Globalization and the wealth–poverty dynamic

Like the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals can be described as aspirational. Although the newer targets have their critics, one reason that they may offer greater hope in reducing poverty is that the planned interventions are more detailed. The target is not only reducing poverty, but addressing the many conditions that feed and cement conditions of poverty, including poor (or negative) economic growth. And the most vulnerable are now being targeted proactively, addressing one of the criticisms of the Millennium Development Goals.

Globalisation and the wealth–poverty dynamic

Globalisation is an important concept to add to the discussion of global wealth and poverty. It refers to a perception that the world is increasingly being moulded into a shared social space by economic and technological forces. Developments in one region of the world can have profound consequences for individuals and communities on the other side of the world. Central to the idea of globalisation is the perception of intensity. As a concept, globalisation is thus said to be ever increasing in scope, scale and speed to the point that it is effectively irrevocable. As such, globalisation is multi-dimensional. For example, globalisation is more than the goods that flow between geographically diverse communities. Globalisation includes not only the what, but also the how and the why, the frequency with which something occurs, the social consequences of this process and the range of people involved. Although the concept of globalisation is contested and subject to many different interpretations, it has clear relevance to the subject of this chapter.

It can be said that the process of becoming more interconnected as a set of nations has worked towards reducing poverty. Certainly the World Bank argues that globalisation has improved the material circumstances of those who have engaged in the global economy. Though such an analysis is accurate at one level, it fails to account for the structural conditions that influence poverty. An alternative view is that globalisation actually causes poverty by further entrenching inequality and concentrating any gains in the hands of those who are already wealthy and in powerful positions. For example, the internet has allowed many individuals to establish successful businesses and sell their goods all over the world. But how can you take advantage of this technology if you live in an area without access to the internet due to poor infrastructure, poverty or war? These citizens get left further behind and the inequalities that already exist are aggravated. Certainly, any analysis of the impact of globalisation on the wealth–poverty dynamic must recognise both of these perspectives. But, globalisation is a complex issue. If globalisation is only viewed in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we will not appreciate the multifaceted nature of global processes.

For the purposes of our analysis, globalisation has opened up many (primarily economic) opportunities, and this is evident in the reduction in numbers of those living in extreme poverty. This has dropped from over half the world’s population in 1981 to within reach of ten per cent today. This figure, from the World Bank, takes into account issues like inflation. But, it can also be said that globalisation has entrenched power relationships and inequalities and this has had material effects on poverty and inequality. A common critique relevant to our discussion on poverty is that globalisation is another word for ‘Americanisation’. According to this critique, many of the economic policies that supposedly ‘open up’ international markets are of benefit to US-based multinational corporations and create fertile ground internationally for American foreign policy objectives. On the other hand, globalisation can also be seen as hybridisation. This view was initially based on the creation of ‘new’ cultures and identities due to colonisation and the destruction of traditional indigenous groups. Applied to the processes of globalisation, hybridity has taken on a more positive character – framing globalisation as a series of processes that serve to benefit all sides involved in the exchange by promoting intercultural development and harmony.

Globalisation and neoliberalism

One reason that poverty has remained a key characteristic of the global economy is a suite of policy initiatives based on the economic philosophy of neoliberalism that have arguably failed the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Since the 1970s, according to Stewart Firth (2005), the priority of the state has been to create and implement policies that promote a neoliberal economic agenda. That is, the opening up and deregulation of markets and the privatisation of essential services. In his book Globalization and its Discontents (2002), former World Bank chief economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz provides a number of examples that highlight how the free market neoliberal agenda has driven the agenda of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization since the 1970s. This has seen trade deals and reforms that minimise the role of government, the removal of trade barriers – even ones that protect workers’ rights – and a reliance on the flawed belief that economic growth and increases in wealth will eventually trickle down to all segments of society. These organisations have fundamentally altered the traditional role of the state, whose priority has been more with the promotion and protection of an open, market-orientated system. States focused on the market often fail to meet the needs of the majority of the population and address poverty. Hence, the philosophy of globalisation, if viewed through the lens of neoliberal policies, has resulted in the welfare of citizens being diminished at many levels.

The global financial crisis of 2008 highlights a bigger challenge for globalisation in addressing the poverty issue. This event began in one nation and quickly reverberated across the world. Due to the interconnected nature of the global economy, what started out as a collapse of the American subprime mortgage market ended up having implications for markets outside the United States. Efforts to reduce poverty were impacted as recession and wealth contraction led to less money being available. Nations prioritised spending at home and foreign direct investment fell as corporations delayed or cancelled projects. These events had negative outcomes with regard to poverty levels in developed nations, but even more so for citizens in developing countries. While significant economic events like this are not common, the risk always remains that in an interconnected global economy the poorest will suffer the most when economic shocks occur.

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