Rich / Poor Conflicts

Olympio Barbanti, Jr.

Originally Published October 2003; Current Implications section added by Heidi Burgess in April 2017.

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This article is really interesting to apply 14 years later.  Not only was it written in an earlier political and economic era, but it was written by a Brazilian scholar who viewed inequality from the point of view of developed versus less developed countries. More...


In the age of globalization, the gap between high and low income countries is not only persisting, but in many cases it is widening, as the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development)[1] has shown in its study of Luxembourg. While the existence of such a divide is unquestionable, its origins, structure, and consequences are not. Could one, for example, securely say that income gaps lead to conflict? Is it possible to relate intractability to this divide? Rather than answer these thorny questions, this article explores the debate with the aim of identifying its key arguments. But first, it is necessary to clarify some concepts.

Poverty, Inequality and Welfare

Poverty: Poverty has been approached in both absolute and relative terms. "Absolute poverty" is a measurable quantity referring to a lack of the basic resources needed to maintain a minimum of physical health, normally calculated in calories or nutritional levels. "Relative poverty" has a qualitative dimension. It refers to general standards of living in different societies, taking into account culturally sensitive interpretations of poverty, and variations between and within societies over time.

Inequality: For those concerned with social policies and economic growth, inequality is normally interpreted as lack of equality of condition, that is lack of achievement of any given welfare indicator (e.g. income, consumption) or any valuable attribute of a population. For example, the larger the difference in income between a country's rich and poor, the larger the inequality. Note that reduction of poverty levels within any given society may not imply a reduction of inequality, because all classes in society may benefit simultaneously from economic growth, keeping the same proportion among them. While it seems clear that inequality is undesirable, there is a great deal of debate over the desirability of total equality. One debate over equality questions is the meaning and value of concepts such as class, status, power, and authority. These cannot, it is argued, be completely equalized without suppressing other values such as personal freedom and individualism.

Welfare: It has a much broader meaning, referring to the general state of well-being that an "entity" enjoys. Here, "entity" can be taken as a person or as a state, thus one can speak in terms of "personal well-being" or "welfare of the state."

Economic Logic and the Development Discourses

William Ury begins explaining his role in trying to prevent a civil war in Venezuela, where the country is extremely polarized between those who support the president and those who oppose him. Like many other countries, it is essentially a conflict between the 'haves' and 'have nots.'

Classical economists have been largely influenced by Kuznet's 1955 postulate that suggests that in the early stages of economic growth in developing countries, inequality will tend to worsen, while at later stages there will be a better distribution of income.[2] Therefore, inequality, as well as poverty, Kuznet argued, could be tackled by efficient economic policy -- in other words, by rational development.

Though Kuznets's hypothesis influenced the study of income distribution for nearly four decades, others had previously established a direct casual relationship between economic development and overall betterment in people's life. This connection gained international political meaning on January 20, 1949, the day President Truman took office. In his Inaugural Address, Truman[3] said:

We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism -- exploitation for foreign profit -- has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing.

As Sachs[4] notes, Truman's speech "created" underdevelopment, by attaching a positive meaning to America's political institutions, which were built on "scientific advances and industrial progress." Development, then, could be achieved through science and material progress. The president also pointed out how politics and economics should work together to achieve development through "fair dealing."

For two at least decades, this rationalist view of development informed aid assistance to Third World countries. Underlying these ideas was the Weberian concept of modern (rational, urban, disciplined) versus traditional (superstition, rural, undisciplined). Weber's "spirit of capitalism" defined a life-style that reconciled discipline, diligence, and moderation, a rational hard-working principle necessary to turn "peasants into laborers."[5] The physical distance from the natural environment, and the very nature of non-agricultural activities, would disperse superstition, an essential characteristic of traditional/rural societies. Thus, development thinking rewarded rational behavior, linked to urban entrepreneurship and capitalist development.

It was only at the beginning of the 1970s that this development model was challenged within the circles of classical economics. Robert S. McNamara, then president of the World Bank, questioned the usefulness of economic definitions of development, and opened an avenue for a more humanist way of thinking that emerged later in the decade when the International Labor Office sponsored the "Basic Needs Approach."

Since then, development theories have changed character: they have begun to consider human dimensions involved in economic development, and questioned the real meaning of "development" to the poor. Welfare economists, such as Amartya Sen, have forcefully introduced new concepts, such as human-centered development. The concept of "empowerment" has also become central in the analysis of developing countries, which many prefer to call Less Developed Countries (LDCs).

At the same time, classical economists[6] have proven, with observations from 108 countries, that there is no support for Kusnet's hypothesis that inequality falls as economic development advances.[7] Therefore, there is a growing perception that the main casual relationship between inequality and economic growth is in fact the opposite: inequality is likely to obstruct the rate and quality of economic growth. It is therefore possible that a country could continue its economic development regardless of the inequalities its economy produces. Growth with inequality is an explosive mixture, one in which the very rich and the very poor live side by side in large urban centers. This fuels many forms of social conflict.

Double-standard "free" trade

Since Truman's inaugural words, the capitalist system has logged an incredible number of achievements. The technological revolution has brought a new standard of wealth, health and comfort to the peoples of First World countries, as well as great accomplishments in LDCs. According to E.A. Brett, these achievements have been possible due to a new institutional framework that supports "competitive markets, political freedoms, universal education, encourages objective scientific research, allows social and political criticism, and provides safety nets to reduce risk and deprivation."[8]

But Brett also observes that these achievements come with conflict. "Reducing scarcity," says Brett, "has created a crisis of sustainability as our propensity to consume exceeds our capacity to conserve diversity and control wastes; removing national barriers has exposed poor and ill-equipped peoples to the threats as well as the benefits of free trade and competitive markets; globalizing communications has reduced cultural diversity and exposed everyone to the temptations of an often materialistic and trivial international media industry."[9] In addition, Brett analyses the demands of competition in the capitalist setting, transforming workers into workaholics, with implications for stress-related illnesses, family breakdown, and the loss of traditional values and community solidarity.

The internationalization of the economy has had a direct impact in one of LDCs most important sectors: the international trade in agricultural and livestock commodities. Lagging behind in terms of industrialization, it is in the commodity market that LDCs may be competitive due to innate comparative advantages such as weather, soil, specific products, and labor costs. It is by commercializing their natural products, either raw or (semi) processed, that LDCs may achieve a balance of trade surplus. However, it is also in the agricultural markets that rich countries' policies have been most contradictory.

For example, global cotton prices have fallen by 50 percent since the mid-1990s. According to an Oxfam report,[10] when adjusted for inflation, prices are now lower than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, as the study points out, despite its rhetoric of economic liberalism, the United States' cotton subsidies give its cotton producers an unnatural place in world market. It is only because of these subsidies that U.S. cotton is globally competitive. "Every acre of cotton farmland," says Watkins, "attracts a subsidy of $230, or around five times the transfer for cereals. In 2001/02 farmers reaped a bumper harvest of subsidies amounting to $3.9 billion -- double the level in 1992."[11] This is larger than the entire USAID budget for Africa's 500 million people, and also larger than the entire GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a country like Burkina Faso.

The problem is not liberalization of trade. As McKay et al. have discussed, trade liberalization "can have significant impacts on poverty which may be either positive or negative."[12] Liberalization may have positive impacts in the long run because, "it stimulates broadly based economic growth." Nevertheless, as the authors state, "it can still have significant adverse effects on particular groups...especially in the short term."[13] The problem is "double-standard" liberalism, one which may spread the gospel of democratic free trade, and at the same time put people's livelihoods at risk

This is also the case with the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, which, among other roles, protects the income of its member nations' dairy farms "through a system of price support, production quotas, import restrictions, and export subsidies."[14] According to Fowler et al, "milk production is the most important agricultural activity in the majority of EU member states," and is particularly important in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, and the UK, representing around 14 percent of agricultural production, or $38 billion, and involving 600,000 farmers.[15]

Arguing the need to attend to its own internal market, the EU introduced a system of production quotas in 1984, which was set at 120 million tons of milk per year. This is 110 per cent of today's domestic consumption, which means that a large export surplus was built into the quota system. In addition, the dairy sector receives subsidies of around $16 billion -- 40 percent of dairy production. This is, says Fowler, "equivalent to more than $2 per day per cow. Half the world's people live on less than this amount."[16]

The damage is twofold. First, within the EU, subsidies are monopolized by the dairy processing and exporting industries, which have concentrated production, transportation, distribution and trade at the expense of the small farmer. So, "the number of EU dairy farmers has fallen by more than 50 percent over the past decade, while average herd size has increased by 55 percent."[17] The same concentration of production at the hands of large transnational companies effects LDCs. Low-priced dairy products from the EU are shipped to countries like Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Argentina, and India where they undermine local small-scale production.

The cases of U.S. cotton and EU dairy subsidies are just two examples of how economic globalization has benefited a few large companies and producers while damaging the small, mostly in developing countries. There are many other cases in the commodity sector as well as in the financial sector. However, the core discussion here is whether, and how, this state of affairs leads to social conflict.

Rich-poor relations and social conflicts

The development discourse and practice has been based on a rational approach that assumes that economic growth benefits all society, reducing both poverty and inequality. "Good" development, moreover, would be achieved by those LDCs that follow Western political institutional models, echoing Truman's view of "development based on the concepts of democratic fair dealing." However, it is clear that in at least two sectors important to rich countries, cotton and milk, the dealing has been far from fair.

This may have some implications for social conflicts in LDCs. Recent research carried out for the World Bank by Fajnzylber et al., for example, claims to have found substantial evidence indicating a sharp increase in violence during the last decade of ever-increasing globalization.[18] This violence was measured using recorded homicide rates in both the two poorest regions of the world (Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa), and where growth of inequality has been fastest (Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia).

Additionally, econometric research on Brazil carried out for the World Bank has found increasing demand for public safety in both poor and richer neighborhoods.[19] These studies show that both poverty and inequality have risen in the last decade. By 1998, 1.2 billion people still lived on less than a dollar a day, and 2.8 billion on less than two. If so, the "quality" of development has been widely compromised. A development that takes place without "quality," that is, without fairness, is a development undermined by intense and diverse forms of social conflicts.

While figures on crime may illustrate the situation, there are dimensions to current relations between rich and poor countries that both reveal the depth of inequality between the two as well as possibilities of transforming or resolving this disparity and its resulting social conflicts.

First, the dual behavior of rich countries has undermined LDCs' faith in the possibilities of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods. This is partially because dispute settlement mechanisms existent at the global level (like those from the World Trade Organization -- WTO), have not been able to counter rich-countries' biased trade policies. Also, the Western framework of democratic institutions that has given support, and meaning, to economic liberalism and therefore to "fair dealing" has itself been called into question. There is therefore a vacuum of meaning in Western democratic institutions that support ADR.

Second, expanding inequality has reinforced the power of local elites in LDCs, who, in many cases, achieved prominence under a colonial power. The situation today could be called a "new colonialism" with two levels. The first level involves the power of the rich over the majority of the poor. The second has to do with the use of that power in relation to globalization: within the unstable political and economic setting of LDCs, inside information is vital for international businessmen. Those who hold economic, political and/or informational power in LDCs are in a position to channel investment and/or development where they want. The overall result is an even larger imbalance of power, which restrains fair negotiation and conflict transformation/resolution practices. To some extent, local-scale rich-poor conflicts mirror the conflicts between LDCs and the rich nations.

Third, the contradiction between rich nations' development aid intentions and their actual trade practices has a negative result among LDC populations. A country's commercial practice, like its culture, can be, rightly or wrongly, identified with its people's beliefs. American trade practices, for example, are the practices that Americans supposedly defend. It could be argued, therefore, that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacks on what the perpetrators' identified as symbols of the main source of LDCs' growing poverty and inequality: American trade policy and its military.

Development economics also have to do with human values. Globalization brings about a change in people's lifestyles and behaviors. Forms of alternative income earning have grown faster than formal and secure employment. Global companies have maintained control over planning, and sent to LDCs all stages of production that involve financial and human risk. Life in LDCs has become more unstable, generating and/or expanding many different types of conflict, from crime to intra-household violence, from environmental destruction to unfair competitive practices in human relations and commerce.

Finally, the logic of globalization tends to homogenize once diverse institutions and the cultural frameworks derived from them. This brings conflict in different forms, as local culture institutions and structures have to adapt or risk dying out. This includes ADR practices themselves: their introduction in LDCs may become a source of conflict if indigenous forms of negotiation, based on local values and cultures, are not taken into account.

This list is not complete. Inequality has more faces and more links to social conflict than this paper has the room to discuss. The issues raised here -- the connections between peoples' welfare and social conflict at both local and global levels -- deserve further analysis.

Current Implications

This article is really interesting to apply 14 years later.  Not only was it written in an earlier political and economic era, but it was written by a Brazilian scholar who viewed inequality from the point of view of developed versus less developed countries. Neither he, nor we, at the time, were focusing on conflicts between the rich and the poor as being something that affected people and politics within developed countries.  We particularly weren't thinking about such conflicts as concerning US politics. But it did then, and it does even more so now, as inequality has been increasing in the U.S. for at least that long.  

Certainly many of Barbanti's observations remain true in this different context and time. Development (translated into increased prosperity, perhaps, in the US) does not reduce inequality; it may actually increase it. Class, status, power, and authority cannot be equalized, without suppressing other values such as personal freedom and individualism.  

As he perceptively argued, trade is not an equalizer, but rather a driver of inequality.  But neither he, nor we, in 2003, considered the argument that trade would be hurting the US economy or its citizens.  His argument was that trade was structured to benefit rich countries at the expense of the poor. In some sense, that is still true.  But many in the U.S. feel that trade is hurting them as well, which is why President Trump promised in his campaign to renegotiate or pull out of NAFTA as well as several other international trade agreements. (It should be noted that his tone has softened considerably since he has taken office.)

So I urge you to read this article with an eye to what applies now, and what doesn't.  And regardless of your answers, what clearly does apply is that conflicts between rich people and poor people, both within and between countries, is very complex and intractable.  

--Heidi Burgess   May 10, 2017.

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Graphic credit for social media posts:

Fox Rich and Poor People by Chris Piascik.  Creative Commons: CC-by-NC-ND 2.0

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[1] OECD, Income Distribution in OECD Countries: Evidence from the Luxembourg Income Study (Paris: OECD, 1995).

[2] S. Kuznets, "Economic Growth and Income Inequality," American Economic Review 45, no. 1(1955): 1-28.

[3] Harry S. Truman, "Inaugural Address, January 20, 1949," in Documents on American Foreign Relations (Connecticut: Princeton University Press, 1967).

[4] Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary -- A Guide to Knowledge as Power (London: Zed Books, 1995).

[5] Weber M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (London: Unwin University Press, 1971).

[6] K. Deininger and L. Squire, "A New Data Set Measuring Income Inequality," World Bank Economic Review 10 (1996): 565-591.

[7] See international inequality database at

[8] E. A. Brett, (2000) "Development Theory, Universal Values and Competing Paradigms: Capitalist Trajectories and Social Conflict," LSE Development Studies Institute -- Working Paper Series No. 00-02, (London: London School of Economics, 2000), 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] K. Watkins, "Cultivating Poverty -- The Impact of U.S. Cotton Subsidies on Africa," Oxfam Briefing Paper 30 (Oxford: Oxfam, 2002).

[11] ibid, 2.

[12] A. McKay and others, "A Review of Empirical Evidence on Trade, Trade Policy and Poverty - A Report to the Department for International Development (DFID), prepared as background document for the Second Development White Paper," mimeo (London, DFID, 2000), 45.

[13] ibid, 45.

[14] P. Fowler and others, "Milking the CAP -- How Europe's dairy regime is devastating livelihoods in the developing world," Oxfam Briefing Paper 34 (Oxford: Oxfam, 2002), 4.

[15] ibid, 4.

[16] ibid, 7.

[17] ibid, 2.

[18] P. Fajnzylber, D. Lederman and N. Loayza, "Determinants of Crime Rates in Latin America and the World," World Bank Latin America and the Caribbean Viewpoints Series Paper (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1998).

[19] M. Pradhan and M. Ravallion, "Demand for Public Safety," Free University and the World Bank, mimeo (Washington, D.C., World Bank, 1998).

Use the following to cite this article:
Barbanti, Jr., Olympio . "Rich / Poor Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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