Summary of a documentary on global inequalities and waste
This excellent 2018 documentary gives us a rare insight into the daily working lives of two men living in poverty, both making a living through trash, one in Kenya and the other in the United States.
It’s a really useful resource for gaining an insight into what the lived experience of poverty is like in these two very different countries, and for highlighting the extent of global inequalities.
Most of the documentary focuses on two men, and we get to hear a lot from them: details of their lives and their thoughts on poverty and inequality and what they would do to help overcome the problems of inequality.
We also here from a few experts and other people, but these take on a supporting role to the two main proponents (which is unusual for documentaries like this, but also welcome!
This is an excellent video to use to teach Global Development in A-level sociology, personally I would use it in the introductory lesson to the module.
Below i provide a brief summary of some of the key points of this documentary:
Sorting trash in Kenyan slum
After a brief introduction we get to see the first part the day of one guy in Kenya who works in waste management.
He gets up at 4.00 a.m and then spends several hours sorting through trash which is delivered from the nearby affluent suburbs and shopping areas. He sorts out food for his pigs and separates out any useful items which he can sell on.
There are a lot of people working sorting waste, many of them there because they have no other option. Many of them also eat waste food they find there.
Recycling cans in New York
The video now hops over to America where it follows another guy who also gets up at 4.00 a.m. to collect cans and bottles, which he then sorts to sell – there’s a good market in recycled containers it seams in New York – he can make $75 a day doing this.
We also get an insight into his life history – he used to be homeless, and he reminds us that many Americans are just one pay check away from falling into a similar situation.
Back in the slum
In this third section we see the guy in Kenya sorting out some of the cartons he’s found at the dump – he gets someone else to wash them and then he sells them on, making a daily income of $3-4 which is enough for him to feed his family, and lifts him above Kenya’s formal poverty line.
The U.S ‘Cultural Waste and Recycling Centres’
Back in the United States – we’re taken to a recycling centre, a community initiative that gives ‘canners’ support in their recycling endeavours – which plays a crucial part in helping them stay resilient.
The video also gets a bit more analytical at this point – there are 600 billionaires in the United States, but 40 million Americans live in poverty. But poverty is much worse in Kenya – it takes the average Kenyan 20 years to earn the annual salary of the average American.
There’s also a short interview with an anthropologist who reminds us that waste is cultural – a lot of things are only trash because we label them as such – and we take a trip to one guy’s museum of trash to drive the point home – he’s got thousands of dollars worth of perfectly good stuff he’s collected from what other people have thrown away!
Reflecting on Inequality
The documentary now highlights inequalities in the two countries – by taking a trip to the mall in Kenya – one gets the impression that the government there is investing more in malls for the wealth than in education and health for the poor.
In America we visit a guy who makes art from trash – one piece (which sold for a small fortune) adorns the wall of the one the most expensive apartments in New York – how’s that for irony.
in this section the two main men in the video give their views on inequality – both seem quite wise – neither think inequality is a good thing and would use our financial resources to give more enabling support to those in poverty, a leg up if you like to better help them help themselves.
Why do you think the video focuses on trash as a means of exploring inequality?
Have these two men found an effective solution (sorting and selling trash) to lift themselves out of poverty?
Do you agree with the two men in this video. Should our global resources be used to help the poor?
The United States ranks either at the top, or very near the top on several of the main development indicators used by the World Bank and the United Nations, but if you look more closely you find that the United States might not be so ‘developed’ after all.
This post starts out by exploring the seemingly positive indicators which suggest that the United States is one the most developed nations on earth, before looking at some other statistics and evidence which reveal the darker side of life in the United States, outlining some of the many areas where the U.S.A. looks very underdeveloped, despite its huge wealth and income.
Evidence for the apparent high levels of development in the United States
The U.S. ranks very high up the league tables for many economic indicators of development, such as Gross National Income, Gross National Product, and for total wealth. It also scores very highly in the United Nations Human Development Index which measure income, education and life-expectancy.
Gross National Income and Gross Domestic Product
The United States is the wealthiest country on earth by a long way, at least measured in terms of Nominal Gross National Income, where it’s GNI of $17 trillion is a long way ahead of second place China’s $10 trillion (2014 figures). GNI basically measures the value of goods produced in a country + wages earned abroad (fuller definition here).
The chart below shows rankings by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) which measures economic output in a slightly different way to GNI, but gives very similar rankings to the vast majority of countries when compared to the GNI rankings (see link above for the differences between GDP and GNI).
In terms of GNI per capita (GNI per person), the United States is also very near the top of the league table, coming 6th if we exclude the tax havens at the top, and the only country with a population over 200 million anywhere near the top.
According to Credit Suisse’s ‘World Wealth Report 2015‘, we see the same story in terms of wealth, where the Unites States remains one of the few countries with very high levels of wealth.
The Human Development Index
If we take a slightly more in-depth look at the development levels of the United States, then according to Human Development Index (2015 figures) which gives countries a score based on a combination of GNI per capita, the average levels of education and life expectancy, the USA is in the highest ‘very high human development’ category and it still ranks an impressive 8th (the U.K. is 14th), and as with GNI per capita is the only country with a huge population in the top 10.
Evidence of Underdevelopment in the United States
Despite its coming near the top of the league tables for many economic indicators, the U.S.A. comes much lower down many of the international league tables for social development, which suggests that the U.S.A. is failing to translate its enormous wealth and high levels of income into appropriate levels social development.
The rest of this post explores the relatively poor performance of the United States in terms of social development (and I look at some more economic indicators too.)
The United States has VERY HIGH income and wealth inequalities
According to the OECD, the USA was the third most unequal country in terms of income (2014 data).
The most graphic way of displaying this is through the GINI coefficient. This ranks nations according to equality – A nation where every individual’s income is equal would have a gini index of 0. A nation where one individual gets all income, while everyone else gets nothing would have a gini index of 100.
To put this in terms which might be slightly easier to understand: In the USA, the top 20% of income earners take home almost nine times as much as the bottom 20% of income earners.
(NB – The U.K. isn’t much better – with the income of the top 20% being 6 times greater than the income of the poorest 20%.)
The graph below illustrates the increasing income inequalities in America – the share of national pre-tax income going to the top 1% has increased from around 13% to 21% (for only 1% of the population), whereas the share of income which goes to the bottom 50% has decreased from around 19% to 13%.
In pre-tax income dollars, this means the top 1% earn an average of $1.3 million a year, while the bottom 50% of the American population earned an average of $16,000, which means that the top 1% earn 81 times the bottom 50%, compared to 1980 when it was only 27 times more.
Looking at post tax income, the difference isn’t so stark – the top 1% today earn 40* the bottom 50%, but again, if you look at the 40 year trend, the income of the rich has increased much faster than the income of the bottom 50%, whose income levels have more or less stagnated…
If we look at the distribution of wealth in America, rather than income, there is an even higher degree of inequality.
According to Allianz’s new Global Wealth Report (2015) which includes not just salary, but also property and investments held by a family found that America’s wealth inequality is even more gaping its income inequality.
The U.S. has $63.5 trillion, or 41.6% of the world’s private wealth (next to China with 10.5%, the U.K. is 4th with 5.6%), but the U.S. also has the largest wealth inequality gap of 55 countries studied, according to the report.
Allianz calculated each country’s wealth Gini coefficient — a measure of inequality in which 0 is perfect equality and 100 would mean perfect inequality, or one person owning all the wealth. It found that the U.S. had the most wealth inequality, with a score of 80.56, showing the most concentration of overall wealth in the hands of the proportionately fewest people.
This is a very useful video providing an infographical overview of wealth inequality in the USA (2016)
These statistics on income and wealth inequality are one of the main reasons why I think it’s fair to argue that America is in some ways an underdeveloped country – because such unequal distribution of income and wealth means the people at the bottom are effectively marginalised and don’t benefit from all that wealth and income sloshing about – what we effectively have are pockets of people who don’t benefit from the economic growth (‘development’) which the country as a whole has enjoyed over the past decades.
At least the bottom 20% (about 50 million of people in the U.S.A) face a daily struggle to get by, really only earning just enough for the basics of life – housing, heating, food, utilities, transport, maybe enough to save for birthday presents and a decent Christmas, but that’s pretty much it
Some grim evidence for this lies in the fact that 30 million Americans still can’t afford health insurance (Fiscal Times 2016), with a further 20 million only benefiting from it because of Obamacare (which may be Trashed following Trump’s election), which totals 50 million, or about 20% of the population. If 50 million people lack sufficient money for health care, they sure as hell won’t have enough money to fully participate in the full-blown joys of consumerism which is so much part of American culture.
So that’s 30 million (possibly soon to rise back up to 50 million) people within the United States, unable to access basic health care, just like in many poorer countries, which is pretty compelling evidence for labeling the United States ‘underdeveloped’. (NB if those 50 million people made up a country, it would be 28th most populated country on earth, out of 233).
On top of this, the relatively poor in America also have to contend with everyone else’s wealth and income being conspicuously consumed and displayed around them – on the streets, but especially in the media (if they’re stupid enough to watch T.V, which is most people), which adds an aspect of indignity into just earning enough to get by.
Of course if you were to compare the richest 10% with the bottom 10% the multiplier effect would be even greater, and it’s this section of the population which will be most likely to experience the many problems that come with poverty and extreme relative deprivation – facing the insecurity of flexible working conditions, living on sink housing estates, the threat of homelessness, the worries of debt, and living in the midst of higher crime areas.
15% of the population of America live below the official poverty line
Obviously related the above statistics, The Atlantic notes that the official US census data shows that ‘14.9 per cent of Americans, or almost 47 million people, falling below the poverty threshold of about $24,000 for the year.’ (2014 figures).
HOWEVER, the supplemental data shows that the true figure is slightly higher – standing at 15.3%.
America has relatively low life expectancy and healthy life expectancy
In 2016, the USA ranked a dismal 53rd for Life Expectancy, and the USA is one of only very few countries with ‘very high’ human development where the average life expectancy of the population is below 80 (you can see this in the Human Development Index table above), and in fact, according to the table below, there are several countries which are nestled alongside the USA, such as Puerto Rico and Cuba, which are considerably poorer but do much better on this key indicator of human development.
If you look at World Health Organisation data on healthy life expectancy, then the relative development levels of the United States look even worse. There is a marked contrast between the USA and Europe European countries, which have similar levels of GNI per capita and education to the USA, have healthy life expediencies of 70+, while the United State’s healthy life expectancy languishes in the 65-69 bracket below, alongside the much poorer South American countries and China.America has 1.5 million children of primary-school age out of school
You might have thought that every industrialised, developed nation on earth had figured out how to keep 99% of its kids in school for 13 years or so, well America fails to do so. According to World Bank data, it has a dismal primary enrolment rate of 93%, which slips down to 86% for tertiary education, and there are nearly 1.5 million children out of school (2014 figures)
America is the 114th least peaceful country in the world
According to the Global Peace Index, America has witnessed the fourth largest decrease in peacefulness in last ten years, in terms of how far it’s regressed, it’s right next to Syria in the international league tables for the ten year decline in peacefulness.
The Global Peace Index 2017 notes that: ‘The past year has been a deeply worrying one for the US, with the presidential campaign highlighting the deep divisions within American society. Accordingly, the score for intensity of organised internal conflict has worsened. Data have also shown a declining level of trust in government and other citizens which has generated a deterioration in the score for level of perceived criminality in society. Social problems within the US are also likely to become more entrenched and racial tensions may continue to simmer. Reflecting these tensions, rising homicide rates in several major American cities led to a deterioration in the homicide rate indicator, contributing to the decline in the US’s peace score.’
HOWEVER, the main contributing factor to America’s high violence rating is it’s continued high levels of expenditure on its military and heavy weaponry. Despite military expenditure declining in recent years, relative to other nations, the U.S. still spends a fortune on the machinery of violence.
On the subject of military expenditure…. America’s recent $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia and support for their war against Yemen doesn’t help its peacefulness score. …
In this talk Noam Chomsky emphasises that Trump’s election and his climate change denial threaten the very existence of the planet and the human species; and he also reminds us that despite America’s increasing political isolationism, U.S. Corporations still reign supreme.
Chomsky starts by saying that he was in Spain when he heard the results of the U.S. election, and the various commotion and commentary which surrounded it, but in fact the first very real negative consequence of Trump’s victory happened on the very same day and yet went largely unnoticed by the world’s media.
At the very same time as the U.S. presidential election results were being announced and analysed, COP 22 was taking place in Morocco, which was the first meeting of the signatories to the Paris Climate Change agreement (COP21) at which most countries agreed in principle to take concrete action to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and try to slow down global warming.
Because the specifics of the actions to be taken had been left vague after the Paris meeting, the point of COP 22 in Morocco was to start to add in the specific details of the agreement, however, following Trump’s election, and his commitment to scrapping current environmental regulation and monitoring in the U.S., COP 22 ended with no further progress having been made.
In fact, the agenda of the global climate change framework has now changed to one of ‘how can we combat global warming without the U.S. on board’, and nations have now started to look to authoritarian, anti-democratic China for leadership if any progress is to be made in this area.
Chomsky is very clear that environmental catastrophe is now one of the biggest threats facing the survival of the species (the other is nuclear war), and he focuses on Asia to highlight the coming global problems.
In the next few years, 10s of millions of people will be fleeing from Bangladesh because of the severe level of global warming resulting in sea levels rising, which would be a real refugee crisis, unlike the present one which he casts as a ‘moral crisis’ of the European Union.
(According to one climate change scientists, these climate change migrants should have the right to move to the United States and other rich countries that are causing global warming.)
Again in Asia, a second environmental crisis looms in India and Pakistan, in the form of potential conflict over scarce water resources – two states with nuclear weapons, which potentially trigger a survival crisis for the human species.
Chomsky’s next point is that U.S. isolation in the world is increasing in remarkable ways: the U.S. had been heavily involved in South and Latin America in the decades following World War Two, but the IMF has been completely kicked out of some countries in this region and has no military basis in the region at all; elsewhere in the world the TTIP has all but collapsed and other trading blocks are growing in scope, mainly centring around China, which are drawing in some of America’s historical allies such as Peru and New Zealand; finally with Brexit America has lost it’s main ally in Europe, the U.K., which could reduce its influence in Nato.
By looking at national wealth, it seems that U.S. influence is in decline, as its share has shrunk from 50% in 1945 to 25% today,
However, these measurements fail to take into account the crucial factor of the ownership of the world economy – which is virtually never discussed – CORPORATE ownership of wealth.
If we look at Corporate wealth, U.S. Companies are well in the lead in terms of ownership of the the global economy, and they are own over 50% of the world’s wealth in nearly every sector of the global economy – manufacturing, finance, services etc… of course although this wealth is held in the U.S. and supported by public money, it is not shared by all the citizens of the U.S.
If you look at the military dimension, the U.S. is of course still supreme.
Chomsky finishes by reminding us that the threats we now face are matters of human survival and they cannot be ignored, they need to be faced directly and soon if the human experiment is not to be a disastrous failure!
How to use this in the Global Development Module?
Basically it fits into the ‘how important are nation states’ aspect of the course.
Firstly, Chomsky seems to be suggesting that the United States still has enormous influence in the world – in that its lack of action on climate change means that it is able to disrupt the ability of other nation states to take coordinated action on climate change (whether this actually happens remains to be seen).
Secondly, it seems that other countries are becoming more powerful than the United States, and the U.S. is losing its political influence in certain ways.
However, if we look at the real ‘power indicators’ – wealth and military expenditure – the U.S. is still by far the dominant superpower.