The latest report by Oxfam on the world’s richest individuals increasing their wealth in 2018 by $2.5 billion per day while half of the human population slowly decreased theirs in the same period offers us a graphic snapshot of the current wealth proportion in our planet.
Is this strange? No. Similar reports have been coming out for decades. The story is the same, the message identical. Is it anomalous then? That is a little harder to answer except if put into its real and traditional context. Because considering the historical reality of humanity from recorded history, the wealth proportion of today may be much better than before. In other words, poverty is not just a story, it is also history.
In a world where people and countries have always been governed by one man, one family or one small elite class, all backed up by their respective armies, poverty was not thought of as anomalous. Rather, it was just a normal part of life. Because in all cases, only a few individuals governed societies and controlled all the wealth. Poverty was not an issue; maybe hunger, maybe cruelty, but not hunger. Pestilence was more dreaded because it killed with speed and capable of doing so in great numbers. Pestilence did not exempt royalty either.
In the last few centuries, however, some societies began experimenting with freedom and democracy. The experiment would not have gained ground enough to last this long if conqueror countries did not start it in their own home grounds. Conquest brought more resources to the victors, more food, more commodities, more slave labor, and more wealth. Conqueror countries, therefore, experienced more comfortable lifestyles that benefited not only their rulers but even their peasantry. The conquered countries paid the price for the materially improved lives of their conquerors.
History shows that the European countries became the conquerors of the world, and most especially the ones from the western part. Colonization was the “in thing” for several centuries just as globalization is today. The might of technology and superior armies allowed a few nations to divide among themselves the rest of the world. The resources of the conquered lands and their people were diverted to benefit the growth of the countries and people of the conquerors while the opposite was happening to the conquered. The benefit of accelerated growth in the conquering countries of Europe raised the standards of living of their people while the extraction of the same resources from the conquered lands and people weakened them.
The “fattened” nations and people went beyond mere survival mode and progressed, not only materially, but in many other ways besides. New levels of security and comfort raised their social lifestyle, their technologies, and even their style of politics. In this background of growth fueled by their conquests and the resources of the conquered, the gaps between the haves and have-nots widened – economically, militarily, technologically, socially, and politically. The beginnings of what we now know as democracy were born and took hold in the conqueror countries. And while they experimented with democracy in the last few centuries, it did not stop them from conquering and occupying other territories and people. The idea of democracy was preached first in the lands of the conquered by masters who used raw force to exploit the conquered. One of these countries where the idea of democracy was introduced through a virtual dictatorship from the colonizer was the Philippines.
It is no wonder that in the midst of a great democratic experiment in the Philippines from the American rule all the way to independence, we returned to dictatorship in 1972 up to 1986. And the current strongman rule by President Rodrigo Duterte is widely accepted and approved of. It is not easy to shed off millennia of history and experience that goes through culture seamlessly. Is that good or bad? That is best answered by the people themselves, those who benefit, those who are disadvantaged, those who are favored, those who are persecuted, those who hope and those who despair. President Duterte is a controversy to some but popular to many. It speaks not only of his charisma as a leader but the state of inner frustrations of a people.
So, from a global perspective to a domestic one, one thing is clear – poverty is historical, not a modern-day invention. And if we were to graph poverty even just over recorded history, it will actually show substantial improvement from the time when only one man or family would rule and own everything in any territory or country. This history of poverty is important to always consider when it is time to both diagnose and intervene. If poverty is a monster that we want to defeat, we better know its nature and its history, as well as the history of poverty intervention work.
The entry of democracy brought with it the practice of free market forces in the economic realm. Free market forces are not really free, not when there is no competition ab initio. How do conquered countries engage conqueror countries? Are stay starting from relative equality so that intelligence and hard work can then dictate success? Or are heavyweights demanding that the rules in the global arena be the same despite the severe disparity in the capacities of the players?
The bottom can never gain relative equality with the top. That is against the law of nature when it comes to the physicality of life. But gaps can be narrowed until a wider collective overlap can cover almost all of society. For as long as a few individuals or families own and control as much as the rest of humanity, equality even only as a principle is very much compromised. If there is a state of extreme differences, the luxury of the few must be paid by the suffering of the many. And the steep upward climb out of the pit of poverty continues.