Putting Asia's Gini Back in its Bottle

KLONG LUANG, THAILAND – Activists across Asia, inspired partly by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, have been highlighting what they view as a widening divide between the haves and the have-nots, those with connections and those without. But what if inequality continued to rise in Asia, and no one noticed? Would the widening gap be as inconsequential as the proverbial tree that falls in the forest, with no one there to hear it?

The inconvenient truth is that two-thirds of the world’s poor live in Asia. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the region is home to an estimated 1.7 billion people living on less than $2 per day, and roughly 700 million surviving on less than $1 per day.

Indeed, a substantial portion of the region’s population – in which ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are often disproportionately represented – remains marginalized and excluded from the benefits of Asia’s rapid economic growth. For example, 43% of people still lack access to basic sanitation facilities, and many of Asia’s cities, burdened by burgeoning populations, suffer from poor sanitation, deteriorating environmental conditions, and inadequate housing and infrastructure.

This reality conflicts with the portrayals that dominate news reports, which depict a modern China, a dynamic Indonesia, and a tourist-friendly Thailand. And it is not only outsiders whose perceptions are flawed. Amid gleaming skyscrapers and high-end shopping malls, a growing and increasingly affluent middle class is disconnected from the unrelenting poverty that pervades many parts of Asia and the Pacific.