How to teach trade inequality

Peter Manning presents a brief guide to teaching inequality in a primary schools context.

In today’s society, the gap between the top 1% and the rest of the world continues to grow. The world’s wealthiest continue to increase their earnings while securing their fortunes against tax, to the detriment of some of the world’s most poor and vulnerable.

Oxfam’s figures now state that the world’s eight richest men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world.

We cannot tell to our children that the world is becoming a fairer place when the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, while the growth in income of the top 1% stands at 300% over the past 30 years, according to research by Thomas Piketty.

Trade and income inequality can be daunting topics to tackle with the classroom. The nature of the topic being one in which the figures are so high and the complicated process of international trade can seem above the levels of primary school children. However, key concepts of trade inequality can be taught effectively in the primary school classroom with appropriate lessons and activities. It is also a theme which can cover a range of curricular areas and lends itself to student-led, inquiry-based learning.

To begin a series of lessons on trade inequality, start small and local.

  • What do your students know about global trade? Pose simple questions to them: what goods do they in their local supermarket? Where do these goods come from? What Irish products can they think of that would be sold overseas?
  • Begin to expand the idea of trade from their local supermarket to global trade. One idea is to place a large map of the world in the centre of the whiteboard.
  • Using the products and goods the children have added to the class brainstorm, begin to research where these goods come from. Create a web of trade routes to and from Ireland to our trade partners, for example link the trade of bananas to Costa Rica and the export of Irish beef to Britain etc.

After establishing the idea of global trade offer the students a moment of conflict. In groups or pairs provide children with a decision to make. Create a scenario where they are working for a global coffee company and they are to decide which country to establish trade links with. Country A, where workers are paid a very low wage and the government are offering a very low tax on any goods exported: or country B, where the workers are paid a fair wage for their goods and they are expected to pay a fair rate of tax, for the government to pay for roads, to develop their education etc. Ask the student’s for pros and cons of purchasing coffee from both countries. Now add in the scenario where they have been told to maximise their profits by any means necessary. Facilitate the discussion surrounding the ethical repercussions of their decision.

A student-led research project can be implemented into the topic of global trade. Split the students up into groups and assign a country to each group. Ideally you should have at least one group researching a developed country such as Ireland, a developing country such as India, and a low human development country such as Ghana or Honduras. The focus of each group is to create a fact file on their country’s trade and production. Important facts they should include are the main imports/exports, is their more of an emphasis on agriculture or industry, natural resources and the level on the Human Development Index should be included. The student’s can present their findings to the class and the teacher should ask children to spot and discuss any similarities between countries.

The GINI index – a measurement of the extent to which income deviates from a perfectly equal distribution. On the scale, 0 represents perfect equality and 100 would represent total inequality. Graphic by the World Economic Forum (Nov 25th, 2015).

These groups can be brought into the activity on trade inequality in the classroom. The aim of the game is to sell shapes for money to the banker of the game. The description I have given is an age-appropriate adaptation for primary school pupils of a trading game pioneered by Christian Aid pitched at secondary school level. The shapes are made from the limited amount of materials and resources (A4 paper, coloured paper, scissors, compasses, rulers and pencils) in the game.

For this activity the teacher will choose one child to be the banker of the game, who will keep score and be in charge of the money. Each group will play as their country, they will be provided with a resource pack, the contents of which depend on the country. The developed countries will have the most money and tools such as scissors, rulers and compasses. The developing and Third World countries will have more materials but less money and tools. The teacher should let the game develop and let the students realise the need for trade and inequality of the contents given out. The teacher can introduce scenarios and rule changes to reflect real world issues affecting global trade as the game continues.

The real benefit of this game is the discussion the game enables. The students have experienced their own version of global trade and the problems and inequalities involved in it. The teacher should facilitate a discussion on why the students think that trade inequality could have knock-on effects in keeping the growth of income for the bottom half of the world’s population at zero while the rich companies can keep getting richer. A concept map can be created of the products of trade and income inequality: such as poorer standards of health, education and higher levels of poverty. The teacher could introduce some of the sustainable development goals and the class could agree upon some goals that they would like to achieve as a class such as their recycling, improving their health and well-being, and improving their class work to get a quality education.

  • Photo credit: Operation New Dawn by DVIDSHUB (October 26, 2010) via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)