A different look at global income inequality

Something that has long struck me about modern discourses on international development is the idea that poverty is somehow shocking, an aberrance in our age of wealth.  It’s not!  Plenty of people in the world live in the way that humans have lived for most of history.  If anything, it is the wealth of the developed West that is profoundly and ahistorically abnormal.

Worldmapper has some good maps of population and wealth through history that offer a bit of perspective on this topic.  Data for year 1 CE was taken from Angus Maddison’s historical estimates of the world economy.  Check out these maps of estimated population and wealth at this time:

Population, 1 CE (source)

Wealth, 1 CE (source)

You’ll note that the maps are virtually identical, reflecting the facts that per capita GDP (imputed to modern territories, as these states obviously didn’t exist in 1 CE) varied extremely little around the world.  Maddison has estimated it at an average of $445 annually per person.

Now check out population and wealth in 2000:

Population, 2000 CE (source)

Wealth, 2002 CE (source)

Hello disparities!  Latin America is the only region where wealth appears to have grown roughly commensurately with population.  The US, Europe and Japan, of course, are looking a bit bloated, whilst most of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be doing worse (relative to the rest of the world) than it was 2000 years ago.  Average global per capita GDP in 2000 was about $5200, meaning that even the massive population growth of the last two millennia has not prevented the world’s citizens from growing (on average) more than ten times as rich as they were in 1 CE.

It should go without saying that the conclusions one can actually draw from a set of maps drawn with imputed data is limited.  However, I still find it useful to have a reminder that we shouldn’t assume the normalcy or inevitability of the world as we see it today.

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