 °c – 4 °c, then Amsterdam and New York would fall under water (248), the Amazon would turn to savannah and global agricultural production would be under the most severe type of stress. As Hickel puts it: ‘I sometimes wonder why anyone is talking about development at all […] when the whole edifice is at risk of collapsing’ (249).
For Hickel, there is no alternative but to abandon global economic growth (287). Expansion in consumption might be restricted to those countries still facing poverty. He argues that this would not be an impossible sacrifice. By way of an example, Costa Rica, with a GDP per capita of only $10,000, has both a longer average life expectancy and a statistically happier population than the United States (289). Using these alternative measures, a very different picture of economic success can be painted.
Charity does Little to Help
The Divide also makes the striking claim that global aid masks the true cause of poverty due to a ‘development delusion’ (10). For Hickel, the benefits of aid transfers are greatly outweighed by the problems caused by sovereign debt (257) and the linked system of ‘remote control’ power. For instance, during the 1980s and 1990s, the International Monetary Fund helped poor countries finance ballooning debts, but only on the condition that they underwent programmes of so-called ‘structural adjustment’ – selling off public industries, opening up to foreign goods and limiting welfare provision (154). This created an increase in global poverty (158).
In the present day, a country defaulting on debt would likely be frozen out of the world financial system and so face economic collapse. It is for this reason that Hickel argues charity is a distraction. In place of aid, he puts forward the view that those poor countries paying ever-expanding compound interest should have their debts straightforwardly written off (260).
The Divide is an extremely clear and well-argued diagnosis of our contemporary economic malaise. It confronts the reader with the impossibility of environmentally sustainable development within the parameters of the current global system and puts forward an optimistic manifesto for change. As Hickel writes: ‘when myths fall apart, revolutions happen’ (13).
However, despite its optimistic manifesto of solutions, evidence of a darker perspective can be found within the book’s own pages. Hickel charts the now centuries-old history of capitalism. He notes that food was exported from Ireland during the seven-year potato famine which began in 1845 (84), and that throughout the later nineteenth century, it was also exported from India despite sustained famine there too (87).
This should make us doubt the link between crisis and change. Neither instance of environmental catastrophe caused a shift towards fairer economics. The logic of the system continued. Commodities were sold in the markets where they had the most value. Producers sought the best prices. Order was largely maintained. The power of the profit motive is of such great strength that even the worst types of failure might not bring about a challenge to the status quo.
While Hickel’s diagnosis is correct – the global economic structure is both unfair and unsustainable – it takes an awful lot to make a patient change their habits.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.