In a region brought to its knees, inequality kills

In a region brought to its knees, inequality kills

In the Middle East and North Africa region, already one of the most unequal in the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by 23% during the pandemic.
In the Middle East and North Africa region, already one of the most unequal in the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by 23% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Blog by Diana Kallas, Senior Inequality Policy Advisor - Oxfam in MENA

In the months after the pandemic was declared, Oxfam warned that huge and dangerous increases in inequality across the MENA region were likely.

Back then, in just a matter of months the region’s richest had amassed more wealth than the IMF and the UN combined had provided in aid for the coronavirus response. As we warned almost 45 million people were on the precipice of being pushed into poverty, the wealth of these elites has only climbed, lining their pockets at the expense of everybody else.

While last month the world’s leaders and elites gathered online for the Davos Agenda, discussing among other issues global social contracts and vaccine equity, this annual talk fest only paid lip services to the global good and hasn’t, so far, resulted in anything meaningful for the billions of people around the world who continue to lose out because of the inequalities translating into vaccine apartheid and gross disparities between rich and poor.

Pandemics are good for business

Almost two years on from the pandemic, the data is staggering. Not only has the chasm between the rich and the rest widened, but the small, powerful and exclusive club of millionaires and billionaires has grown. Their obscene wealth increased during the pandemic and so has their number. Pandemics are clearly good for business. In the Middle East and North Africa region, already one of the most unequal in the world, billionaires saw their wealth increase by 23% during the pandemic, while the bottom 90% of people saw their wealth drop in 2021.The 3 richest people (all of them men) own more wealth ($26,3bn) than the bottom 222,5 million MENA citizens ($25,5bn) combined. The number of people whose net worth was 5 million USD or more also in these countries increased by almost 40%, while in the entire nine years preceding the pandemic the increase was 24%. In Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, business was even better for the rich where there was a 39% combined percent increase in total wealth of millionaires and billionaires according to WealthX data. Moroccan billionaires saw their wealth triple during the pandemic.
This wealth does not trickle down to benefit others, and despite what they might argue to the contrary, these rich men are not contributing to their economies.

More rich people only means higher wealth concentration, more money in the hands of too few. Some of this increase could have gone into government coffers to help fund access to health care, education, sanitation systems, water and electricity.

Instead, because of a complete lack of reforms and governance to enable progressivity and redistribution, we saw more millionaires and billionaires as well as more people pushed into poverty, and more people dead from Covid because they couldn’t access the basic services they needed.

The MENA region needs a new, fair, and equitable economic model

Inequality kills, but it didn’t have to be this way. If governments had taxed the rich their fair share, and ensured those taxes worked to protect the most vulnerable and everyone in-between, the ramifications of the economic impact of the most recent pandemic crisis, in addition to decades of austerity measures that did little to improve the lives of ordinary people, could have been lessened.

If a progressive annual wealth tax was applied to the wealth of multimillionaires and billionaires in the region it would have generated US$ 79.3 billion a year, enough to increase public health spending across the region by half, or completely eliminate often unaffordable out of pocket health costs.  In Lebanon, a country in the throws of multiple crises, this would have allowed for a $1.1 billion USD annual increase to the government health budget.

The MENA region needs a new, real, social contract, and a new economic model where distribution of income and wealth is fair and equitable and where austerity is history. It needs redistributive policy measures that prevent the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few and channel resources towards the good of society as a whole.

Inequality is not simply that some have more than others. Wealth that stays in the hands of the wealthy breeds societies where injustice is rife and public services and opportunities for those who need it most are inaccessible.

Inequality does and will continue to kill until we switch the game. Political and economic decision making must start working for the collective good, instead of the private interests of a few. It drives conflict, societal disintegration and hardship.

Until then, if we let the gap keep widening the inequalities it breeds will multiply just like the virus that keeps supercharging it, with disastrous consequences for all.