Pyramid to Diamond: How Human Progress Is Reshaping the Activist’s Agenda

Published on October 13, 2020

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 mil- lion. Every single day, about 170,000 people move out of abject poverty.

This is why we should stop clinging to our old idea of the pyramid. It’s just not accurate. The global economy has stretched into a squat diamond with a wide bottom and a skinny spire—kind of like a spinning top with a very narrow handle. 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. I see this transformation playing out almost everywhere I travel: in emerging urban neighborhoods brimming with scrappy entrepreneurs; in technology-driven industries that sit alongside slums or just outside poor villages; in new schools, hospitals, transit  systems, and power grids serving communities that formerly had nothing; and across fast-growing markets in India, Brazil, Ethiopia, Peru, South Africa, Senegal, and beyond.

Back in 1979, when I first lived abroad in Asia, I never could have imagined this. At the time, China’s poor accounted for almost half of the bottom of the pyramid, a broad tranche of people living on less than a dollar a day. Today, that China is barely a memory. In a single decade, from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, China lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty and into the middle class—a phenomenal achievement, with resulting improvements in health and educational attainment that few people thought possible. In 2019, though China still had 16.6 million people living on less than $1.90 a day, the number was way down from the 100 mil- lion people suffering with that status in 2012. Chinese leaders have vowed to bring it all the way to zero in a few years. At the same time, 500 of the world’s newest billionaires are Chinese.

Consider the economy of Vietnam, once among the weakest on the planet, which has grown by more than 5 percent each year for the past two decades. Or the 23 nations in Africa now on the World Bank’s growing list of Middle-Income Countries with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita between US$1,026 and $12,475. That kind of economic growth has profound social reverberations. In India, under-five child mortality rates plummeted 30 percent between 2012 and 2018. In Myanmar, the life expectancy for women has been extended by 15 years since 1990.

Of course, the pyramid-to-diamond undercurrent does not diminish the immense suffering and unfairness that persist in distressed communities around the globe. Being a destitute kid on the streets of Damascus, Dakar, Delhi, or Detroit remains horrific, and unacceptable. There are still failed governments unable to address the basic needs of their citizens, a distressing number of states besieged by regional conflict and war, more refugees than the world has seen since World War II, and a new surge in authoritarian leadership worldwide—not to mention the crisis of climate change, its consequences for the world’s poor, or the rise of new strains of disease like Ebola and the novel coronavirus, which disproportionately harm the most vulnerable. The upshot? While many global citizens are benefiting from growing socioeconomic progress, others are not. And their lot in life is possibly more dire than ever. That is where would-be social activists should consider leaning in.

So why would a practical activist want to explain this to a bunch of Wall Street types? Central to my work is the idea that most of our major global challenges—health, education, inclusive growth, climate change—can be solved only through partnerships between private enterprise, public agencies, and the philanthropic funders, nonprofits, and research organizations collectively referred to as the social sector. Our fast-morphing diamond—with its implications for expanded markets and new consumers—makes such multisector efforts much more possible.

Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Undercurrents by Steve Davis. Copyright © 2021 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Steve Davis is a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Senior Strategy Advisor and Interim China Country Office Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  He also serves as co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Digital Health Technical Advisory Group, is a Distinguished Fellow with the World Economic Forum, and is a member of numerous boards and advisory committees. He is the former president & CEO of PATH, a leading global health innovation organization; former Director of Social Innovation at McKinsey & Company. He speaks and writes regularly about the intersection of innovation, technology and social impact. He is the author of the book Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism. He lives with his family in Seattle, Washington.

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