In September, the United Nations held its annual SDG Summit, where it checked in on the sustainable development goals agenda adopted by the organization’s General Assembly in 2015. That agenda defined 17 main goals and 169 targets to be achieved by 2030. These included “eradicating poverty in all its forms” and realizing the human rights of all, while protecting the environment. Alarmingly, halfway to the 2030 deadline, the summit reported that the world is on a “negative trajectory,” with only 12 percent of SDG targets on track and 30 percent unchanged or below the 2015 baseline.
One reason for this poor performance is that oppressive, neocolonial inequities lurk in development methods. For instance, current approaches keep nations with predominantly Black populations forever in debt. If the world is to make progress, we must deal with global injustices head-on.
The eye-opening idea of a “global color line” appears in the 2019 book “Feminism for the 99%” by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, referring to our de facto global racial hierarchies. Markets have always enforced racially skewed distribution of resources in some way, such as via “slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and the international division of labor,” the authors wrote. Fraser noted in an interview with The Nation that “long after the formal abolition of slavery, we still have unfree, semi-free, or dependent labor” in many countries.
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” warned that “the problem of the twentieth century, is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races.” More than a century later, despite decades of aid aimed at reducing poverty and countless human rights speeches, the global color line will distort resource patterns into the 22nd and 23rd centuries.
I’ve never seen data on global racial justice gaps in circulation, but it’s easily sketched by grouping World Bank metrics for nations that are majority White versus majority Black (complexities due to mixed racial makeup within a country are dwarfed by vast disparities). According to my analysis of this data, citizens of majority Black nations are 39 times as likely to experience extreme poverty, face 38 times greater risk of maternal mortality, and are 12 times likelier to die before the age of 5. According to one estimate, average incomes per capita in majority-Black nations are one-seventh of majority-White nations, and Africa’s median income is only one-twelfth of the Global North’s. That’s how much less Black lives matter in tangible resource terms.
Aid going from rich to poor nation governments totaled more than $180 billion in 2021, mostly as grants but increasingly as loans. That’s only about 0.2 percent of the global economy, and much is so-called tied aid, which requires that funds be used to purchase goods and services from the donor nation. Often, 80 percent of project costs end up in Global North hands. Typically, only 1 percent is controlled by local organizations.
The health sector, which represents 13 to 17 percent of total aid, illustrates wider development woes. The World Health Organization is alarmed by the stalled progress: 4.5 billion people lack basic services while 1.3 billion people were pushed, or further pushed, into poverty by incurring health costs. Yet Oxfam International finds health-sector aid increasingly goes to for-profit projects, which serve local elites, leaving the poor “bypassed or bankrupted.” That, of course, is what markets do by design: serve the rich and exploit or ignore the poor. A 137-nation study linked International Monetary Fund aid to decreased health care access and increased infant mortality. In this awful market-centric aid charade, corporate bandits fatten their bonuses by diverting resources from the world’s neediest babies. The “entire model of market-based development financing is in crisis,” wrote economic historian Adam Tooze.
Du Bois knew debt was a potent tool of political control. Emerging markets and developing economies today have debts of $3.6 trillion, 61 percent from commercial sources and 39 percent from public sector bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF. A Kiel Institute analysis of African nation debts finds interest rates ranging from 1 percent (public sector loans) up to 12 percent (commercial loans). Even the below-market-rate lending that some countries offer is tricky, as these funds are often used to service expensive private-sector loans. For instance, Ghana’s debt service recently neared 60 percent of public revenue, benefitting companies headquartered in the Global North such as Fidelity and Goldman Sachs, according to Tooze. Overall, 3.3 billion people live in nations where debt interest exceeds public spending on education and health.
Today, 84 percent of humans live in poverty by the high-income nation criteria of $30 per day, and 50 percent live below one-fourth of that. The world’s goal to end poverty in all its forms by 2030 is a pipedream. Even when severely watered down, current trends predict that in 2030 there will still be 575 million people living in extreme poverty — earning just $2.15 per day (adjusted to reflect comparable purchasing power in the U.S.). In contrast, America’s federal poverty level sits at about $40 per day. Why is one-eighteenth of the poverty level of nations that are predominantly White valid for the overwhelmingly non-White global poor? Using a higher, but still dire, level, a UN expert projects that it will take “200 years to eradicate poverty” at $5 a day, which is still a small fraction of $40, and under current methods, it will take eight generations to reach even that. The 2022 World Inequality Lab report concludes the rich countries of the global North only “pretend to help poor nations.”
This game isn’t about ending poverty. It’s built to prolong it. The rich-poor nation gap is growing, not shrinking.
The main logical error, and moral flaw, of today’s market-dominated development paradigm is that it limits our policy imaginations to “win-win” moves — the poor gain only if elites profit. Mercifully, advocates are abandoning this neoliberal nonsense to make the obvious move: Justice demands redistribution.
Ironically, this is where extreme wealth helps. Consider the World Inequality Lab’s global progressive wealth tax proposal. This tiny tax on centimillionaires nets $581 billion from about 76,000 ridiculously rich people, tripling today’s aid. Those feeling sympathy for the superrich needn’t worry, though, because their wealth grows 6 to 9 percent annually. We’d scarcely dent their super-yacht shopping. But billions of people could escape severe poverty far faster. Taxing the world’s 62 million millionaires nets more than $1.7 trillion, which amounts to 10 times the amount of global aid.
Eighty-four percent of Europeans and 69 percent of Americans support taxing millionaires to assist low-income nations. Wider global solidarity taxes have merit. The resource blessings of the Global North both leverage old sins and enormous ongoing extraction to the tune of $10 trillion annually, suggesting that currently operated global markets are really just a form of neocolonialism.
This de facto global Jim Crow can’t continue for centuries. We must end it now.
Jag Bhalla is a writer and entrepreneur.