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The fact of global inequality is not disputed; the world is routinely divided into developed/developing, North/South, more/less/least economically developed, high/medium/low development, and so on. The richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth (J. B. Davies, S. Sandstrom, and A. Shorrocks2006). There is no consensus about the causes of global inequality, not least because of the difficulties in measuring inequality: if we scale income by some index of health, there is more inequality in the world than if we consider income alone (Deaton (2006) NBER W. Paper W12735).

Many writers blame globalization: Ash (2004, TIBG29, 2) argues that ‘TNCs and international banks are deeply embedded in the production of inequality, through their influence over governments, their tax evasion schemes, their poor environmental record, their labour market practices, their locational mobility, their market power, their dumping practices.’ Cornia and Court (2001, Policy Brief 4 World Inst. Dev. Econ. Res.) contend that the liberalization of domestic banking associated with globalization has caused rises in income inequality; Rowson (2000) healthmatters41 agrees.

There is also debate over the impact of structural adjustment measures on inequality. In 2004, SAPRIN claimed that structural adjustment polices are the largest single cause of inequality; at the other end of the spectrum, Ferreira (2004) World Bank Policy Working Paper 1641 asserts that, under a programme of structural adjustment, the population of Tanzania in poverty fell from 65% in 1983 to 51% in 1991.

Whether global inequality is increasing or decreasing is by no means clear. The UNDP (2005) reports that the ratio of the assets of the world's richest 20% to the poorest 20% increased from 30 : 1 in 1960 to 78 : 1 in 1994, yet Firebaugh and Goesling (2004) Amer. Journal Soc. 110, 2 report that global income inequality declined in the last decades of the 20th century.

There are those who hold that there is a relationship between regional inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) and level of development (as measured by per capita GDP), but the data in the table do not offer robust support to this view.

National inequality

has grown markedly; since 1980, virtually every country in the world has become more unequal (Gilbert (2007) Geog. Compass 1, 3). During the 1980s and 1990s, income inequality rose in the OECD countries, particularly escalated in China, Vietnam, and South Asia, shot up in Latin America, and went ballistic in Russia in the 1990s (2005, World Bank 45). See Alderson and Nielsen (2002) Amer. Journal Soc. 107 for an exhaustive study of inequality in sixteen OECD countries.

In Britain, inequality rose in the 1980s and 1990s. Changes since 2000 are less clear, but the proportions of ‘exclusive wealthy’—the people with so much wealth that they can exclude themselves from the norms of society—are at their highest since 1990 (Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2007). The rich and poor now live further apart; while in some cities over half of all households are now breadline poor, wealthy households have concentrated in the outskirts and surrounds of major cities, and exclusive wealthy households have increasingly been gathering around London. Since 2000, there seems to have been little progress in reducing geographical polarization.


Subjects: Earth Sciences and Geography.

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