Unsustainable Development: A Radical Redistribution of Wealth is Needed Now

by Chris Pratt
Image: Jp Valery / Unsplash

Since the West created Development Theory in the 1950s, foreign aid has been focused on empowering actions abroad. How foreign aid is utilized depends on the development ideology and donor. Regardless of whether aid has been used to build schools or spark industrialization, the vast majority of foreign aid has historically been focused on creating change abroad. This is in line with classical Development Theory, which distinguishes underdevelopment as a domestic phenomenon. 

However, a new era is rising in Development Theory, shifting the focus from the distant oversea “underdeveloped” territories to the city streets of the Global North. The next generation of development needs to focus on equity. Currently, the typical everyday life in the West takes advantage of not only the environment, but the billions of people struggling to survive around the world. This is conceptualized under World Systems Theory, where the Western core continually exploits the resources of the developing periphery without accountability and consequences. The Global North’s out-of-control consumption needs to be brought back to reality. The North has taken advantage of the Global South for centuries through colonialism and imperialism and it is time to amend. 

In 2000, the United Nations (UN) came out with a set of—what was at the time deemed radical— targets and objectives for developing countries. These developmental goals, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aimed at assisting some of the poorest regions in the world. In 2015, a new set of goals were announced for the next 15 years, called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is clear that progress is being made in “developing” the Global South. However, Western Development Theory is facing one of its most challenging obstacles in decades. 

The fact of the matter is that not everyone in the world can live like the West does. With current technologies, the planet cannot sustain a global quality of life equivalent to what the Western world enjoys. 

A common measurement of wealth in the developing world is GDP Per Capita. GDP Per Capita indicates the average economic productivity of individuals in a state’s total population. Although it lacks critical indicators of development (such as education, health, social capital, equality, etc.), GDP Per Capita depicts a generalized picture of the financial-affordability of citizens of a country.

In 2019, the African states of Burundi, Malawi and Sudan had GDP Per Capitas of 261.2, 411.6 and 441.5, respectively (according to the official data in current US$ from the World Bank). In comparison, the US, Canada and the UK had respective GDP Per Capitas of 65 297.5, 46 194.7 and 42 330.1. Regionally, Sub-Saharan Africa had a GDP Per Capita of 1 596.2 while North America had a GDP Per Capita of 63 344.1—over 39 times the Sub-Saharan per person wealth. 

Clearly, the level of inequality between High Income Countries and Low Income Countries is staggering. Since the beginning of decolonization, development has largely focused on equipping developing states with the necessary tools and capital (from a Western perspective) to kickstart their economies and grow their GDP Per Capita. However, setting aside the complex argument as to why development has not sustainably occurred through decades of projects and billions in funding, Development Theory now needs to take into account the factors limiting the growth of the metaphorical economic pie. Economics, by definition, is the study of how markets allocate scarce resources; ultimately, the Earth has a fixed and finite amount of resources. Therefore, development cannot only be the industrialization of “underdeveloped” economies. It has to become the redistribution of wealth and resources on a grand scale, something that will forever change the way of living for many of us.

At the base level, it is common sense that the environment would not be able to sustain 7.6 billion people living like millionaires and billionaires. The world can simply not support 7.6 billion mansions, boats, private jets, etc. Unfortunately, even though 1% of the world’s population holds 50.1% of the world’s wealth, this small minority will ultimately be the largest in opposition to radical redistributions of wealth. It is nice to live in a mansion and fly in a private jet and it will be even harder to give that up. However, I believe it is absolutely ridiculous and highly irresponsible for anyone to flaunt their wealth or engage in an extravagant lifestyle when 11% of the world’s population lacks access to clean water and 25% lack access to adequate sanitation. Anyone who owns more wealth than is needed to survive needs to live a day (better yet, a month or year) in the life of an individual who is forced to drink dirty and potentially contaminated water simply because they have no other choice.

And this “extravagant wealth” includes the average citizen in the Global North. According to Ecological Footprinting (which does have some downfalls due to limited available data), 4.1 Earths would be needed to sustain life if everyone in the world lived the lifestyle of the average US citizen.  

Kickstarting the domestic economies of developing states is only a small part of the grander pursuit of a basic equitable standard of living for all humans. In order for everyone to fully recognize their human rights, citizens of the Global North will have to participate in a revolutionary redistribution of wealth that will change everyday life forever. For example, cars might have to be swapped for bikes and houses will need to shrink, as well as other “uncomfortable changes.” It is not so much the underdeveloped states “catching up” as it is a more equitable standard of living being established globally.

This progressive and radical redistribution of wealth and resources will be one of the most challenging issues humanity will ever face. It will take cooperation between states at a level never seen before and will make the average standard of living the Global North currently enjoys a scene out of history books. Furthermore, there is no definitive answer as to how this will be accomplished, especially in the global capitalist economic system the world currently operates under and trades in. However, I strongly believe that the majority of people living in the Global North majority will agree to altering their lifestyles if it benefits their fellow humans, and will hopefully pressure the 1% to fund development projects instead of buying yachts. Just because we have the ability to live like we do in the Global North does not mean that we should.

One thought on “Unsustainable Development: A Radical Redistribution of Wealth is Needed Now

  1. Unless a rich person wants to redistribute his or her own wealth voluntarily, people who talk about the redistribution of wealth are just looking for handouts.

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