Press Releases & Updates - Latest News - Oxfam Hong Kong
Skip to main content
Start main content

Press Releases & Updates

20 JAN 2015

Asia’s shocking inequality requires urgent intervention as the region’s poor totals almost half a billion: It’s time to Event it Up

Asia’s remarkable success story in the fight against poverty is at risk as rising inequality across the region now threatens security and growth according to a new study by international agency Oxfam. Launching ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Oxfam urges leaders in Asia to take action if they are to help almost 500 million people still living in poverty in the region.   

‘Asia is now at a crossroads. It could continue with the existing policies and risk political, economic, social, and environmental sustainability or it could make a turnaround by addressing inequality more seriously in all aspects to sustain its economic progress,’ said Lilian Mercado, Asia Deputy Regional Director, Campaigns and Policy.

This warning comes as Oxfam’s new briefing note, ‘Asia at a Crossroads’, highlights that though Asia’s remarkable success has created millions of new middle-class citizens, it is estimated there still remains almost 500 million people living in poverty, as the division between rich and poor increases across the region. [i] 

‘The fact that Asia continues to encompass hundreds of millions of poor people, whilst China and India have 1.3 million millionaires between them, is an alarm bell for governments, administrations and other relevant institutions and agencies to take immediate action.[ii]In Asia, inequality is widespread in various dimensions, such as public healthcare, basic education and gender. Moreover social structures discriminate on the basis of ethnicity and caste which also exacerbates inequality,’ Mercado added.

Whilst the region’s richest man has amassed US$31 billion in wealth, almost 500 million people barely survive on US$1.25 a day.[iii] It would take one of these poor individuals almost 68 million years to earn that amount, assuming that they could hope to save their entire daily earnings.[iv] 

Almost every Asian country has grown wealthier since 1990, most strikingly China, Vietnam, Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Bangladesh.[v]However, between the early 1990s and late 2000s, the Gini coefficient (standard measurement of economic inequality) for the region as a whole increased an astounding 18 per cent.[vi]. Four out of five Asian people have experienced a sharp rise in economic inequality.[vii]

Oxfam views the causes of inequality in a number of ways, including: lack of opportunities to access healthcare and education, job skills and employment, land, and capital. Systematic denial of access through policies such as unfair wage systems, skewed taxation, low spending in social protection and services has increased inequality. This, in turn, has created a further lack of inadequate access to resources and opportunities, to address the issue.

Some countries are acknowledging the risk of inequality and beginning to take action. Several Asian countries, including China and Thailand, are rapidly scaling-up public investment in healthcare and education. Thailand’s universal coverage scheme halved the amount of money that the poorest people spent on healthcare costs within the first year, as well as cutting infant and maternal mortality rates.[viii] But more still needs to be done and urgently.

The potential benefit of redistributing the wealth of the richest, by even a tiny amount, tells a compelling story. A previous study has shown that a levy of just 1.5 per cent on the wealth of the world's billionaires today could raise enough each year to enrol every child into school and deliver healthcare in the poorest countries.[ix]

For three years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks survey has found ‘severe income disparity’ to be one of the major global risks for the coming decade.[x]This is in line with the estimate by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) that an additional 240 million people in Asia – 6.5 per cent of the total population – would have ‘escaped’ extreme poverty had growth been more equitably distributed over the past two decades. [xi]

‘The only way for Asian governments to stop this vicious cycle is to empower poor people and communities, particularly women and marginalised groups,’ Mercado said. ‘It is clear that we need fair and equal access to education and health services as well as fair wages. Therefore, governments, NGO’s, civil society organisations and the private sector, must collaborate and act now to address inequality, in all its guises and forms.

 Notes to Editors: