Basic economics tells of supply and demand. With supply and demand comes the concept of scarcity and surplus. When any good is less available than it is wanted, it is scarce. Its value invariably increases. The opposite is also true: when there is too much of a good, its value plummets. Economics offers a cogent lens through which the world can be viewed, but its systematic manifestations often fail to account for the inequalities they create. Increasingly, the earth faces a so-called “surplus” of bodies, in the face of a high rate of population growth. This “surplus” consists of marginalized populations who lack access to basic health needs. However, the presence of a large population is not the root of the problem: it is their maldistribution, with higher populations existing disproportionately in the global south, and the present global economic system that stacks the cards against them. The global marketplace is rife with mechanisms that drive inequality – creating a world wherein a lucky minority has too much, and a vast majority has too little. These mechanisms are sustained by policies embedded in our current economic system that systematically deny rights from the poor and submit them to disproportionate risk. The following paper will explore the mechanisms by which the value of human life is diminished by structurally violent policies, resulting in negative health outcomes on a global scale in the face of uncharted population growth.
The rapid urbanization of recent decades has resulted in an increase in structural inequality and resulting negative health outcomes. With the expansion of urbanism in the developing world has come the expansion of slums, as a corresponding growth in urban planning has not accompanied population booms (Davis 7). The negative health effects of this rise in population have been compounded by Western interventions aimed at including the developing world in the global market, especially the 1980’s structural adjustment programs implemented by IMF and the World Bank. These programs succeeded only in structuring risk. Contingent upon liberalization of trade, privatization and deregulation, these programs were based on the assumption that inclusion in the world market would allow for growth of the developing economy. In actuality, most developing economies’ manufacture of raw materials does not give them a competitive edge in the global economy. Loans given as part of these programs were eventually paid for with funds accorded by slashing social programs in a time when they were needed most for burgeoning urban populations. The removal of social programs results in a much higher health risk to already vulnerable slum populations. Structural adjustment programs were founded on principles that valued economic growth more than it valued individual experience within the developing world—principles that blindly assumed that economic growth would present a rising tide to lift all boats. In reality, these programs widened the gap between the developed and developing world, creating parallel gaps in health and experience between the rich and poor within developing world urban centers. Other economics-based policies, including the “IMF-enforced policies of agricultural de-regulation” as cited by Mike Davis, displaced rural farmers, giving them no choice but to travel to cities in search of work (10). Just as population began to rise, the need for labor began to decline in most industrial cities—leading to a surplus of labor that eventually settled along the edges of cities. Inherent within all of these changes is an implicit devaluing of the human life of the “excess” population: the manner in which slums are overcrowded and unaided represents an oversight of both the international and national governance. This is exemplified by the fact that reforms in favor of development tend to value the country’s economic stance in the global market over the health of the majority of its citizens. These errors in prioritization—the importance placed on the country’s position on the international scale over its health on a national scale–lead to dire health outcomes for the world’s poor, in the form of increased risk and lack of access to social services.
Attempts at population control in the name of “development” have also reflected implicit devaluing of human life. In the 1970’s, the Indian government, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, implemented a slew of policies in the Emergency period that undermined the rights of India’s poorest and most marginalized citizens. In favor of “beautification,” slums were broken up and displaced peoples were moved to the outskirts of the city (Tarlo 245), their placement by the government mirroring their placement in society. The Family Planning scheme emphasized more the value of sterilization than it did forethought; what really came of this policy was the creation of a “pyramid of pressure” for sterilization (Tarlo 248). If a government official reached his sterilization quota, he would receive a reward, while failure to meet the quota would result in a punishment. These quotas would be fulfilled by two methods. An official could force his subordinates to be sterilized through coercion or threat in a top-down manner. Conversely, to avoid submitting to sterilization, the official’s subordinate could fulfill the sterilization quota by exerting pressure on his subordinates to be sterilized. In this manner, pressure for sterilization increased down the “food chain” of social strata, leaving the most marginalized people of the society with no choice but to submit to it. The so-called incentives for sterilization offered by the government exhibited a gross devaluation of the livelihood of those facing sterilization; tins of ghee, electric clocks and radios, and a small sum of money were considered a fair exchange for the right to bear life (Tarlo 250). This gave rise to underground markets where certificates of sterilization were eerily similar to currency. Later, when the Delhi Development Authority had exhausted the number of sterilizations it could obtain from its own staff, it made sterilization or presentation of a sterilization certificate a requirement for settlement in DDA housing for those that were displaced by urban development schemes also implemented by the DDA. The pressure of sterilization closed in on all sides around Indian slum-dwellers as part of an exploitative system that created a motive for the poor to exploit the poorer. In the name of development, the rights of the poor in this society were eroded by a system that directly targeted and grossly undervalued their right to fertility.
The global market puts the poor at risk by subtly tipping the scales against them and by explicitly allowing their exploitation. In many cases, the poor pay dearly for their attempts to earn a living, giving up their health in the face of poor regulation of business and market practices. As Scheper-Hughes writes, “The problem is that markets are by nature indiscriminate and inclined to reduce everything—even human beings, their labor, and their reproductive capacity—to the status of commodities” (193). The recent illegal trafficking of human organs shows how an economic system can manufacture risk exclusively to the poor by allowing the impoverished to give up their lifelong health for a quick sum of money, while a wealthy person would likely never even consider such an action. This speaks to the desperation that is arranged by the inequality of this system, and the lack of regulation within the global marketplace.
A globalized marketplace allows also for direct exploitation in the name of efficiency and expediency. Because of the lower costs and regulations, corporations increasingly outsource labor to developing nations. In many cases, this has resulted in a relaxation of both safety standards and accountability in industrial settings. Notably, the Bhopal disaster is an example of a Western company outsourcing its risk. In the early hours of December 3, 1984, a toxic gas leak coming from the Union Carbide pesticide plant covered the industrial city of Bhopal, killing thousands of workers and civilians and leaving many others with lifelong health problems (Fortun 194). Compensatory efforts did not begin to cover the costs of the lasting health effects on the population. The poor of Bhopal lacked the political might that Union Carbide’s legal team had; they had no recourse. In the developing world, failures of regulation coupled with economic exploitation can result in irreversible negative health outcomes for underprivileged populations.
The above examples represent a mere fraction of the ways in which the global economy gives rise to increasing inequalities between the haves and the have-nots. A measured examination of all exploitation and risk that the current economic system affords is far beyond the scope of this essay; indeed, it is likely impossible. The difficulty in measurement lies in the fact that the subtle devaluation of the poor underlies the system over which all commerce is built; the economic system is structured on inequality. However, where economic models allow a restoration of balance, there is no such balance in the real world. Use of a solely economic mindset when considering global inequality is a mistake, as a misplaced belief in economic development and growth as a panacea undoubtedly oversimplifies the problem. This oversimplification undervalues humanity, causing a marked decline in quality of life, as the disenfranchised fight to stay afloat, paying the debts with their liberties and their health.