Why is progress so unequally distributed across the world?

A journey of the mind around the world that explores inequality, deprivation, poverty and affluence from Nepal to India to Africa to Europe to America to China.

Photo: Earthbeat

Dr Bamadev Paudel

  • Read Time 11 min.

Let’s look at the planet holistically. Assume that you are a world traveler and you decide to take a journey to understand the world and how the people are living their lives on the planet. Now you spend months preparing your tour and pack up all logistics before setting out to see the world through a bicycle ride. Here is just a quick synopsis of this trip.

On the day of departure, with loads of excitement, curiosity, and at the same time a bit of anxiety too, you begin pushing the pedals of your bicycle in Birendranagar, the district headquarters of Surkhet, and continue your ride east towards Nepalgunj. After hours of peddling, you are in Kohalpur and you decide to spend a night in this well-connected small town in mid-western Nepal. In the evening you decide to take some street food in the local bus park nearby your hotel. You see many street vendors serving variety of things to the customers, but few scenes catch your eyes: One being some women selling chatpate, most popular street food in Nepal made of mixing puffed rice, chickpeas, cilantro, tomato, and so forth, and the other being few children sifting sand in a home construction site nearby. With a full dose of surprise, you savored chatpate anyway and watched working children in awe before heading to the hotel. You have dinner, and take a nap early in the evening to be ready for the trip the next day.

In the morning you head south towards Nepalgunj, cross Nepal-India border, and begin the journey along large swathes of farmlands with lots of people everywhere in small towns, something like ants rushing here and there in their colony, along with constant honking of cars and bicycle and rickshaw bells all along, but with one question spinning on your head: Why were so many women working as street vendors in Kohalpur and children were sifting the sand? When you had been to a bank in your town the other day, you had seen all well-dressed women serving the customers in seemingly attractive office counters, and all children were either in schools or at homes but not in construction sites to work.

India to South America 

At one point, you get to Dharavi Slum in Mumbai in India where the famous Oscar winning movie Slumdog Millionaire was filmed. It was unbelievable to you to see how the heck about one million people could fit within the area of just over two square kilometers which you had seen only in part in the movie, making it one of the densest locations in terms of population on earth. And most strangely, it is just next to one of India’s richest business hubs Bandra Kurla Complex with many skyscrapers being erected to brutally dwarf ramshackle one-storey buildings in the slum. After traveling India, you then get to Pakistan and you see the similar situation. In rural areas, some homes were of thatched roofs whereas others were concrete built, and there were small huts for animals alongside their homes, but some neighborhoods in city centers instead were clearly showing their affluence through eye-catching large mansions.

A slum in Mumbai, India. Photo: Voice of Guides

After many days of travel, you pass along deserts in Iran and Saudi Arabia and then reach Dubai. While traveling you did not see the so-called liquid gold beneath the surface of scorching hot deserts but you were a jaw-dropping witness of the opulence that liquid gold had brought to Dubai. After a few days’ stay in Dubai and surrounding areas, you head down to Africa.

Many countries in the world, particularly small developing countries, have not been able to equally participate on the world stage to play the fair game and harness the potential. It is because they are playing the game in an uneven playing field.

In Africa, you had a dream of seeing the country of Nelson Mandela, South Africa. Passing through pyramids in Egypt, deserts in Sudan, juggernaut Lake Victoria, and then Rwanda to pay tribute to genocide victims of country’s civil war which had killed over five hundred thousand Tutsis within the short span of one hundred days and also to see the miracle growth under the leadership of war veteran during the same time of civil war president Paul Kagame, you finally touch northern part of South Africa by crossing the bridge over Limpopo River that divides Zimbabwe and South Africa near Beitbridge.

Near Greytown off the highway R33, you pass through a small village which has many mud houses and this is also South Africa’s one of the poorest regions. On the way south you see a family mourning in the front yard of a home. You stop and decide to talk to them to know what happened, and later find out that their 15-year old daughter had a baby girl recently and now the baby died. Wondering how the girl at that age decided, or was forced, to have a baby, you head south to reach Qunu, the ancestral home of Nelson Mandela and final resting place after his life met an end in 2013. You visited Nelson Mandela’s obituary in the town to pay tribute to him for the work he did for the freedom of South Africans who were enslaved within their own country. After spending a few days in Qunu, you reach Cape Town, now the southern tip of the African continent. When you rode around Clifton near Cape Town you were surprised with nothing short of a miracle to see the affluence in the neighborhood which hosts Africa’s many multi-millionaires, in quite contrast to what you had seen in the village along the highway R33. You were of the impression of Africa that as being a dark continent poverty is characteristic of the continent and it turned out to be true in most parts but richness within impoverishment was also prevalent in all places.

Now you reach South America by ship. Along the way, you get to see a long caravan of people in Puente Rodolpho Robles international bridge over Suchiate River connecting Guatemala and Mexico. Some were even crossing the swollen river in small boats after they were stopped by Mexican authority. You joined the caravan of those who were able to cross the border and began to talk to them, in your broken English. Someone said from the crowd, again in broken English, that the caravan was heading towards the US hoping to get into the country for the rest of their life. It really surprised you that people could take a journey like that in walking such a long distance only for the reason that they wanted to secure a better life. You leave them behind as they are walking and you are on a bike but one question was around your head all the time: What kind of life they were living which forced them to leave the country where they were born and raised?

Inequality of the West 

You now come to the US, a dreamland for many in the world. The affluence was spreading all over wherever you traveled in this large country spanning in six time zones, never mind you could face some people asking you to give money in certain intersections of big cities, thanks to freedom of choice and liberty the country is hailed for and in there people can choose any lifestyle they want to live. You had an impression that America should have industries everywhere to keep people engaged, but in the height of your surprise you could see large plots of farmland in all places, especially around Ohio and Utah states, which makes this country one of the biggest breadbaskets of the world feeding many people around the world.

Passing through part of Asia, Africa and South America by now, so-called Global South, and seeing America in quite contrast, you came to realize that it is better to understand the world not only through travel only but also through reading and doing some research. Upon Googling one night when you were staying in Chicago, you came across one website Our World in Data and you got a lot of answers which had spun your head earlier. You got the answer to the question as to why there were many women street vendors and child laborers in Kohalpur in Nepal. It is because Nepal ranks 15th in the world in terms of women being engaged in informal jobs which is 82 percent of total female employment and stands 11th in terms of children in employment with 43 percent children aged 7-14 being engaged in some sort of employment or economic activity.

Photo courtesy: BBC

Along with extensive readings you were doing wherever you stayed at night, you continue traveling in so-called Global North and you are now in Europe. After a few days’ travel in the ship on the Atlantic, you landed in Port of Southampton in the United Kingdom. The country which once colonized many parts of the planet including the US is in its own world today which had indeed led Nelson Mandela in South Africa for the revolution against apartheid. Recently being detached from the European Union, the United Kingdom is a highly developed nation and ranks 12th in terms of quality of life as per the US News. After the UK tour, one day you cross the English Channel and get to Belgium. You are traveling along highway N50 and decide to take a rest for the day in small town Pecq. Visiting a few places in this small town you could see that all looked living a healthy and prosperous life even in such a rural part of the country, in quite contrast to what you saw in Africa and parts of Asia. The discrepancy between Belgium and Africa is subtle when you glance over the data. About three billion people around the world, little less than half of the world population, can’t afford a healthy diet, and in Belgium it is only 0.2 percent of the country’s population whereas it is 97.2 percent of population in Burundi and both countries have similar population size. Where is this whopping 97 percentage point gap coming from? It blew up your mind.

Then your journey begins in China. Along this month-long journey, you had a chance to read China’s history. This most populous country in the world, soon to be surpassed by India, was marred by poverty for long. Since many discoveries occurred in China, such as paper notes and gunpowder, to name a few, some believe that China lost its way for a long time in history and is now reviving after Deng Xiaoping’s open economic policies that began in late 1980s. When you heard the news that China had put a dent on its long-held poverty and liberated millions from poverty within the past couple of decades, you saw that on the ground during your travel, and wondered how it could be possible to lift that many people out of poverty within such a short span of time.

You had a similar experience when traveling tiger economies in eastern Asia. Affluence was ubiquitous which wasn’t the case just a few decades ago. Development originated in Europe, traveled to North America, and now it has touched on the western bank of the Pacific where these economies are located. Economic zones were spreading everywhere keeping millions in their jobs. When traveling through a rich part Makati City, the financial center of the country, and one of the most deprived parts in Philippines Bicol where over 2 million people live off $1.25 a day, it didn’t take long for you to conclude that the prosperity tide in the region did not lift all boats at the same time.

Then you head down to Australia crossing across the Timor Sea from where our very ancestors had crossed the sea about 45 thousand years ago to penetrate Australia, if not ruin its natural habitats and the lifestyle of native people of the continent. You wonder how the continent  falls within the coterie  of Western developed countries despite being this far from them in the southwest corner of the planet and equally participating in the world’s prosperity game like westerners are doing. 

When it comes to distributing the progress we secured, humanity as a whole has horrendously failed. 

Meantime, you decide to visit the easternmost part of the planet New Zealand off the coast of Africa, where there are more sheep than humans as being one of largest exporters of lamb around the world and ranks top in the world in terms of ease of doing business. You studied the country as much as you could in your few days of stay. Now you get the answer why a 15-year girl had to lose her baby in South Africa. Every year 5.2 million children under the age of five die and many such incidents happen in Africa. For example, only seventeen hundred of them die in New Zealand in a year but seventeen thousand die in the Central African Republic in Africa, the country with similar population size as New Zealand.

You finally wrap up your visit traveling through Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, with the similar reminiscences of what you saw when you began your journey. You then reach home to take a much-deserved rest.

Learning and reflections 

After a few days, your appetite goes higher to understand the world, particularly in the area of why the prosperity on earth is so unequally distributed. You would come to understand that we are living our life on the planet very differently based on where we live. Eight billion of us have spread all over the planet, from east to west and north to south, living in different cultural templates but looking through economic lens, the life is shockingly in disparity across countries and even within countries. What makes you most surprised is that seven out of 10 countries in the world that have the highest income disparity as measured by the Gini coefficient are in Africa, and South Africa, which you visited a few months ago, stands first in the world. In many developing countries, including yours, one small fraction of people are living extravagant lives with all their privileges whereas there is a swelling middle class who is struggling to maintain their life, and the significant rest is living in scraps day in and day out. Being poor together is a bit better than being alone, but that’s not the case.

Upon reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, you see all the graphs and tables in it that show that our world is heading towards a better world. True, we have achieved so much of progress over time–life expectancy reached 73 years now from 29 years two and half centuries ago, hundreds of thousands of children died from polio just one generation ago but today we eradicated this disease, famine took millions of lives in the past but this number is miniscule today, we moved from caves to moon along the time and so on. But the question arises whether that prosperity is evenly distributed on the planet. It will take no moment for you to understand that when it comes to distributing the progress we secured, humanity as a whole has horrendously failed. One of the biggest projects the world ever got was Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and its precursor Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which embraced all poor on the planet facing confluence of economic challenges and, while some progress has been made, it looks like we have yet to travel a long journey to have a fair and just world.

No doubt, leaders drive the earth show but this journey in perspective led you to believe that some leaders in some countries around the world managed their countries but didn’t lead them, particularly in the Global South. Many countries in the world, particularly small developing countries, have not been able to equally participate on the world stage to play the fair game and harness the potential. It is because they are playing the game in an uneven playing field, as journalist-turned author Thomas Friedman highlights in his book The World is Flat. Another potential reason is that leaders around the world think about their own country putting in shadow the major issues the world is facing, and no country or group of countries is in a position to drive international agenda as poverty and anything else forward for solutions, as geo-political strategist Ian Bremmer dubs it in his book Every Nation for Itself. We can win the battle but to win the war, we need to have concerted global efforts.

Photo courtesy: CNN

The planet gains roughly four children a second and loses roughly two at the same time, with net gain of two per second, based on which it is projected that by the year 2050 the planet will host about ten billion of us. Eight billion of us are not living a fair life today as we see it but would this be the case for those additional two billion who have yet to start their journey to discover the world on the planet in the next thirty years or so? Felt bound to your spiked curiosity, you plan to dig deeper into the question of disparity in the days to come hoping to have some answers to this question and be in a position to remedy the situation, spark hope, and cherish the just world. 

A former employee of the Nepal Rastra Bank, Dr Bamadev Paudel is  a Professor of Economics at Sheridan College in Canada. He can be reached at [email protected].