Globalization and Inequality

March 26, 2007

Globalization and InequalityGlobalization is creating fresh opportunities for hundreds of millions of people. But the gap between richest and poorest countries is widening and inequality within many countries is increasing. CGD president Nancy Birdsall will testify this week before a U.S. congressional committee on ways that the U.S. can help to support fair growth in Latin America, where inequality, long a problem, is getting worse.

Birdsall has written and spoken extensively on the relationship between globalization, inequality, and development. A new CGD initiative, Globalization and Inequality, provides an overview of the issues and brings together recent work by Birdsall and others on this important topic. On Friday, March 30th at 11:00 a.m. EST, Birdsall will answer questions live online about globalization and inequality via Ask CGD.

In a recent article in the Boston Review, Inequality Matters: Why Globalization Doesn't Lift All Boats Birdsall begins by describing how high inequality in Latin America has undermined growth and poverty reduction. She contrasts this with East Asia, where lower inequality was an important ingredient in the East Asian miracle of rapid, sustained, poverty-reducing growth.

Excerpts from Inequality Matters:

After spending the late 1980s working on Latin America for the World Bank, I became involved in a major study of East Asia's postwar growth. The contrast between the two regions was notable: Latin America was stagnating while East Asian economies were growing rapidly, with tremendously high rates of private and public investment and savings. The emphasis on exports and the pressure to compete in global markets seemed to have worked…

For economists… inequality has typically represented at worst a necessary evil and at best a reasonable price to pay for growth. So, for the most part, they have not been concerned with the apparent trend of rising inequality. Development economists in particular have focused instead on the reduction of absolute poverty. But in East Asia the textbook story seemed altogether wrong. One key to East Asia's success seemed to be its low initial levels of inequality, which were associated with the legacy of postwar redistribution of farm land in the northern economies and with subsequent high public investments in education, agricultural extension, and other programs in rural areas.

In 1993 I left the World Bank to become the executive vice president at the Inter-American Development Bank. By then I was persuaded that Latin America's high inequality was an economic problem, slowing its growth, as well as a social problem. I advocated more research on the issue…

Subsequent work by many economists has strengthened my conviction that while inequality may be constructive in the rich countries--in the classic sense of motivating individuals to work hard, innovate, and take productive risks--in developing countries it is likely to be destructive. That is especially true in Latin America, where conventional measures of income inequality are high. It also may well apply in other parts of the developing world, where our conventional indicators are not so high but there are plentiful signs of other forms of inequality: injustice, indignity, and lack of equal opportunity.

Now globalization is creating pressures that tend to increase inequality. We need to understand what those pressures are and how they operate as today's increasingly integrated global economy raises the bar of competitiveness. How might they best be managed, within countries and at the global level, to avoid their potentially destructive effects on growth?

We have a potentially powerful instrument to increase wealth and welfare: the global economy. But to support that economy we have an inadequate and fragile global polity. A major challenge of the 21st century will be to strengthen and reform the institutions, rules, and customs by which nations and peoples complement the global market with collective management of the problems, including persistent and unjust inequality, which markets alone will not resolve.