Onstage at New York City’s Four Seasons Hotel, standing before 300 of the world’s largest institutional investors, is the last place in the world you might expect to see a person in my line of work. But there I was, in the fall of 2019, preparing to speak to a room full of Wall Street heavyweights about alleviating poverty and improving human health. A tough gig, to put it mildly.
I’d just stepped off a plane from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and I was reeling. Only a few days before, I’d been in a makeshift border town a stone’s throw from Zambia. A narrow road wended through the shrubs and cassava fields until, suddenly, there were miles of trucks parked one behind the other, forming the outskirts of a huge tent city. This settlement had cropped up along the only road leading from the DRC copper mines into Zambia, and eventually to South Africa. Because the trucks were often stopped at the border for days, negotiating permission to transport their copper to market, a fledgling economy had sprouted up to sell goods to the truckers. Incredibly, a million people had settled around this border checkpoint, primarily selling food and sex. Only a few days before my talk with the Wall Street financiers, I’d been visiting brothels to see women training one another to use female condoms. In blistering heat and overpowering smells, walking down muddy paths among endless rows of shacks and tents, the whole place reeked of desperation.
Now, standing onstage at the Four Seasons, I felt like I’d been transported to a different planet. Everyone in front of me (most of them men) wore a suit, and there I was—rumpled, exhausted, and jet-lagged after a multileg journey from Africa.
I’m an optimistic person by nature, confident that even a bit of progress begets a virtuous cycle. You give someone better health, and they can get a better job, feed their family more, send their kids to school, and so on. But the Congolese border town had rocked me. In a setting like that I couldn’t help wondering whether global development programs were merely expensive Band-Aids. Where do you even begin to chip away at the layers and layers of misery?
I hadn’t been invited to the Four Seasons to guilt wealthy financiers into action. My aim was to explain how our old model of the global economy was changing and where that opened new opportunities for the private sector. The scene in the DRC was part of that change too. So, I launched in.
“You came from Connecticut; I’m coming from Congo. You have ties and hair, I don’t. But we’re more alike than you think,” I said. “You spend your day managing complex systems, looking at spread- sheets, and trying to maximize returns. That’s exactly what I do. I look at metrics, try to make sense of trends, and decide where to make the best bet for the biggest gains—I’m just going for a different type of impact. But we’re not so far apart.”
We’re all on this planet together, I reminded them, gently alluding to the effects of extreme economic inequity. “We in the social innovation sector have one piece of the answer,” I said. “But you in the financial services space have another, and I think these pieces actually fit together. In fact, global economics is reshaping our world in a way that make our respective worlds more and more intertwined.”
I was introducing them to something I call the pyramid-to- diamond phenomenon.
Traditionally, global development work has focused on the comparatively straightforward goal of helping “low-income” countries at the “bottom of the pyramid” graduate out of poverty. The pyramid concept is derived from a simple graphic showing the distribution of wealth around the world: it has long been concentrated in the hands of very few rich countries and individuals at the top of an imaginary pyramid, while the vast majority of world’s citizens—billions of people in more than a hundred nations—lived for centuries at “the bottom of the pyramid.”
Throughout most of human history, at least two-thirds of all people have lived in extreme poverty.
But today’s global economy has become much more complex. The top economic group, as defined by both measurable income and wealth, has pulled away from the bottom, so that today a mere 1 percent of the global population controls more than half of the world’s wealth. That trend appears to be accelerating. A recent report from the UK parliament suggests that this accumulation of wealth by the richest people on the planet will increase to 64 percent by 2030. According to Oxfam, 26 families control as much capital as the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population. Visually, these trends look like a narrowing spike stretching taller and taller atop our old pyramid.
All true, and troubling. But these reports usually fail to explore the truly momentous change happening at the bottom, where data is harder to obtain and analyze, likely because those populations have always been less interesting to the marketers and financial institutions that study these trends. Sure, there are still more people at the bottom half than the top, and there are still too many people living in acute, chronic poverty at the bottom tip of the diamond—like those in that DRC border town. However, during the past 50 years, economic growth spurred by market forces, government policies, and aid programs has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of destitution and into the ranks of a new, low-income consumer class. In 2016, Brookings reported that the world had reached a tipping point, with over half of the globe’s population now “middle class” with some discretionary spending power for the very first time. Worldwide, the middle class is expanding at rates faster than we’ve seen in human history; about 160 million people move up the pyramid to join those ranks each year. By 2030, that middle band is expected to swell to 5.3 billion people—1.7 billion more than it holds today. Meanwhile, the number of those wavering in the “vulnerable” zone between poverty and the middle class is projected to shrink by 900 million. Every single day, about 170,000 people move out of abject poverty.
It is happening unevenly and inequitably, but as the global health expert Hans Rosling wrote, “Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving.” Pyramid to diamond.