The Inequality Nightmare

ABU DHABI – “The poor cannot sleep, because they are hungry,” the Nigerian economist Sam Aluko famously said in 1999, “and the rich cannot sleep, because the poor are awake and hungry.” We are all affected by deep disparities of income and wealth, because the political and economic system on which our prosperity depends cannot continue enriching some while it impoverishes others.

During hard times, the poor lose faith in their leaders and the economic system; and when times are good, too few enjoy the benefits. The GINI coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, has been rising for many years in developing as well as developed countries, including the United States. In Europe, inequalities have intensified as a result of rapidly rising unemployment, especially among young people. Some have reacted by rioting; others have backed far-right xenophobic political parties; many more seethe quietly, growing ever more resentful of politicians and the system they represent.

The problem is starkest in the world’s megacities, which account for around 80% of global GDP. But even in the most developed cities, disparities can be marked. For example, as you travel on the London Underground just six miles (or 14 stops) east from the heart of government at Westminster to Canning Town, the life expectancy of the inhabitants at each successive stop falls by six months.

But inequality is most acute in emerging economies where urbanization has been fastest. By 2030, an estimated 2.7 billion more people will have migrated to cities, almost entirely in developing countries. Many will encounter hopelessness and exclusion there, rather than the good jobs and better life for which they came.