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The neglected rich

By Adithya Pradyumna
on September 14, 2015

The population of the world can be understood in terms of the “haves” and the “have-nots”. As has been pointed out by many, the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are intended for both developed and developing countries, unlike the MDGs which were largely focused on improving the situation in developing countries. In addition, in a world where the difference between at least some “developed” and “developing” countries has decreased in recent decades, the new SDG agenda also has implications for the haves and the have-nots within developed, emerging and developing countries. More specifically, Goals 12 to 16, which are about sustainable consumption, production, and conservation, speak directly to the haves (the other goals do so more indirectly). Simplifying the new agenda a bit, the SDGs can be thought of, at least in principle, as an effort to reduce the excesses of the haves, and enable access to basic needs for the have-nots, so that in the end, everybody would have at least as much as is needed for a dignified life, without trespassing of planetary boundaries.

For the purpose of this blog, we define the “haves’ here in line with a recent paper by Edward & Sumner, comprising both the “prosperiat” (the global top 10 percent — or 700 million people with a consumption of $30 or more per day; the prosperiat includes the so called  1 % and 0.01%, but clearly goes beyond this category of super-rich) and the “securiat” (people who live on $10-30 a day; i.e. the 1.5 billion people who are secure from falling back into absolute poverty but not (yet) prosperous). As for the “have-nots”, they are made up of the “global destitute” (less than $2 – estimated at one billion people) and the “global absolute poor” (less than $4 – estimated at 2.5 billion people); to a lesser extent, “the precariat” ($4-10 a day – insecure 2 billion people) can also be considered part of the have-nots, as access to basic services is not guaranteed for them.

Until now, governments, NGOs and philanthropists have been mainly talking or working towards addressing the basic needs of the have-nots, while the rich – i.e. the “haves” – were largely unhindered in their quest for acquiring more, and more, and more. Grassroots organisations have become experts in building communities amongst the poor, and in engaging with these groups towards their development. Conversely, and unfortunately, there has not been much work towards engaging with the rich, especially in the context of changing their behavior and reducing their excesses (which many of them/us still feel not necessary to reduce, by the way, as we don’t consider our behavior as ‘excessive’). Yet, at exceptional times in history, including during the world wars, everything was rationed so that everyone got enough of what was needed (as described by Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything), or at least portions were more or less divided evenly. In the new SDG era, we’re nowhere near yet, even if more and more rich begin to have a vague notion that we can’t continue this way.

How have “the rich” been engaged in developmental discussions until now? The ultra-rich have been drivers of economic policy (for better or for worse, see their activities in the financial sector, including in tax havens), providers of employment; the more progressive ones among them are also active as philanthropists. The rest of the rich (i.e. the bulk) have mostly been consumers, employees, and are driving through their sheer mass also the (direction of the) world economy. Several campaign groups have sought the support of some of the Super-Rich (with Bill Gates as the most prominent example) towards specific social justice issues and to fund campaigns. The rest of the rich have largely been supportive of the status quo (read liberalization and privatization) on developmental policies, and are by and large adhering to capitalism (whether the Anglo-saxon or softer European version, or “made in China” state capitalism), even if sometimes reluctantly. Occasionally they voice opinions on social issues such as corruption and gender equality.

But if we really want “to leave no one behind” in the SDG era, it is time to zoom in (more) on the behavior of the rich, broadly defined as we do here. While governments have a key role in terms of ensuring that appropriate policies are in place to reduce excess consumption and consumerism among the rich, the success of the implementation will also depend on a shift in the mindset of the rich.

There is a need for a change in the vision that the super-rich are “the lords of the land” or “saviours of the poor”; instead, they’re often perpetrators of inequity and worldwide pollution. In the new SDG era, they will now have to become “partners” – a word they’re very fond of – along with everyone else towards building a better, just, and sustainable world.

As for the rest of the rich, the vast majority, they’ll need to thoroughly examine for themselves what ‘sustainable consumption and production patterns’ actually entail. Which means they (and this includes most of the people reading this very blog, including the writers of this piece) need to redefine the American dream, the Chinese dream, the Indian dream, the global health researcher dream… you get the idea. This is not about “sacrificing” luxury, but rather about truly engaging with a process that can ensure an even better world with a comfortable and dignified life for everyone, including them/ourselves. It’s about giving up a false notion of “power” and ‘moving ahead in life’, rather than about giving up power and progress itself.

Of course, among the super-rich, power and wealth have often been used to acquire even more power and wealth, and so this kind of power surely should be given up – after which they will have an opportunity to embrace and savour the power of collective action for the collective good. (as you can tell, we’re already being “inspired” by Jeremy Corbyn’s recent victory in the Labour elections in the UKJ)

There is also a role for civil society and governments in this effort, and of course, any leaders that might emerge from within the richer sections of society. Maybe also religious institutions will play an important role towards guiding the rich (within their communities) towards these – very much needed – changes. Moderation in consumption as an idea is compatible with (and indeed recommended by) all religions and many philosophies, based on what we have understood of them. And such shifts make possible more active, engaged and fulfilling lives. The same is true for atheists from an ethical perspective. In spite of all the fancy talk of ‘green growth’, some level of moderation and balance (implying also an absolute reduction in consumption) will be necessary for the haves – no doubt about that. But moderation does not necessarily mean a reduction in opportunities and services. For instance, moving around the city as much as before will still be possible, but on cycles or using public transport; wearing fancy clothes everyday will still be possible, but clothes will be bought less regularly (and not as easily thrown away);  children would more often get to play football outdoors rather than always being ‘immersed’ in gaming devices inside homes; and fruit can (and should) still be eaten every day, but it would more often be grown locally rather than imported from across the world. Well, just some crude examples.

Maybe the public health community can engage through the knowledge that has been gained through health promotion. Some institutions of the public health community are already divesting from coal and fossil fuel companies. Ethics (and long term benefits) have to come before short-term profits, and have to be guiding principles towards the success of the SDG era.

In short, the development sector will have to move out of its comfort zone and broaden its vision to include the “neglected rich” if it wants the sustainable development agenda to be successful. A focus on the neglected rich has not been proposed here with the idea of creating even more silos; we just want to argue here that now is the time for innovation towards engaging with this socio-economic group – which until now was not of much “concern”.

We know especially the super-rich like to think of themselves as being innovative, generous and thus contributing to the SDG agenda – via philanthropic foundations, social impact bonds and the like, the Giving Pledge, …  Without any doubt, it’s true that at least some of them don’t “neglect” the SDG agenda. Yet, their own behavior is still to a large extent neglected, and the world, including the development community, needs urgent innovation to address that oversight. The same goes for the rest of the rich – hundreds of millions of people.

Then, perhaps, if we dare to dream, we will one day wake up in a world where we no longer talk of “haves’ and “have nots”… and human beings all over the world just live dignified and comfortable lives.