The unequal divide between those that have and those that have not is widening across the world, putting under strain not only established political systems but endangering domestic and international security.
A rise in domestic violence levels and international refugee flows are some of the consequences of this growing wealth divide. It comes as no surprise that this widening poverty gap is not only the fate of mismanaged developing countries where kleptocracy is often rampant, but also in advanced economies.
The latest to come under scrutiny has been the United States, the world’s biggest economy and it has been an uncomfortable reading. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, launched a scathing attack on the UN monitor on extreme poverty, by going on the offensive and dismissing the recent report on America that accuses Donald Trump of cruelly forcing millions of citizens into deprivation as “misleading and politically motivated”.
Was Haley justified in her attack or a mere attempt to deflect attention? She accused the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, who according to her “categorically misstated the progress the United States has made in addressing poverty … in [his] biased reporting”.
She added that in her view that “it is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America” when he should be focusing on other countries, presumably those that are at political loggerheads with the United States, or easy to identify countries like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which prompted puzzlement as Mr. Alston carried out his investigation at the formal invitation of the Trump administration and such missions of the UN Rapporteur are not randomly initiated but need the cooperation of the host countries. Apparently the world’s “freest and wealthiest country on the planet” (according to Ms Haley) had no such poverty issues.
Mr. Alston made his report to a Human Rights body where the United States chair was empty as Haley had previously announced that the US was pulling out of membership of the Human Rights Council, describing it as a “cesspool of political bias”.
For the sake of social stability, effective political governance can only survive in long term if there is a large degree of fairness and compassionDr. Mohamed Ramady
It marked the first time that any state has withdrawn from the council since its inception in 2006. Was there a receptive ear to the report from the United States establishment? Apparently so with Democrat party politicians like Bernie Sanders.
The Vermont senator had led a joint plea on the back of the UN report from 20 prominent members of Congress, including the senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and Georgia representative John Lewis, calling on Trump to work with them to tackle “massive levels of deprivation and the immense suffering this deprivation causes”.
While Sanders agreed with Haley that Burundi and the Democratic Republic Congo faced far worse problems, he pointedly remarked that America’s poverty was taking place “in the richest country in the history of the world and a time when wealth and income inequality is worse than at any time since the 1920s”.
He cited even more damning statistics where apparently 40 million people in the US still live in poverty, more than 30 million have no health insurance, and, more surprising to many in the world, 40 percent cannot afford $400 in an emergency.
To illustrate the poverty divide in the US, he pointed out that the United States was a nation in which the top three people own more wealth than the bottom half, and that the country “can and must do much better than that”.
Was Alston methodology correct in obtaining this poverty data to highlight US poverty levels? The United Nations Rapporteur carried out a 10-day tour in December 2017 of poverty hotspots in the US, from California, though Alabama and West Virginia, to Puerto Rico.
‘Dramatic change of direction’
His report did not wholly lay the blame on the Trump Administration, something that Ms Haley should have picked up, but rather concluded that though levels of hardship had been high for decades within America before Mr Trump, the current President was taking it to another level by steering the country toward a “dramatic change of direction” that was rewarding wealthy Americans through tax changes while stripping vulnerable Americans of welfare protections.
When asked whether this report was really the prime reason for the US decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council rather than the so-called biases against Israel, Alston said he had “no idea” whether his investigation had reinforced or influenced the timing of the US government’s withdrawal, but pointedly added that the move was “highly regrettable. I think it’s significant that of the 47 members of the council, only one has chosen to leave.”
ALSO READ: Poverty amid plenty in the Gulf
In the Gulf there is also a poverty gap, as the number of young citizens unemployed is an issue, despite social security payment nets being in place for citizens deemed to be at the poverty line. A major factor of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings was the economic and social deprivation of large segments of these societies and the gap between the rich and the poor.
The Gulf anti-corruption drive has also sent a message that ill-gotten gain through connections and bribery will not be tolerated and that such practices have been a major factor in fostering a class of mega rich citizens while many other fellow citizens are struggling to make ends meet.
For the sake of social stability, effective political governance can only survive in the long term if there is a large degree of fairness and compassion, while at the same time nurturing the spirit of entrepreneurship and self-motivation to succeed in life. Poverty among plenty has a short political shelf life.
Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran , Saudi Arabia and co author of ‘OPEC in a Post Shale world – where to next ?’. His latest book is on ‘Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges’.