‘Anti-Forbes’ list of world’s Bottom 100 highlights widening wealth gap

The Bottom 100 project by The Fund for Peace and Havas

President Barack Obama once called inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” a call to arms that arguably did little to close the still-widening wealth gap between the rich and poor.

Under President Donald Trump and the Republicans now dominant in Congress, the plan is to cut taxes, reduce spending on foreign aid and take other actions that some say will only magnify and speed up wealth inequality. Some conservative economists even argue that inequality is a good thing, or at least an acceptable compromise, as a by-product or incentive of economic growth.

Every year, publications like Forbes release their lists of the world’s richest. While often dismissed as the financial equivalent of the world’s sexiest man, some say these lists can be useful for economists trying to evaluate who’s winning and losing. Others go farther, attacking the Forbes celebration of the world’s richest people as proof we have entered a new global Gilded Age of inequity separating the top one-tenth percentile from the bottom billion.

Along that line, the Fund for Peace this week released an anti-Forbes list of sorts, to shine a light on the names, faces and stories of 100 of the world’s poorest. They’re calling it the Bottom 100.

George Lehner

George Lehner, a former attorney adviser international in the U.S. State Department and chairman at the Fund for Peace, spoke with Humanosphere about this new project and what they hope it will achieve.

Q – Let’s start with how this project got started. And what does it aim to accomplish?

George Lehner: It really came about in response to the proliferation of the lists that we all see of the richest people in the world. At least one of the reasons I think people spend a fair amount of time looking at those lists each year is to imagine themselves in that position: “What would I do if I had $10 million? Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a mansion? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an airplane at my disposal?”

So we started to think: Why isn’t there a similar list of the poorest folks in the world? Would that create a sense of empathy? People understand poverty as a concept, but too often we just think about it as numbers: “Millions and millions of people live in poverty.” Or, “everybody in India is poor,” which is not the case.

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But when you look at these photographs of these people and read just a couple sentences about their lives, I think it’s so much easier to ask, what does poverty mean, and what does it do to an individual? I think that was the aim here – to literally put a face on poverty and make viewers ask themselves if they can relate to these people in some way. And perhaps it inspires people or gives people a deeper commitment to be part of a solution.

Abdefath Hassan, Somalia (Credit: Bottom 100 project / The Fund for Peace and Havas)

Q – Since there’s no way to actually quantify these individuals as the poorest 100 people on earth, how were the subjects chosen?

Lehner: It wasn’t a random selection. We researched where people who would be suffering from the kind of poverty we’re talking about live generally. Then we went out and started interviewing and talking to people. Ultimately, these were the 100 stories that rose to the surface. There wasn’t an effort necessarily to rank them as who’s more poor than somebody else, but it was 100 representative people of many who were interviewed.

Q – Were these 100 people also chosen to represent what Fund for Peace believes are the biggest drivers of poverty? Is there an overarching narrative here?

Lehner: We didn’t set out initially to select people to reflect what’s happening the world and what’s driving poverty, but it turned out that if you even casually look at all 100, you see that conflict, war and strife is one of the biggest drivers of poverty. Many of these people are from countries that have significant resources, but there are recent and virulent conflicts going on, exacerbated in some cases by climate change.

A large number of these people are also refugees precisely because of conflict. It drives people into poverty very quickly and very tragically. Poverty doesn’t just happen because there aren’t enough resources. It happens because other things drive people into poverty. That’s not to say conflict is the only driver of poverty, but the link is unmistakable.

Bharampal Singh, India (Credit: Bottom 100 project / The Fund for Peace and Havas)

Q – Often poverty is most strikingly depicted through a subject’s environment, but each of these individuals were photographed against a blue backdrop that blocked part or, in some cases, all of their environment. Why was that?

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Lehner: The blue backdrop I think focuses you on literally the face of the individual, and humanizes the people in a way that and really says, you have to look at me in the face. You’re not distracted by the paraphernalia of poverty. Instead, it says, “Focus on me – not on my surroundings and what I don’t have. Here’s my life story in two or three sentences.” It helps individualize them, and at the same time makes their stories universal.

Q – How do you measure the impact of an awareness project like this?

Lehner: I think it’s going to be very difficult to actually measure the impact of this. I think the more attention it gets, the more people will sign the petition on the website for governments to increase foreign aid funding. That would be one way to measure impact. But there are many, many people who are working to alleviate poverty in the world, and we are just one of them. So our hope is not that we can say, “Well, we can see that we’ve helped reduce world poverty by x,” but that we have been a significant part of bringing global awareness to this issue though the attention this project generates.

Q – Are there plans to update this list annually? 

Lehner: That’s something we’re talking about – what is the best way to follow up on this project, whether it would be an annual update or whether it would be a focus over time on a particular subset of the people to see what’s happened to them and what their story has been. We’re trying to determine the best way to keep this alive and in front of people.

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.