30 January 2023

Once again, Oxfam’s complaints about wealth and poverty miss the mark

By Rainer Zitelmann

Every year, Oxfam publishes a study to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos. Past reports have often been based on flawed data and unscientific methods, but that hasn’t stopped the media giving them wide and largely uncritical coverage.

This year, though, one of its findings is actually correct: For the first time in 25 years, extreme wealth and extreme poverty have increased simultaneously, and Oxfam makes a point of criticising this development. In the years before, however, the charity never reported that exactly the opposite was the case. 

As the chart below shows, the number of billionaires has steadily increased over the past few decades, while the number of people living in extreme poverty has steadily decreased.


© Zitelmann, Sources: World Bank/Forbes

Before modern capitalism emerged, most people in the world were living in extreme poverty. In 1820 around 90% of the global population was living in absolute poverty. Today, the figure is less than 10%. In recent decades the decline in poverty has accelerated to a pace unmatched in any previous period of human history. In 1981, the absolute poverty rate was 42.7%; by 2000, it had fallen to 27.8%, and in 2021 it was below 10%. The number of billionaires, on the other hand, has increased about fivefold since 2000, according to Forbes

It is this main trend, which has persisted for decades, that is crucial. It is true – contrary to the original expectations of the World Bank, which compiles these data – that poverty has risen again over the last couple of years. But this is largely a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the situation in countries where poverty was already relatively high. 

Other long-term trends also provide cause for encouragement. For instance, the number of children in child labour around the world has dropped significantly, falling from 246 million in 2000 to 160 million in 2020. And this decline is despite the fact that the global population increased from 6.1bn to 7.8bn over the same period. 

This shows that what anti-capitalists believe – namely that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor – is a misconception. In fact, the opposite is true: economic growth means that as the number of rich people increases, the number of people living in poverty decreases – on a global scale.

One example is China: In 1981, 88% of the Chinese population were still living in extreme poverty. Then Deng Xiaoping started his free-market reforms with the slogan ‘Let some people get rich first’. Before that, China did not have a single billionaire because private property was not permitted under Mao’s rule. Today, there are more billionaires in China than anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the USA. And the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen to less than 1%.

Another example is Vietnam: As recently as 1993, as many as 80% of the Vietnamese population were living in poverty. By 2020, the proportion had fallen to just 5%. This was made possible by the introduction of private property rights and free-market reforms. At the same time, this led to some people in Vietnam becoming very rich and today there are even several billionaires in a country that was once one of the poorest in the world.

How do you effectively fight poverty and hunger? Many people believe the answer is development aid, despite the fact that aid has not changed anything fundamental in Africa in the past 50 years. What has worked very well in a whole host of countries, however, is the introduction of a market economy and private property rights.

Anti-capitalists such as Oxfam see the world in zero-sum terms. They tell us that the poor are only poor because the rich are rich. But if that were true, how do you explain the fact that as the number of extremely rich people has increased, the number of people living in extreme poverty has decreased? That has been the rule for 200 years. A year in which the opposite is the case, largely due to effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the one hand and a very positive stock market on the other, is a very rare exception.

Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and sociologist and author of the book In Defence of Capitalism https://in-defence-of-capitalism.com/

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Rainer Zitelmann is a German historian and sociologist and author of the book In Defence of Capitalism https://in-defence-of-capitalism.com/

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.