The Divide: A Review

Words by Vardhan Kapoor

Jason Hickel, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions (William Heinemann, 2017)

Jason Hickel’s The Divide is an ambitious work that directly challenges the existing orthodoxy on the roots of global inequality. Accessible to the general public and stimulating to an academic audience, the text sets out a full-throated assault of the status quo of developmental economics; in the process, it aspires to put forward a new narrative on the causes behind successes and failures in the sphere of economic development. The text begins with a historical analysis of the root causes of poverty in many of today’s “developing nations”, and charges forward through the years in a medley of anthropological, economic and historical analysis to assess how structural actors have entrenched these inequalities.

The narrative focuses on the failures of multinational organizations in improving inequality, (and their attempts at making people think otherwise), the structural nature of poverty – how poor countries remain poor through the actions of rich countries, and how global GDP growth will never be the solution to global poverty without first addressing these systemic issues. The text takes an undeniably agonistic tone, and Hickel takes obvious joy in tearing into the sacred cows of the development profession. In doing so, he leaves no stone unturned: traditional bogeymen like the IMF are skewered side by side more irreverent figures like Bono.

By and large Hickel succeeds in driving forward these arguments. The text is well developed and draws on a rich body of work. Some of most engaging insights arise in its explanations of how development practitioners used neoclassical economics to drive their development theories. Over the course of a thrilling chapter, the text surgically dismantles the neoclassical arguments in favour of structural adjustment with a rigorously supported analysis. Hickel looks at how the most legitimate enduring gains against poverty are to be seen in just one corner of the globe – East Asia. China, in particular, is portrayed as an exemplar of how nations should carve out their own path to develop in a meaningful way; rejecting the guidance of so-called development experts to nurture and support their own industries with a broad range of government assistance. Whilst this is scarcely a new insight, Hickel writes with a wit that animates the driest discussions. This ability to strip aside industry opacity and engage the reader on core issues is invaluable and is seen again in a discussion on the true value of the international poverty line. In the span of a few pages the text expertly breaks down the cynical rationale behind the World Bank’s ‘rebased’ international poverty line; we see how the 2000 rebasing of the poverty line from $1.02 to $1.08 artificially de-weighted purchasing power depreciation, so that the ‘new’ $1.08 line was actually lower in real terms than the old $1.02. In effect; by changing the line to $1.08, the World Bank made the global poverty head-count fall overnight, even though there were no changes in the real world.

What truly makes The Divide stand out from a crowded field are the twin pillars of the author’s personal conviction and the rigorous evidence he provides to support these. The text draws on the work of a host of developmental economics luminaries, the likes of Thomas Pogge, Lant Pritchett, Ha-Joon Chang, and Sudhir Anand to provide a comprehensive, quantitative underpinning to some of the more contentious sections. Yet, despite this, the book retains a unique voice, as Hickel’s own tales of his childhood in Swaziland and fieldwork across the developing world drive his point’s home.
As a whole, The Divide is an eminently readable work that has something for both veteran development practitioners and newcomers to the field. As an unashamedly opinionated book, it provides a strident narrative in a field mired in claims of stagnation and irrelevance. At times, the narrative would benefit from a more balanced approach, however, the book’s core arguments largely draw on extensive research. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in structural inequality, developmental politics, and challenging the economic orthodoxy.

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