Monday, December 11, 2006

Worldwide wealth...and lack thereof

Philanthropists don't like to talk about this issue and certainly we don't seem to be doing much about it. Looking at the enormous gaps in wealth around the world, however, seems to me to be a starting point from which to think about the role of philanthropy in our societies. Great philanthropy, has, after all, been a result of the very forces that also create the disparity.

On December 6th the Financial Times reported that 2% of the world's population owns 50% of the wealth. The poorest 50% of the world's population owns 1% of assets.

To put this in perspective for Americans, in order to be in the world's top 1% of wealth owners an individual must have a net worth of $500,000 or more. That figure, unattainable by most of the world, is less than the median home price in San Francisco and about equal to the average value increase in San Francisco home values since 2000. The average American has a net worth of about $144,000, whereas, globally, an adult with $2,300 worth of assets would be in the top half of the charts.

The data come from a new report released by the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University.

How can we hold these figures in our heads when we think about philanthropy? What do the forces that create these gaps mean for the limitations of philanthropy? How can we incorporate this reality into the conversations about markets, philanthropy, and the public sector?

1 comment:

Paul Botts said...

Personally I have long seen global poverty as the baseline issue for all the others. This conclusion was driven by my years in environmental work and the gradual realization that the restoration and protection of natural systems is enabled rather than prevented by a society's becoming what we now call "developed." The same, it turns out, is true of many other important subjects.

That logic leads inexorably to the importance of distinguishing _absolute_ poverty from _relative_ poverty; the human and other impacts of each are not at all the same. With regard to absolute poverty, arguably the most important question is not what the distribution of wealth is at any given moment in time but where it's heading: what is the trend line?

Hence at a recent progressive symposium in Chicago I was fascinated by a presentation by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue and The Well, and author of "The Clock of the Long Now" among other books. It was basically a synthesis of the first page of this article:
and the core of this one:
[free registration required but the article is worth the trouble, very interesting]