The Christmas decorations are emerging from their year-long hibernation and appearing in our streets. Christmas card lists are being prepared, presents planned. The average British person will spend £350 on presents this year. This year £16.5bn will be spent on Christmas in the UK. A walk in Knightsbridge, glancing into shop windows brings a reminder of the luxuriant affluence of this part of the world. Black Friday sweeps all before it, and the financial crash seems a distant memory.
This affluence provokes very different reactions. Over recent months we have been painfully aware of two major crises facing us: the migrant issue and the incursion of Islamic radicalism onto the streets of western Europe. One of the reactions that western wealth provokes is envy. People become migrants for all kinds of reasons. Some are fleeing exactly the kind of murderous terror that the citizens of Paris experienced, and yet many others come from north Africa, or other Middle Eastern countries not directly experiencing IS terror, and they do not head for Russia, or Southern Africa – they head for western Europe, drawn by the promise of a better life, with jobs, money in their pockets, and a slice of the pie that is our wealth and prosperity. The extreme contrasts between life in Eritrea and England are much more visible and enticing now through social media that globalises disparities and narrows the distance between the very poor and the very rich – you can look into Knightsbridge shop windows from your mobile phone in Kampala or Kirkuk.
The other reaction that the west evokes is hatred. Islamic State is the latest and most deadly of a series of movements in the Muslim world that identifies the west as a great enemy. This trajectory has been growing for a long time, dating back to the rise of Wahhabism in the C18th, and much of it is fuelled by a deep sense of grievance towards the west and its cultural dominance of the world. It is no accident that the Paris attacks appear to have been planned from the notorious Belgian district of Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels marked by poverty, social exclusion, and a high rate of unemployment. Of course, IS is fuelled by much more than poverty. Yet poverty, allied to the proximity of the lavish, extravagant wealth of the west, provides a fertile seedbed for radicalisation of what the religious historian Philip Jenkins describes as the typical jihadists: “second generation Muslim youths suffering from an identity crisis, with few prospects and plagued by the thought that the Islamic world is being suppressed."
These twin reactions, of envy and of hatred have brought the problems of poverty and inequality right to our doorstep. In the past we could watch TV footage of famine and poverty, or news items of bombs in Beirut or Baghdad and furrow our brows trying to understand the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Now these problems are literally knocking on our doors.
There is much to do to address these twin crises. But underlying both is the running sore of inequality and poverty. There are hopeful signs. Earlier this year, the UK government was the first G7 nation to enshrine in law a commitment to honour the UN development target of 0.7% of GDP to be spent on foreign aid. In the private sphere, the new Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship at the LSE is a bold venture encouraging the revival of philanthropy among the west’s wealthy. Yet the contrast between the sometimes ostentatious affluence of the west with the poverty of so many nations, now only a tweet or a website away, will continue to provoke extreme reactions until the gap is narrowed. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s well-known 2010 book ‘Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ argued that inequality hurts not just the poor but the rich as well. The last few months have only served to prove the point even more starkly.
Our government debates the bombing of Syria, which may or may not be a short-term solution. But it will only ever be short-term. It will not address the roots of the problem. A serious renewed will to apply our best minds and imaginations to tackle the startling contrasts of wealth and poverty in our world is one of the most urgent tasks facing our governments today.