Year after year, the luminaries of international development, from Bill Gates to Jim Kim, Nick Kristof to Steven Pinker, line up to tell us about the wonderful progress that has been made against global poverty. According to the most recent estimates, published by the World Bank, there were “only” 734 million people living on less than $1.90 per day in 2015, down from 1.9 billion people in 1990.
It sounds like wonderful news. But there is a problem with this narrative. Oddly enough, there is no empirical basis for the $1.90 line. It is an arbitrary threshold that has no grounding in actual human needs. Empirical evidence shows that $1.90 per day is not even enough for people to secure decent nutrition, to say nothing of other basic requirements. In fact, at least 3.5 billion people live on more than this, and yet remain trapped in poverty.
It is important to recognise that the international poverty line is adjusted for purchasing power. When we hear $1.90 per day, we commonly assume that this means the equivalent of what an American might be able to buy with that amount of money in, say, Sudan or India. But exactly the opposite is true. It is the equivalent of what $1.90 can buy in the United States. Just think for a moment about what this means. It is virtually nothing.
To get a sense for how low this standard is, the economist David Woodward once calculated that to live on the international poverty line in Britain, in an earlier base year, would be like 35 people trying to survive “on a single minimum wage, with no benefits of any kind, no gifts, borrowing, scavenging, begging or savings to draw on (since these are all included as “income” in poverty calculations).” This goes beyond any definition of “extreme”.
This brings us to an important question. Why is it that the barons of international development judge the lives of people in the global South by $1.90 per day, when everyone agrees – including the World Bank itself – that this standard is far too low for a human being in the global North? For comparison, the poverty line in the US is $15 per day.
There is a clear double standard here, and it does not take much to recognise that it is racist. There is one standard for the (majority white) people of the North, and another standard for the (majority Black and brown) people of the South. It is a colonial logic that remains with us today, and goes unchallenged year after year.
Some try to justify this disparity by saying these are totally separate economies, and so they require separate standards. But this premise – the idea of separation – is simply not true. The economies of the North and South have been integrated into a single global system for at least 500 years, ever since the onset of colonialism.
We know that the rise of the North depended on cheap labour and raw materials extracted from the South during the colonial period. It depended on silver stolen from the Andes, rubber from the Congo, grain extracted from India, as well as sugar and cotton grown by enslaved Africans on land stolen from Indigenous Peoples.
This might seem like ancient history, but the very same arrangement remains in place today. People in the global South sew the clothes that Steven Pinker wears each day. They assemble Bill Gates’ laptops, including the one that Nick Kristof uses to write his columns. They grow and pick the bananas and berries that Jim Kim has for breakfast. And then there is our coffee and tea, the coltan in our gadgets, the oil that fuels our industries, the lithium we need for electric cars … everywhere we look, it is overwhelmingly clear that we live in a single global economy.
In fact, trade data shows that high-income nations are totally reliant on resources and labour from the South. In 2015, high-income nations appropriated a net total of 10.1 billion tonnes of materials, and 379 billion hours of human labour from the rest of the world. There is an enormous net flow of resources and embodied labour from poor countries to rich countries.
One cannot have it both ways. You cannot have a single global economy when it suits you to use the labour and resources of the poor, but then insist on separation in order to measure their lives by different standards. That is the logic of apartheid.
Global capitalism depends on resources and labour extracted from the South, and yet the people who render it – including those who work in the factories, mines and plantations of multinational companies – receive but pennies in return. Pinker and Gates tell us to celebrate when workers in the South go from one to two dollars a day. But would we celebrate if we learned that workers in the North were earning two dollars a day, while employed by the biggest brands in the world? No. We would be outraged. Because for workers in the North we apply the standards of morality and justice, yet for workers in the South we apply the standards of bare existence.