With the 2014 FIFA World Cup underway in Brazil, it’s easy to ignore the headlines about protests in favor of the dramatic, high-scoring football matches capturing the attention of fans worldwide. But before we get out of the group stages, let’s focus on a chief concern of those protestors: inequalities in Brazilian society, and a corollary – how dismayingly common those inequalities are around the world.
Let’s start with Brazil. Around 15.9% of Brazilians are below the national poverty line. Just 3% of Brazilians own two thirds of the arable land, and agriculture is big business in Brazil. The most important picture of Brazil is the contrast in, say, Rio de Janeiro, between the massive favela shanty towns and the picturesque high-rise hotels immediately adjacent – the exact scene that will be playing out for tourists at the World Cup. With families locked in poverty sometimes for generations while the wealthy seemingly stay on top, desperation can easily set in.
But Brazil is only one piece of the puzzle; inequality is getting worse around the world. One study saw the top 1 percent of earners in the world increase their incomes 60 percent from 1988 to 2005; the bottom 20 percent saw no change. Eight percent of people see 50 percent of income worldwide. Coupled with staggering extreme poverty figures – we still have 1.22 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day – we all have a reason to protest.
Galling to the protestors in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, and beyond is that even with substantial progress in Brazil, their government has taken on the challenge of hosting a World Cup, diverting vast resources from social programs. As we in the United States know, sports stadiums are dubious investments for the public, and while infrastructure investments can help lubricate commerce, these infrastructure investments are designed to get the wealthy into football stadiums for just one month, not to get the poor from favelas into new jobs.
Add on concerns about severe human rights abuses to prepare for the World Cup in Qatar, or long-standing concerns about bribery at the International Olympic Committee or with FIFA, and it becomes difficult to accept sports mega-events as an economic prospect; you're not getting what you pay for, and you may be paying for more than you knew about.
While Brazil may be emerging as an economy and will likely soon achieve greater economic equality than the United States, we are talking about actual people who don’t have jobs, who are undernourished and have even been forced out of their homes for the World Cup.
So remember when watching the World Cup: Brazil made a choice to spend money, time, and effort on bringing the world to those stadiums. But maybe they needed to spend those resources on more effective projects. So should we all.