In Search of GroundTruth: The World Bank captures inequality with photographs


In the desert of India in the state of Rajasthan, three boys study an iphone, amazed about its reversible camera. The iphone costs more that what they need in order to live for one year.


Sofia Madero/World Bank

Everyone sees inequality differently.

This was the World Bank’s assumption, at least, when its Poverty Reduction and Equity department launched a contest last week that challenged participants to capture inequality in a photograph.

“Inequality is a very tough subject,” said Karin Rives, online communications officer for the World Bank’s poverty reduction and equity department. “I mean, how do you photograph that?”

Some submitted photographs of children. Some captured landscapes of poor neighborhoods next to rich estates. Some snapped pictures that showed extreme, desolate poverty. And most demonstrate a real, honest understanding of the GroundTruth they highlight.

The contest was launched on October 25 by the World Bank Group in order to spread information about the growing problem of inequality around the world. While alleviating poverty has always been the World Bank’s focus, Rives explained, recently the Bank has been focusing on inequality issues, because economists have found that as countries develop, inequality often rises. 

As a March 1 Foreign Policy article put it, “the big worry is that economic growth and inequality go together like doughnuts and heart attacks.”

And the World Bank seems to agree. 

“It’s becoming clear that as countries are seeing their economies grow,” Rives said, “there’s often also a growing gap between the haves and have nots.”

World Bank economists have begun to do a lot of research on what Rives calls “inequality of opportunity.” This research examines unequal access to housing, education and healthcare, in an attempt to make sure that the government programs that the World Bank funds do not increase the gap between rich and poor.

With this photo contest, the institution dedicated to poverty reduction aims to reach beyond its traditional clients—country governments—and start a conversation with people on the ground.

So far, it seems that Rives and her team has achieved this goal, with 380 submissions, as of December 4, since the contest launched on October 25. Some of the photos capture breathtaking symbols of inequality, like this image of a plate half-filled with coins, or this photo of three boys in the middle of the Indian desert staring in awe at an iphone. 

But more interesting, perhaps, are the photos that capture poverty instead of inequality, like this image of homeless people living in sewage pipes in India, or this photograph of a 9–year-old servant sleeping on the floor in Bangladesh.

While breathtaking in their own right, these submissions demonstrate the way we have framed our conversations about inequality in the past. We often equate “inequality” with “poverty,” when, in fact, the two are different. Inequality indicates that poverty exists. But it also indicates that wealth exists.

“You don’t always see a growing gap when countries develop, but it happens often enough that it’s become a big concern for economists,” said Rives.

“When there is a lot of inequality, economies tend to be more unstable.”

GlobalPost will be examining this very issue in the coming months, in a Special Report titled “The Great Divide.” The series will compare the income gap in American cities to that of other countries around the world. 

The contest is accepting submissions until December 16, 2012. Five submissions will be accepted per person, and photographs submitted must be taken in the countries listed here.

From December 17-December 31, the public will vote for their favorite photographs, and 12 winners will receive a digital camera.