As many analysts are now pointing out, the savage austerity packages being unleashed across Europe mirror the fate that many developing nations have faced for decades. Scores of indebted countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have long endured the savage IMF structural adjustment programmes that Ireland, Greece and other EU countries are now suffering. Zambia, for example, made extreme cuts in government spending throughout the 1980s and 1990s under pressure from the IMF, yet the cuts failed to prevent the country's debt from doubling while its economy plunged into recession.
A similar logic was applied to Asian countries following the financial crisis in 1998; foreign private lenders were bailed out, government spending was severely cut back, public companies were further privatised, yet the economy still continued to decline. And not only is private debt paid for by the public, but the cut-backs in public spending by no means guarantees a reduction in national debt. In effect, ordinary people are forced to pay for the reckless behaviour and mistakes of the financial sector - a reality that is now shared and understood by citizens in both the Global North and South.
A major difference for people in the South is that there is often no guaranteed state provisions or social safety nets that exist for them in the first place. Even in those developing countries still experiencing economic prosperity, most notably in the globalization "success stories" of India and China, rapid GDP growth is being matched by deepening inequalities and social insecurity. As we know from the World Bank's global poverty statistics, at least 80 percent of the 1.1 billion people who live in India somehow manage to survive on less than 2 dollars a day.
In China, still 36 percent of its population survives on less than 2 dollars a day, while the rural-urban income gap has continued to widen alongside increases in inequality of health and education outcomes. As what some call "the greatest migration in world history" continues across China, rural migrant workers arriving in industrial areas often find themselves trapped in abysmal working and living conditions, many without basic health and safety protections.
This definite growth in inequality and the lack of economic opportunity and social security that underpins it has long been a recurring theme across the world. A recent UN report revealed that there are now twice as many low-income countries than there were 30-40 years ago, and twice as many poor people living in them. Even more indicative of this worrying trend in global inequality is the evidence that a new ‘bottom billion' of the world's poor live in middle-income countries - a dramatic change from just two decades ago when the majority of the poor lived in low-income nations. A growing gulf between the rich and poor is also continuing in many high-income countries, not least in the United States where the top 20 percent of wealthy individuals own about 85 percent of the wealth, while the bottom 40 percent own very near 0 percent. As the Economist magazine is keen to point out in a special report, there is an ongoing rise in the share of income going to the very top - the highest 1 percent of earners - who constitute a global power elite or ‘super class' in many countries. At the other end of the scale, evidence suggests that the number of people living in relative poverty could possibly be 4 billion and rising.
Whilst Mubarak left office in Egypt with a reported 70 billion dollars of stolen public money, citizens remain saddled with 30 billion dollars of debts despite a poverty rate of 1 in 4 and a recurring food crisis. Tunisia, a regional poster child for the success of pro-market reforms, is in a similar predicament with crippling graduate unemployment rates of up to 46 percent, despite strong GDP growth.
In every country, the widespread outcomes of debt, austerity, poverty injustice and inequality are the product of political choices - the consequences of a disastrous neo-liberal approach to managing a nation and its finances. What we may be witnessing in the popular responses to these hardships is an emerging global consensus in favor of a fundamental reordering of government priorities. In the space of barely a few months, the rapid growth of anti-austerity demonstrations across Europe and massive anti-government protests all over the Middle East indicate the potential for public opinion to take on an international dimension. Given the determination of policymakers across the globe to continue with business as usual, the strengthening of a world public opinion in favor of a more equality, economic and social justice is the first step toward meaningful reforms.
As this increasingly global call for justice unfolds across several continents, an underlying demand being voiced by protesters in different countries is the urgent need for redistribution. Calls for an end to austerity measures, more progressive taxation and the cancellation of debt in the developing world all reflect the need to redistribute wealth and political power downward. An implicit understanding common to all these demands is that governments are better able to secure basic human needs for their citizens through the provision of more effective welfare and social services.
The question that remains is whether the need for economic justice can be recognized at the international level where the unequal distribution of power and resources manifests in extreme differences in living standards between the richest and poorest nations. If the case for international sharing captures the public imagination as quickly as the calls for economic justice in individual countries, the elimination of global poverty could finally become a realistic possibility.
(By Adam Parsons the editor and Rajesh Makwana the executive director at Share the World's Resources, a London-based NGO campaigning for essential resources)