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Absolute and Relative Poverty: The ‘Dogma’ of Economic Equality

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On Friday April 11, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, featured a front-page article on the progress made in international development since Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical Populorum Progressio in 1967. The author of the article, Fr. Gian Paolo Salvini, S.J., is director of the journal La Civiltà Cattolica. He has a degree in economics and since he has lived in Brazil for many years, he has first-hand experience of development issues.

Salvini’s article is entitled “Incomplete Development” (“Uno sviluppo incompleto”) but his overall assessment of what has happened over the last 40 years is positive. He cites various statistics showing that “spectacular progress” has been made in terms of reducing absolute poverty. The number of people who have to live on less than one dollar a day has fallen from 29 to 18 per cent between 1990 and 2004. Also the data for longevity, child mortality and literacy show clear improvements.

Salvini identifies international trade as one of the key factors that has contributed to this trend. He is aware that progress has been uneven and that improvements in Asia have been far more marked than in Africa. This highlights that “the greatest success stories are due to the formula industrialize for exports”.

His most striking example to illustrate this point is that of South Korea. The fact that the country’s economic indicators were similar to those of Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1960s reflects the central importance of engaging with international trade: Korea’s achievement is largely due to its ability to export its manufacturing products to North America and Europe. This also explains why Dependency Theory, which was fashionable in the sixties and which advised developing countries to disengage with global trade, “is not taught anymore”.

The power of trade to transform poor countries is nowadays beyond doubt and Salvini notes that today it is often “the developing world which is asking for more free trade”, whereas Europe and the United States are obstructing the free flow of goods in agriculture.

But towards the end of the article, Salvini raises a more critical point regarding achievements in international development. He says that in contrast to absolute poverty, relative poverty is increasing: “The distance between those who are doing well and those doing badly, or to put it better, those who are doing well and those who are doing less well is growing.”

Salvini does not provide any data to illustrate this point and his assertion is, in fact, questionable. At the Populorum Progressio conference organized by Istituto Acton in Rome in February, Prof. Philip Booth from the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, specifically addressed the issue of relative poverty:

We should recognise that relative poverty has decreased during the process of globalisation .… Most dramatically, the gap between countries that have recently seen rapid growth and those countries that have been relatively well off for many decades has narrowed significantly … Whilst European Union countries, the US, the UK and Japan grow well below the world average (indeed disposable incomes are broadly stagnant across much of the developed world), over half the world’s population now lives in 40 countries that are growing at more than 7% per year. Development is happening and is benefiting huge numbers of previously-poor people.

Salvini may be referring to an increase in income inequality within countries but in that case he is not looking at poverty in terms of human needs and real deprivations, but as compared to an abstract “ideal”.

Reducing income inequality may seem like a noble aspiration, but it is of minor importance. Prioritizing the alleviation of relative poverty would yield the absurd situation where society as a whole is made poorer only to make it more equal. A desire for greater equality should not justify giving up the real and tangible benefits globalization has brought the poor over the last couple of decades.

Bernd Bergmann

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