I’ve read two very contrasting books this week, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, and Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now.

I haven’t yet finished The Divide, so I’ve been wading through a whole load of inequality and haven’t got to the solutions part yet, but the earlier parts of the book about how we ended up in such an unequal world are shocking in an invigorating kind of a way. The author, Jason Hickel, is originally from Swaziland, so has experienced what it is like to live in the global South. His main contention is that the widespread poverty in the South is not a natural problem, it is a political problem.

The problems that have plagued Africa, South America, and large parts of Asia, are not due to any lack of the ability of its people to farm and govern effectively, but due to the rapacious behaviour of Europeans and North Americans over the last 500 years. After the conquistadors and slave traders came the governments and corporations that have conspired (in the most criminal sense of the word) to keep the South disempowered and downtrodden.

Some snippets:

Jason Hickel

“In the year 1500, there was no appreciable difference in incomes and living standards between Europe and the rest of the world. Indeed, we know that people in some regions of the global South were a good deal better off than their counterparts in Europe. And yet their fortunes changed dramatically over the intervening centuries…”

“Why were AIDS patients dying? Over time, I learned that it had to do with the fact that pharmaceutical companies refused to allow Swaziland to import generic versions of patented life-saving medicines, keeping prices way out of reach. Why were farmers unable to make a living off the land? I discovered that it was related to the subsidised foods that were flooding in from the US and the EU, which undercut local agriculture. And why was the government unable to provide basic social services? Because it was buried under a pile of foreign debt and had been forced by Western banks to cut social spending in order to prioritise repayment…”

“Take hunger, for example. In 1974, at the first UN Food Summit in Rome, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously promised that hunger would be eradicated within a decade. At the time there were an estimated 460 million hungry people in the world. But instead of disappearing, hunger got steadily worse. Today there are about 800 million hungry people, even according to the most conservative measures. More realistic estimates put the figure at around 2 billion – nearly a third of all humanity…”

He shows in great detail how UN or World Bank figures have been massaged to show apparent improvement in the plight of the world’s poor, when in fact their situation has got worse. For example:

“The standard poverty measure counts the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day. But in many global South countries a dollar a day is simply not adequate for human existence, to say nothing of human dignity. Many scholars are now saying that people need about four times that in order to have a decent shot at surviving until their fifth birthday, having enough food to eat and reaching normal life expectancy. So what would happen if we measured global poverty at this more realistic level? We would see a total poverty headcount of about 4.3 billion people.”

Hickel’s version of history focuses on colonialism, in which precious metals, minerals, and people were extracted from the South and exploited to serve the economic fortunes of the North. After slavery was abolished and colonialism was drawing to a close, third world debt became the new weapon of mass destruction: during the 1970s there was effectively a sub-prime boom in loans to southern countries, which due to high rates of compound interest became a kind of economic slavery. Democratically elected leaders who showed signs of raising their countries out of poverty were removed by coup or by assassination, orchestrated from the north, and replaced with dictators friendly to northern economic agendas.

But hang on, you might be thinking. Don’t we in the north send lots of aid overseas? Surely we’re the good guys!

Here’s what Hickel has to say about that:

“The US-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) and the Centre for Applied Research at the Norwegian School of Economics published some truly paradigm-shifting data. They tallied up all of the financial resources that get transferred between rich and poor countries each year: not just aid, foreign investment and trade flows, as previous studies have done, but also other transfers like debt cancellation and remittances and capital flight. It is the most comprehensive assessment of resource transfers that has ever been made. They found that in 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a little over $2 trillion, including all aid, investment and income from abroad. But more than twice that amount, some $5 trillion, flowed out of them in the same year. In other words, developing countries ‘sent’ $3 trillion more to the rest of the world than they received. If we look at all years since 1980, these net outflows add up to an eye-popping total of $26.5 trillion – that’s how much money has been drained out of the global South over the past few decades… Since 1980, developing countries have forked over $4.2 trillion in interest payments – much more than they have received in aid during the same period.”

The whole book is packed with facts that made my jaw drop. I can only offer a tiny taster here. I do recommend the book in its entirety.

It may, however, be rather depressing and guilt-inducing, especially if, like me, you are a comparatively privileged, racial majority person living in the global North. (Okay, so I’m half South African, but to look at me it’s entirely obvious that I’m talking white South African, so if anything that increases my ancestral guilt, rather than alleviating it.)

So if you need some cheering up after all that, I’d suggest you get out there and do something to make the world a better place (e.g. by supporting Kiva.org, or The Sisters).

And/or read Walk Out Walk On, by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze. I had the privilege of a conversation with Deborah a couple of days ago.

Deborah Frieze

The book is a celebration of people who choose not to be victims of their circumstances, but to become leaders who help guide their communities towards a better world.

“Inside dying systems, Walk Outs Who Walk On are those few leaders who refuse to work from the dominant values that permeate the bureaucracy, such things as speed, greed, fear, and aggression. They use their formal leadership to champion values and practices that respect people, that rely on people’s inherent motivation, creativity, and caring to get quality work done.”

These leaders walk out of the system that’s not working, and walk on to create a new system that does. 

The authors look at seven projects happening in seven very different locations, in Mexico, Zimbabe, Brazil, South Africa, India, Greece and…. Ohio, in which people are taking back their power and transforming their communities. Their stories are inspiring and hopeful.

I believe that this is the future – walk-outs coming together and empowering themselves to create sustainable transformation.

The Divide reflects on 500 years of dominator-model grabbing – land grabs, resource grabs, power grabs (and we know what the current US president likes to grab). I’m sure, when you were little, you were probably told – as I was – that it’s not nice to grab, you have to share. I’d like to think that we are moving into a more mature stage in human development, where we evolve into sharing our gifts for the greater good of all.


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