024 – The Privilege of Wealth

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
024 – The Privilege of Wealth


In this nuanced discussion, David and Santiago discuss wealth as a privilege, examining their own privileges in various contexts. Should we view aspiration differently in low resource environments compared to high resource ones? Is it always wrong to use the privilege of wealth to gain advantages for oneself and one’s family?

[00:00:07] Santiago: Hi and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I am Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow, and I’m here with David Stern, Founding Director of IDEMS. Hi David.

[00:00:17] David: Hi Santiago. Today I’ve brought up the topic, haven’t I? It’s sort of come out of a previous discussion we’ve got, and really I wanted to dig into these issues around the privilege of wealth.

[00:00:30] Santiago: Yes, let me just jump in and give a bit of background of where this came from because I think it’s important to understand the motivation for this, and we talked in a two part episode about nepotism and touched on wealth and opportunities but we felt that the issue of wealth was too important for the time we had allocated for that.

[00:00:58] David: More than that, we were talking about it from a position of privilege. We are both living in high resource environments and privileged environments. In an earlier part of the episode, we had touched on the idea of if you’re thinking about inequalities and being unfair to someone, are you thinking about being unfair locally in your environment or globally, where you include less privileged environments?

And I think I felt on reflection that last part would resonate with people who lived in high resource environments where we are in the privileged position to be looking for this equity in education, in opportunities. Whereas in low resource environments that I work in, the fact that wealth gives you privilege is not necessarily to be considered as a negative thing.

In fact, on the contrary, many families want to acquire wealth to be able to enable their children and the next generation to have opportunities they never had. And that is a very positive thing. And so, there’s a really interesting issue there.

[00:02:13] Santiago: And I think from my interactions with people in Kenya, in Zambia, in other African countries, the efforts that some families of low resources make to actually prioritize education for their children, it’s something that, having grown up in Argentina, I haven’t seen in other low resource environments like where I’m from.

[00:02:38] David: Well, Argentina is not a low resource to the same extent. And I think this is really important. And there’s interesting research on this in different ways. When you get to a certain level of wealth, as a country, as an individual, then your problems are different. That doesn’t mean that your problems go away, but you have very different problems. There are big issues which come related to inequality, and there are sort of some interesting research around that.

But when you’re in contexts where there aren’t enough resources to go around, then it’s a very different situation. And that’s something where actually there tends to be three big motivators in all of these contexts, which I think are really important for us to consider. There’s health. If you don’t have functioning healthcare for everybody, which you trust and feel you can rely on, then this is something where people feel they need wealth to fill that gap, in case they, or a family member, or somebody need something, has a health emergency.

Education. This idea, in many, many contexts and historically in Europe and in the US as well, that there is an effort that your children should be able to have a better life than you have. It’s interesting that that contract, there were interesting questions in Europe and the US around that now, where actually people talk about the fact that the previous generation had it better than the current generation.

And that’s a really interesting societal question, which is happening. But if you’re looking at low resource environments, without a doubt, that’s a huge motivator. That the next generation has it better than you is a huge motivating factor. And this really relates to education.

[00:04:37] Santiago: There have been even political campaigns built around that.

[00:04:42] David: Of course. And all over the world, this is a common desire to be thinking and to be looking towards a brighter future. It’s one which actually I feel it’s interesting in Europe and the US at the moment, that isn’t really the perspective that people have.

People are very pessimistic about the future. But in low resource environments, you still find that they’re looking for a brighter future for their family, for their children, for the next generation.

And I suppose the third thing is, of course, pensions. And I don’t mean pensions as pensions, because if you’re in a low resource environment you’re looking for that stability for the future. You’re looking to be able to acquire wealth so that you will never be in a position of crisis. And that’s where a lot of my students and colleagues across Africa, if they make some money, they tend to invest in land. When I was working in Kenya, colleagues would tend to get farms or have land where they would intend to retire to. And it can look very different all over the world, but that idea of having a secure future for yourself and your family is always important.

[00:05:53] Santiago: But that you named it as pensions. While I would see that as retirement, because…

[00:06:01] David: Absolutely.

[00:06:01] Santiago: …pensions tend to have the connotation of depending on the government or depending on private institutions and so on and so forth, and there’s so many factors that affect financial pensions.

[00:06:13] David: Absolutely, you’re, you’re 100 percent right. I mean pensions as a concept of retirement. Thinking to a future to ensure that you will always have enough to be comfortable in your retirement

[00:06:25] Santiago: Can I add one more point which potentially is not relevant and potentially is part of the health part of this set, but nutrition.

[00:06:39] David: Well, I would argue that is part of the health, of course, and it’s one which is actually very interesting because it’s not one that people spend on. Actually, very often the evidence seems to be the wealthier people get, the worse their nutrition quite often, in certain contexts. In other contexts, at very low resource environments quite often the poor man’s food is quite healthy. And as you gain wealth, you gain access to food, which is maybe less healthy. And this is really interesting to me, it is not something which people tend to spend money or prioritise. It’s very interesting as an idea, but it’s not what seems to play out, as I understand it, in people’s motivations.

Whereas health in general, education or the future generation, and retirement, I like the way you put it, those three, they are consistently what people care about in my experience across the world. It doesn’t matter whether I’m talking to colleagues in Kenya, Ghana, East Africa, West Africa, Pakistan, it doesn’t really matter where in the world you are. In the UK it’s the same things in certain ways.

[00:07:45] Santiago: And the retirement bit is interesting because I come across, I think it was two different African countries that have a compulsory retirement age, which is something that wealthier countries don’t have. In fact, they’re increasing the minimal age for retirement.

[00:08:02] David: Well, but you understand why? Because in those contexts, they have very young populations. And part of the problem is actually the elder generation handing over power. And so the compulsory retirement age is what enables the younger generation to actually step up and take in positions of power. So those sorts of issues, when you have a young population pyramid, your dynamics are very different on this.

In Europe, in the US, we have very old population pyramids. So actually, if everybody retires at retirement age, that means there’s lots of dependencies for society to look after. Whereas in a young population pyramid, there’s very few people in that situation related to the many people who are looking to come up, and who, if there isn’t that retirement, can sometimes find themselves blocked.

[00:08:59] Santiago: But might that, in this low resource environment, generate more of an awareness that they need to plan for that retirement time?

[00:09:12] David: Nope, not in my experience. But you’ve got to remember, in some of these contexts as well, life expectancy is lower. This is the thing, I mean, for any given individual, I’ve seen lots of cases where people don’t care about all those things. Some people don’t care about health, they’re not thinking about that, they’re not preparing for that. Some people don’t have the ability to think about the future, they’re too busy in the present. But when you actually give people enough wealth to be able to think about the three things, I don’t believe people can really think about what their choices are.

People who don’t have choices. This is the thing which I think is so important. I recognize my privilege. I was born into a privileged family, not because we’re extremely wealthy, but because my family did not have to worry about health, didn’t have to worry about education, and it didn’t have to worry about retirement.

My father has a good pension, and my family, if you want, was always okay in terms of retirement. They were okay in terms of the education opportunities we had, and we had good health care because we were lucky, the NHS at that point was offering a wonderful service. So these three things were taken care of. And we as a family, therefore, were in a privileged position where we could choose what we were interested in. We didn’t need to prioritise wealth over other things, we as a family actually prioritised travel. So we had amazing experiences growing up in different ways because I got to live in amazing places and experience things.

But it’s only because my family was in the situation where those three basic needs, in some sense, were not a worry. That’s the threshold for me of privilege. And I would argue in the UK, when I was growing up, actually a very large proportion of the population was privileged in that way.

It’s interesting, and it would be interesting to think now, and to see now, the proportion of people who do not worry about those three things, has that increased or diminished? My guess is, with the cost of living crisis we’re seeing now, it’s almost certainly, right now, it’s diminished.

[00:11:30] Santiago: Well, not just the cost of living crisis, but the ratio of salary to property prices as well, and so many other factors.

[00:11:41] David: Absolutely, because of course you can’t be healthy unless you have a sensible accommodation and you’re actually able to live in a sensible way. Of course those things are part of those three, they fit into them. And yes home ownership issues is something which is discussed extensively. And these are all important. That’s about your retirement as well, if you are able to, through your career, buy a property, then that gives you security into your retirement, and an asset which you can hand over to future generations. And so, yes, these are all tied in, things like housing and other basic needs are, are of course part of that. I guess the point that I wanted to make, which is so important, is the statements we were making and the position we take of using the privilege of wealth to achieve advantage for education of your children, well, that’s a very privileged position to be taking.

[00:12:38] Santiago: Not just education, but access to opportunities.

[00:12:42] David: Absolutely, access to opportunities. If in a low resource environment, if you can use whatever little wealth you have to create access to opportunities for your family. Well, nobody would deny that that is a positive thing in your context. And so it’s only because of the privilege that we live in that actually discussing that as a negative thing is even conceivable.

[00:13:11] Santiago: I’d like to get into the concrete and present two examples that really highlight this difference. The first one is myself. I’m from Argentina, but I am hugely privileged. I come from a background where I never needed anything. I always had everything I needed and more. And that gave me opportunities to do voluntary work, to travel, to gain experiences, similar to what you were describing of yourself.

Some of the jobs that I had were due to the opportunities I had through my connections, through the wealth that my family managed to acquire, which is not huge, but was more than sufficient for a very comfortable life. So I was able to take German classes on weekends. Private classes. That was unique. I studied two additional languages other than Spanish while growing up. That is quite unique.

[00:14:21] David: When you say that’s unique, it also means your CV is better. So that when you apply for opportunities, you had more chance of getting those because of those opportunities.

[00:14:30] Santiago: Exactly, exactly. So that wealth led to better opportunities and that led to a wider range of options for myself.

[00:14:42] David: Yes.

[00:14:43] Santiago: At the same time or on the other hand we have a project, the maths ambassadors project where we train youth in African countries to promote mathematics through fun and engaging activities. Some people went for the first round of trading and they loved it. They wanted to keep getting involved and we tried to organise a second round where they would get more qualified and more experienced to be able to actually run activities, potentially even make a small profit out of it. But they couldn’t spend that time, one week training because they had to contribute to their family finances. And I think those two contrasting situations really describe what you’re trying to say.

[00:15:34] David: Exactly. And this element that, yes, that could have led them to getting opportunities to give trainings to make a little business out of this or something but it would have required from them at that point an investment of time and that time was something their family really didn’t feel it could afford.

And this is something where I’ve also had so many students who have gone through such hardships in different ways, but grown out of it a whole different set of skills which are valuable in other ways. So it’s not that one of these is good and the other is bad necessarily per se, but it is that one of them tends to open more doors and that’s where the privilege of worth in these different ways is so important.

If those families had been able to invest that time, to afford it, then it might have led to other opportunities, but it might not have. This is where I think one of the critical elements becomes we mustn’t impose this element that using the privilege of wealth to gain advantages in this way is inherently negative because on the contrary when people have a small amount of resource, if they can use it to better their families opportunities in the future, and they’re living in low resource environments, this needs to be applauded, and this needs to be encouraged, because there are never going to be, in those contexts, enough opportunities to go around.

It’s a tough situation. There’s a saying in British education, you know, that it wants to leave no child behind. And this is something where one of the things I learned working in Kenya, that’s a privilege they cannot aspire to at this point in time.

[00:17:26] Santiago: Let me just, small bracket, that policy of ‘leave no child behind’ arguably could have done more damage than benefits, but that is potentially another podcast episode.

[00:17:37] David: It’s another podcast because that is a really important one. I do want to go into that discussion with you. I don’t want to delve into it now because I know exactly where you’re coming from on that and it’s a whole nother debate. But what I think is something we need to recognize is that aspiration is wonderful.

But it is a privileged society that can have that aspiration. In a society where, as I experienced in Kenya, where there was no way that the education system could be developed within a small period of time to leave no child behind. What I want is I want an opportunity where every child has the opportunity to excel.

[00:18:22] Santiago: And it’s, you know, your conclusion in the nepotism episodes was that from an institutional perspective when, and I’m quoting you, need to balance the creation of opportunities with seizing of opportunities. And we want to be able to create these opportunities so that there are enough opportunities for everyone to have access to them.

[00:18:44] David: In the long run, that’s the aspiration. The aspiration is that everywhere in the world meets this minimum level of opportunities because there are enough opportunities in the world to go around. This idea of trying to reduce absolute poverty to the point where we can as a world be beyond that global threshold, whatever that means.

That will never reduce relative poverty. Relative poverty is the difference between the rich and the poor in any environment. So relative poverty is a whole different discussion. Eradicating absolute productivity could be achieved, and in doing so that would potentially create opportunities for everyone at the minimum level.

And there have been efforts, this was in some sense the Millennium Development Goals, and they have to some extent had great success, but at also great cost in different ways. And one of the things which has happened, and then the Millennium Development Goals led to the Sustainable Development Goals, and one of the shifts that happened in this, was this idea of moving from quantity to quality.

And when you’re looking at quality of education, you know, for education specifically, when you’re looking at quality of education, what I’m really interested in, is trying to imagine how, whatever context people might be in, they could seize the opportunity. Not necessarily that they have opportunities created.

[00:20:19] Santiago: Well I would disagree slightly, it is seizing the opportunities. The opportunities need to be there, but the importance of the relevance of opportunities I think cannot be minimized. The opportunities for someone who wants to pursue an academic career are going to be very different to someone who wants to be in a sustainable farming and small farming environment.

[00:20:44] David: You’re missing the key point. In Kenya, in Ghana, in many other countries. There are schools who have never had anyone progress from the school to the next level of education. That means that if you live in that community and that’s your local school, you only have two options. Either you accept that your child, by going to that school, their education is bounded, however good they might be, however smart, because there are smart people born all over the world in different ways who are exceptional in different ways, but the education being offered means that their potential is being capped at this point in time by the education offered in their environment. Or you have to have the privilege of wealth to send your child to another school. Those are the only two options available to you.

[00:21:37] Santiago: Yes. That reminds me of the story you told me about your wife being the first person to get a, a doctorate in her village.

[00:21:46] David: Yes, absolutely. But this is sort of the same. This is not something which is unique in, in low resource environments. This has been the same across the world over time. And what I would argue is so important is if you take the example of my wife, she did that going to the local schools. The local schools were good enough to take good students, to inspire them and to enable them if they wanted to pursue.

Now, her friends, they had different aspirations in life. But she was, for different reasons, she was driven in that way. She was academically driven and her local schools in a rural environment, in a relatively wealthy part of Italy, enabled her to be the first person from her environment to do that.

And these stories exist all over the world. But what I think is so important is that there are so many places, and this is the reality, which I don’t think I fully appreciated until I really spent the time working with schools in Kenya where actually, despite the best efforts of the schools, the environment they’re in means that they’re condemned to not be able to create that enabling environment for their students.

Changing that is a big motivation for me. And this is where I want to just reinforce this element, that in that context, I cannot criticise the use of wealth to be able to provide those opportunities.

[00:23:24] Santiago: You focus on low resource. I have worked in schools in the UK, one school in particular, where no students went to university as well. You’re focusing very much on the low resource environments and it’s a valid point because it is much more prevalent in the low resource environments, but I’d like to highlight that it’s not just in low resource environments.

[00:23:59] David: Aha, but there’s a big difference. I’ve been to sort of elements of this, and I’m aware of what you’re saying. I would argue that actually the high resource environment schools in that situation, those problems are solved. I would argue that the problems that I observed in schools in those situations, in low resource environments, they’re not solvable at scale, because they require resources which are not available in the system. I would argue that in the high resource environments, if you were to bring in the right group of people to turn the school around, and people have done this, they’ve turned such schools around, you know, it is possible to do that.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it takes money, it takes people, it takes effort, it takes all sorts of things. But I would argue that those are solvable problems, and they’re solvable, I would argue, at the scale of the country. In the UK, there are choices we make as a society, which means that such schools exist.

But I would argue that it is possible to conceive and to, to sort of imagine a future where with the resources that are available within the society and with choices that could be made, actually that could be solved. Whereas in the low resource environments, and that’s why I focus there. I would argue that this is an unsolvable problem without orders of magnitude of resource, which are not going to be available in that environment.

[00:25:33] Santiago: Can I bring in the example of the Mpesa Academy because I think…

[00:25:36] David: Yeah.

[00:25:36] Santiago: …that it is really important because the amount of money that went into that school is remarkable. So Mpesa is one of the most profitable, or fastest growing…

[00:25:50] David: This is, this mobile money. This is being able to exchange money through mobile phones. It’s been extremely successful in Kenya and it’s a really, really big African success story in digital innovation. And from the profits of that, they reinvested some of this in education and created an amazing positive school.

[00:26:12] Santiago: And they take, I think it’s two students from each county in Kenya, who they identify as having high academic potential. It’s a boarding school. They provide full boarding for the selected kids. They have incredible quality teachers. They were, last time I talked to them, they were even thinking of offering the International Baccalaureate, the IB, which…

[00:26:40] David: I have to admit I’m a little bit out of date, because I think they made that change. We need to check with Zach, but my memory was, and I haven’t been in touch for a number of years now, but I think they made the change.

[00:26:52] Santiago: Yes, and it is recognised as one of the best diplomas you can get out of secondary school, but it’s also recognised as one of the most expensive diplomas you can get through secondary school. And the amount of money that took to get that centre of excellence running and it only takes two kids from each county. So it’s not a sustainable solution.

[00:27:19] David: It’s absolutely sustainable as an elite institution, and I don’t have a problem with there being an elite institution.

[00:27:24] Santiago: Sorry, it’s not a scalable solution. And I’m not suggesting that that level of opportunity should be offered universally. Because not every kid is suited for that high academic demand. But a lot of money is needed to be able to offer the relevant opportunities in the relevant context.

[00:27:47] David: But that example is wonderful. The amount of money is, as you say, but the point is this money is not offered to those who have the privilege of wealth. The other people who have such opportunities, the other schools which could offer such opportunities, they are only available to the wealthy. Whereas what the Mpesa Foundation Academy does is this says, no, this is available to the best. And so they take the best from across the country. And part of the idea is they’re bringing together people from different cultural backgrounds from all over the country to be able to have them together in a common environment to also to be able to build understanding, to create those connections about an elite for the future, who actually respect and value each other. This is wonderful, wonderful goals, objectives elements. And this is a wonderful example where that is something which can only be created through the privilege of wealth that the Mpesa Foundation has. But it is not only available to those, it has been made available to those who have shown excellence and need in an interesting way.

[00:28:55] Santiago: And those, let’s call it meritocratic approaches where you filter through need and through academic potential. There are quite a lot of individual initiatives going on. There are other, perhaps larger instead of unique specific case studies, there are larger organizations. We interacted with one recently that wants to create a hundred schools in Africa in the next 20 years.

[00:29:25] David: Absolutely.

[00:29:25] Santiago: There are movements that want to go towards that, but scalability, sustainability is always a challenge.

[00:29:39] David: And to say that you’re not able in your environment to use your wealth to be able to create those opportunities for your family is, I think, wrong, because actually these whole systems do work better if there is more money which goes into education. And one of the ways to get money into education is to get people with wealth to spend it on education.

You’re coming from a scenario where you’ve worked in these sorts of private schools in the UK. And in the UK, the debate on that is rather different. Many of these elite schools in the UK would have bursaries and scholarships, which means that they would also be creating opportunities for people of less privileged backgrounds.

[00:30:21] Santiago: Sorry, it’s not would have, they must have to maintain their charitable status.

[00:30:27] David: Absolutely.

[00:30:27] Santiago: It could change in the future, but it is a key way in which those independent schools justify their charitable status.

[00:30:36] David: Yes, and this is really important, this is not in its own right a negative part of a society. What I do believe is that it is wonderful that we live in privileged societies where we can question whether, actually, wouldn’t it be better if actually we could have a state school system where everybody could get good enough opportunities that that elite element was less valued or less needed or whatever it may be?

Whereas I also believe that there are sort of low resource environments where we have to recognize that the system isn’t going to have enough resource in it for any time in the near future, that creating those opportunities which enable, a whole other range of opportunities to be created is a positive component of society.

And so there is an element of privilege, and I wanted to sort of come back to this, that we need to recognise, coming from our privileged backgrounds, of being able to question the value of having the privilege of wealth to influence opportunity. That is an incredible privilege we have.

[00:31:48] Santiago: I want to make it perfectly clear that we, or at least I myself, don’t support those who demonize wealth because of those differences. We need to recognize the value of hard work, effort, seizing the opportunities that are available, and progress.

[00:32:14] David: One of the things I think is really important in this is that having wealth and being able to use wealth to better yourself, your family, your opportunities, your future. That is something which we cannot present as a negative thing.

And if you can’t present that as negative in low resource environments, you can’t and shouldn’t present that as negative in high resource environments either. And one of the things which I think is so important, therefore, is to think, well, okay, so if in low resource and high resource environments that is seen as being positive, what is it that we are desiring when we say we want to have this sort of equal of opportunities, you know?

And I think what’s so important there is that in privileged environments, in high resource environments, there is enough to go around. And so it comes back to the element of balance. There is no problem to me with a high resource environment having an element of privilege of wealth.

But it should not be out of balance with having the opportunity available whatever your background. Balancing those two is the key. And this is where I think the idea that having a privilege of wealth is being a negative thing, you know, that would be hypocritical of me to feel that because I’ve benefited from that all my life.

It would be hypocritical of me to not want others to benefit from wealth in a not necessarily extreme form. I’ve never experienced the privilege of extreme wealth, but I have experienced the privilege of sufficient wealth. And that is, I think, one of the really critical things. Where you do not have sufficient wealth, there are needs and there are contexts which need to be recognised as being needed to be supported.

My hope is in the long term, as a world, we can get to a position where there is sufficient wealth for all to whatever level that might need to be defined. I don’t have the answers to that at all, but there are people who are looking at it. And that is something where I think that is important.

You know, migration, international migration. One of the big driving forces of that is the lack of a future of an opportunity in many low resource environments. The world, everybody would be better off if, everybody had opportunity where they were. And that is something I believe quite strongly.

So if we, as a world, had opportunity everywhere, I think everyone would be better off.

[00:34:58] Santiago: And it’s about recognising the opportunities, valuing the opportunities and valuing the choices and being able to have a more equitable society where, irrespective of those choices, the academic life, the rural life, the, whatever life can be…

[00:35:19] David: A good life.

[00:35:20] Santiago: A good life.

[00:35:22] David: This is the thing, this is the point. If you can have your minimum needs required, whatever opportunities you seize in life, that is sufficient. Then the inequalities that come where people can have a better life, great, good on them, that’s their choices. But it’s that aspect that actually, if you can get it so that the societies as a whole can have a good life, whatever that means, and we can get that at scale, that’s what I believe could solve many of the world’s problems.

How you get there is a whole different problem. You know, the privilege of wealth is there and it’s not a bad thing. And that’s something where it’s not inherently bad. It is just elements of the extreme on this so that it excludes others to the point where those opportunities don’t exist, that is where it becomes problematic.

[00:36:13] Santiago: Very interesting.

[00:36:15] David: Yeah, I’ve enjoyed this discussion. Thank you very much for humoring me on actually having this topic. So I’ve appreciated it.

[00:36:22] Santiago: Thank you, David.