Denmark and UK have roughly the same GDP per capita, but one is much more equal than the other. That said, there are also deep-rooted causes to inequality. One is that technology has been increasing the demand for people with high skills, while reducing it for people with low skills. But the other is that most governments have assumed that GDP growth is what they are there for, and have not been worried about how it was distributed. In the USA, for example, 47% of all growth between 1975-2007 was received by just the top 1% of the population (pdf). More recently average incomes in the US stagnated and fell for people at the bottom. This wasn’t by accident. It happened because policy did not try (much) to help those at the bottom end of income distribution. Mark Pearson, deputy director of employment, labour and social affairs, OECD, Paris, France.
Western intervention is at the root of inequality: There was a brief period after the end of colonialism when countries in the global south used trade tariffs, subsidies, import substitution, and social spending to build their economies and reduce poverty with remarkable success. But in many cases these programmes were actively dismantled by western intervention, often with coups that deposed democratically elected leaders to install dictators friendlier to foreign corporations. And then, beginning in the 1980s, the IMF and World Bank leveraged their power as global creditors to require poor countries to adopt crushing structural adjustment programmes that privatised public assets, cut social spending, and pried markets open to foreign companies. They promised that these reforms would improve development outcomes, but instead they turned out to be the greatest single cause of poverty in the 20th century. Per-capita income growth in developing countries plunged to half its previous levels, and in sub‑Saharan Africa the GNP of the average country shrank by around 10% during the 1980s and 1990s. All told, developing countries lost roughly $480 billion per year in potential GDP during the period of structural adjustment. Jason Hickel, anthropologist, London School of Economics, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Challenge vested interests: While I acknowledge the concept of enlightened self-interest I don’t believe that those sitting on piles of wealth and power are going to stand aside and do the right thing and share the spoils with us. We need to organise and force the big bosses and their governments to implement progressive and corrective measures. Force does not mean violence. It means making them do what we want them to do against their will and interest. We are 99% they are 1%. Trevor Ngwane, national secretary, Democratic Left Front, Johannesburg, South Africa. @red_trevor
Measure progress against lived experience: Statistics are powerful and useful, and measuring economies is an important thing to do, but we should always rigorously cross-examine against lived experience. If the statistics tell us that life is getting better, but people experience life getting worse, we should interrogate the statistics and try to understand where the difference comes from. An overly aggressive focus on statistics has stymied economic debate for some time. Let’s try and understand why so many people feel their lives are materially worse off than their parents, when the statistics say otherwise. Gary Stevenson, wealth inequality economist, London, UK. @garyseconomics
Make development about politics, not aid: Polite conversations about development have thrown the politics out of the window. In reality, it is not the aid pumped from rich to poor countries that is going to make the difference. What really matters is how people on the ground are mobilising themselves to change the situation. Social movements in developing countries should be at the centre of development discourse, but sadly they are not. Aid diplomats are busy quantifying everything, turning every vision into managerial projects that can fetch salaries and generate aid businesses rather than concern themselves with real movements going on in real places around the world. Mallika Shakya, assistant professor in sociology, South Asian University, Delhi, India. @shakyanepal
Make our tax and benefit systems fairer: By closing the gender, wage and employment gap; by making sure that children from low-income households get more access to better quality education; by making sure that we don’t abandon groups at the margins of the labour market, we can make our systems fairer. I think there is scarcely a policy area where taking account of inequality might not lead to a better inequality outcome. We also need to make sure that the rich pay their dues, but more important in reducing inequality (at least in developed countries) is getting the benefit system right. Our benefit systems are sometimes skewed towards supporting older, richer people. Some reorientation is needed. Mark Pearson
Share the burdens – and benefits – between all members of society: Social, economic, political and material inequalities intersect and act as barriers to development. We must address relative poverty within and between countries to narrow the gaps in access, opportunities and outcomes between the rich and poor. Similarly, women, children and other traditionally marginalised groups such as people with disabilities, older people, people living in rural areas, racial, religious, ethnic, migrant and indigenous minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals must be enabled to overcome the additional hurdles they face. Ahmed Swapan Mahmud, executive director, Voice, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Understand the figures in context: As countries get richer, and escape from mass poverty, the poverty rate becomes more sensitive to inequality and less sensitive to growth. But that is consumption inequality and the top incomes database doesn’t tell us about that. Nor does it tell us about changes in real incomes or consumption. For example, in both Mexico and Brazil, the consumer price index systematically overstated the increase in the cost of living, but especially for the poor, so once this bias is corrected the growth was more strongly pro-poor. See the details here (pdf). John Kenneth Gibson, professor, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. @waikato
Factor life expectancy into your measure of inequality: There remain worryingly large differences in life expectancy by socio-economic group in developed countries. People with the highest level of education can expect to live six years more than people with the lowest level of education at age 30 (53 years versus 47 years). These differences in life expectancy by education level are particularly pronounced for men, and particularly large in central and eastern European countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia), where the life expectancy gap between higher and lower educated men reaches more than ten years. Some of this is due to differences in lifestyle but we should also be worried by differences in access to healthcare. Mark Pearson
Teach post-crash banking and economics: I studied at LSE in the early 2000s and it was – and still is – really interesting to observe how many of the most talented and ambitious economics graduates went into banking. If, as a society, we want to fix our economic problems, we need to find a way to attract the brightest economic minds into researching ways to fix the economy for collective, not private, good. That’s why I think post-crash economics and rethinking economics movements are so important. It’s really important that we create places where people can independently study progressive forms of economics. Gary Stevenson
Five ideas to end to extreme inequality: 1) Abolish debts owed by developing countries, and do so without conditions; 2) Close down the tax havens, and clamp down on tax evasion; 3) Place a moratorium on land grabs; 4) Put an end to the structural adjustment programmes that allow rich countries to control economic policies in poor countries; 5) Install a global minimum wage, to put a floor on the race to the bottom that characterises globalisation. Jason Hickel