The richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half the world's wealth, according to a new study released by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University.
The study's authors say their work is the most comprehensive study of personal wealth ever undertaken. They found the richest 1 percent of adults owned 40 percent of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10 percent of adults accounted for 85 percent of the world's total.
In contrast, the assets of half of the world's adult population account for barely 1 percent of global wealth.
"It reflects the extreme nature of inequality around the world," one of the study's authors, New York University Professor Edward Wolff, told OneWorld. "Yes, we are richer than Africa and Latin America and most of Asia, but how much richer is what hadn't really been established until our study came out," Wolff added.
According to the report, the average American's wealth amounted to $144,000 in the year 2000, more than 100 times higher than the average Indian or Indonesian, whose assets totaled $1,100 and $1,400, respectively.
The study defined wealth as physical and financial assets--like personal savings and home, land, and stock ownership--less debts.
Besides the United States, only Canada, Western Europe, Japan, and Israel showed average personal wealth of more than $50,000.
Pakistan, Vietnam, Cambodia, many former Soviet Republics, and most of sub-Saharan Africa showed average personal wealth of under $2,000.
Conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Sudan did not report data.
"This is a reminder that most people do not live the way middle class Americans live," David Rauchman of the Washington, DC-based Center for Global Development told OneWorld. "That comes out of two centuries or more of history where North America and Europe have experienced steady and fairly rapid industrial development. Meanwhile, places like Asia and Africa haven't so much."
Rauchman said foreign aid programs and philanthropy would go part of the way toward closing the international wealth gap, but trade and immigration policies are also important.
"If we make it easier for clothing manufacturers and farmers in Bangladesh or Mali to ship their goods to the United States so Americans can buy them, that will help and it will be good for us too," he said. "Same thing for immigration. It's good for Mexico if Mexicans can come to the United States and send money home. If we make it easier for people to come and participate in our economy, it's actually good for economies in the rest of the world."
But unfettered free trade tends to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor, says Anuradha Mittal of the California-based Oakland Institute, a think tank that specializes in social, economic, and environmental issues. She says the rise of free trade has increased the wealth gap, both internationally and inside many countries.
Mittal cites as an example the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed in 1992 by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. "Instead of Mexico being able to export its food to the United States, what's really happened is that U.S. corn exports to Mexico have tripled, pushing 2 million Mexican corn farmers out of business. And those are the very people who then migrate [to the United States]."
Those migrants then work for low wages inside the United States, Mittal argues, pushing wages for all workers down.
In addition, says Mittal, "when you talk about the ability to export you're talking about big plantations, which creates further inequities inside of countries. You're not going to be talking about [improving livelihoods for] small farmers in Mexico or Honduras or India."
One solution put forward by the authors of the United Nations University report is expanding access to microcredit--small loans given to poor people who are not able to get traditional lines of credit from regular banks. The loans, which are often used to help establish or improve small businesses, have proved to be quite safe, with many lenders experiencing repayment rates close to 100 percent.
This month, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering microcredit program. Yunus shared the award with the Grameen Bank, which he founded 30 years ago. The bank gives small, unsecured loans to nearly 7 million impoverished Bangladeshis--almost all of whom are women.
Yunus started by lending 42 people a total of $27.
"The excitement that was created among the people by this action got me further involved in it," he said in his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo. "If I could make so many people so happy with such a tiny amount of money, why shouldn't I do more of it? That's what I have been trying to do ever since."
"Grameen Bank gives collateral-free income-generating loans, housing loans, student loans, and micro-enterprise loans to poor families and offers a host of attractive savings, pension funds, and insurance products for its members," Yunus added.
But despite its benefits, Mittal notes that microcredit alone is unlikely to put a significant dent in the international wealth gap.
"Research shows that more than 55 percent of borrowers after eight years of borrowing are still using their loans to buy food," she said. "So while microcredit is a good survival strategy, it is not a solution for development."
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