Author Q&A:
Jason Hickel

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In The Divide (William Heinemann, £20), the anthropology professor strips back misconceptions that suggest that the gap between the global south and north is gradually closing and that each day brings us closer to international equality. International aid is at best a sticking plaster, he says in this detailed, closely argued book, because poorer countries have been locked into an exploitative economic system since Christopher Columbus’s expeditions in the 1490s. 

Is global inequality natural or by design?
When experts talk about global inequality they often make it seem as though it’s all down to each country’s individual responsibility – poor countries are poor because they’re lazy and have the wrong policies, while rich countries are rich because they work hard and have strong institutions. But this view completely erases the past 500 years of history, during which a handful of western nations forcibly roped the rest of the world into a global economic system on profoundly unequal terms, beginning with colonialism, straight through to today’s international debt regime. We need to bring this story to light – that’s what I set out to do.

How effective have the Millennium Development Goals been in reducing global inequality?
The MDGs claim dramatic reductions in global poverty over the past 25 years, but this narrative relies on misleading statistics. For one, the poverty line has been pushed lower (in real terms) a number of times, which makes it seem as though fewer people are in poverty. The official international poverty line is $1.25 per day, but there is a strong scholarly consensus that this is too low for even basic human needs. A more accurate poverty line would be about $5 per day. Measured at this level, the global poverty headcount is about 4.3 billion people – 60 per cent of humanity – and it has been getting worse over the past few decades, not better. This is a powerful indictment of the development industry.

Why is international aid work flawed and should we donate to charities providing it?
Aid is failing to reduce global poverty because it misses the point about what causes poverty in the first place. Poverty doesn’t just exist, it is created – by an economic system that has been designed to benefit a few rich countries at the expense of much of the rest of the world. We need to shift from a paradigm of charity to a paradigm of justice, and start tackling the deep structural causes of impoverishment. We should be supporting organisations that seek to make the global economic system fairer by redistributing power and resources, rather than just weeding around the edges with a bit of aid.

The west has an image as a beacon of democracy. Is the image inaccurate?
Certainly during colonialism western Europe was anything but a beacon of democracy. After all, they ruled their colonies as authoritarian dictatorships.  And unfortunately after the end of colonialism things didn’t change much.  Beginning in the 1950s, many newly independent global south countries elected progressive leaders who began to raise wages, roll out public services and protect their economies from plunder by foreign powers. Western states like Britain, the US and France resented this move, as it restricted their access to cheap labour, raw materials and consumer markets in the rest of the world. So in many cases they intervened to topple democratically elected leaders and replaced them with strongmen who supported Western economic interests.  This happened in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uganda, the Congo, Indonesia and many other countries – not exactly
a record of democracy promotion.

With the turn away from globalisation in the western world, who or what would have the clout to cancel developing countries’ debt or prevent capital flight?
The WTO [World Trade Organisation] could change international customs rules to clamp down on trade misinvoicing, which is how multinational companies spirit money out of developing countries in order to evade taxes. The OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] could help by closing down secrecy jurisdictions and improving profit reporting guidelines. After all, rich countries are hurt by tax evasion just as poor countries are. As for debt cancellation – the only way that’s going to happen is if global south countries go ahead and default. This would be catastrophic for any single country to do on their own, but if countries can organise for collective action it could work – and it would force the world to reckon with how unfair the global debt system really is.

Wouldn’t most developing countries baulk at your suggestion of de-growth – at least until they had caught up to some extent with developed countries?
De-growth is not a “suggestion”, it is an ecological imperative. The science is very clear on this point: either rich countries start to scale down their overconsumption or we’re headed toward resource exhaustion, ecological collapse and catastrophic climate change. The de-growth imperative does not apply to most poor countries, however. We know that some degree of economic growth is necessary for poor countries to improve human wellbeing – but of course this only works if the distribution of growth is skewed toward those at the bottom of the income scale.

Is China’s hunger for raw materials a new form of colonialism or an extension of the last wave?
The first thing to keep in mind is that China’s ecological footprint is less than half that of the UK and US on a per capita basis. Yes, any nation that consumes beyond its ecological capacity is likely to engage in various kinds of colonialism, extracting resources from other lands. And China is guilty of this to be sure – but no more guilty than rich western nations, which are the bigger culprits by far. This is not to absolve China; it’s just to say that we have to keep the whole picture in mind. Also, we need to be aware that a lot of China’s demand for raw materials is driven ultimately by western consumers – the people who buy the stuff that China produces.

How can we evolve towards a fairer global economy and what can the general public do to effect change?
There are lots of compelling solutions out there, and I discuss many of them in The Divide.  We could democratise international institutions like the World Bank, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the WTO so that poor countries have a fairer say in how the global economy is run. We could introduce a global minimum wage – set at 50 per cent of each country’s median wage – that would ensure baseline human fairness around the world. And we need urgently to commit to more ambitious emissions reductions to prevent climate change, as our current trajectory will have catastrophic consequences – particularly for poorer countries. If we take even a fraction of the money and energy and passion that we currently spend on charity and direct it instead toward justice, we can create the momentum we need for these changes.

Can looking beyond our borders help us to tackle inequality in Britain?
The mechanisms that create inequality on the global stage are the very same ones that create inequality in Britain. Once we recognise that ordinary people around the world have a shared interest in creating a fairer economy, we can work together in solidarity for a better world. Such a movement would be unstoppable.

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