Widening global inequality reaches the highest level ever, warns Oxfam

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s fortune of $167.4 billion (R3.1 trillion) increased by $32.7bn since the beginning of the decade. Photo: AFP

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s fortune of $167.4 billion (R3.1 trillion) increased by $32.7bn since the beginning of the decade. Photo: AFP

Published Jan 16, 2024


Oxfam has warned that the widening global inequality had now reached the highest level ever, which is equivalent to South Africa’s due to the rising monopolies, poverty wages and a “war on taxation” by corporations.

In the Inequality Inc report released yesterday, Oxfam said the gap between the Global North and the Global South has grown for the first time in 25 years.

The British confederation of charity organisations fighting global poverty published its report yesterday as business elites gather in the Swiss resort town of Davos for the start of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meetings.

“Global inequality is now at a level comparable to the level of inequality found within South Africa, the country with the highest inequality in the world,” read the report.

“Climate breakdown is further increasing global wealth inequality. One study found that inequality between nations is 25% higher than it would have been without the impact of climate breakdown.”

Oxfam also drew a link between corporate power and extreme wealth, saying that the richest people were the biggest beneficiaries of the global economy.

For one, it said Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s fortune of $167.4 billion (R3.1 trillion) increased by $32.7bn since the beginning of the decade.

Oxfam said in some cases, the richest people had benefited from hundreds of years of colonialism, the legacy of which continued to this day.

It said in the US, 89% of shares were owned by white people, 1.1% by black people and 0.5% by Hispanic people.

“In 2022 in South Africa, only 39% of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange were controlled by black people; 0% of entities were black-owned,” it said.

“Similarly, in South Africa, the richest 1% own more than 95% of bonds and corporate shares, while the richest 0.01% own 62.7%.”

Meanwhile, Oxfam predicted that the world could have its first-ever trillionaire in just a decade as the fortunes of the five richest men have shot up by 114% since 2020.

The world’s five wealthiest men made more than $10 million (R187m) an hour between 2020 and 2023, according to an Oxfam report released ahead of the World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland. Graphic shows how richest have become wealthier since pandemic. Source: Graphic News

The organisation said the world’s five richest men have more than doubled their fortunes from $405bn to $869bn since 2020 – at a rate of $14 million per hour – while nearly five billion people have been made poorer.

It said billionaires were $3.3 trillion richer than in 2020, and their wealth had grown three times faster than the rate of inflation.

Oxfam International interim executive director Amitabh Behar said the super-rich were creating a new era of corporate and monopoly power that gives them immense wealth and also control over economies.

Behar said even out of 10 of the world’s biggest corporations have a billionaire as CEO or principal shareholder, adding that these corporations were worth $10.2 trillion, equivalent to more than the combined gross domestic products of all countries in Africa and Latin America.

Behar said 148 top corporations made $1.8 trillion in profits, 52% up on three-year average, and dished out huge payouts to rich shareholders while hundreds of millions faced cuts in real-term pay.

“We’re witnessing the beginnings of a decade of division, with billions of people shouldering the economic shock waves of pandemic, inflation and war, while billionaires’ fortunes boom. This inequality is no accident; the billionaire class is ensuring corporations deliver more wealth to them at the expense of everyone else,” Behar said.

“Runaway corporate and monopoly power is an inequality-generating machine: through squeezing workers, dodging tax, privatising the state, and spurring climate breakdown, corporations are funnelling endless wealth to their ultra-rich owners. But they’re also funnelling power, undermining our democracies and our rights. No corporation or individual should have this much power over our economies and our lives – to be clear, nobody should have a billion dollars.”

Oxfam has thus called on governments to rapidly and radically reduce the gap between the super-rich and the rest of society by revitalising the state, reining in corporate power, including by breaking up monopolies and democratising patent rules, and reinventing business.

“Every corporation has a responsibility to act but very few are. Governments must step up,” Behar said.

“There is action that lawmakers can learn from, from US anti-monopoly government enforcers suing Amazon in a landmark case, to the European Commission wanting Google to break up its online advertising business, and Africa’s historic fight to reshape international tax rules.”