We've all heard of the exorbitant excesses of the wealthy. Far be it for anyone to begrudge those who can afford the finer things in life, but it provides a stark juxtaposition to those who struggle to put food on their table. The pressing issue of economic inequality is a growing concern for the international community; while those who we put in charge are hardly exemplars of modesty themselves, there is a handful of world leaders whose humble, austere ways have set an example that their counterparts could do well to emulate.
The contrast between the rich and poor is front and center in the global conversation today as an issue affecting both developing and developed nations. According to Oxfam, by 2016, the combined wealth of the richest 1 percent could exceed that of the other 99 percent of people in the world. And while many factors are involved in this frightening prediction — tax and policy, climate change, and globalization, for example — sometimes inequality is at its most glaring when world leaders themselves flaunt a lifestyle more suited to a multi-billionaire than a leader who represents the interest of his or her people.
But the exceptions to the rule do exist. Few as they are in numbers, it's hard not to be blown away by these five world leaders' simple lifestyles.
1. Jose Mujica
Uruguay's former president, Jose "Pepe" Mujica, was dubbed the "world's poorest president" for good reason.
A former Tupamaros guerrilla fighter in the 1960s and '70s, Mujica was shot multiple times and spent 14 years in jail in harsh, isolated conditions. When he was elected Uruguayan president in 2009, Mujica donated 90 percent of his presidential salary to charity and ditched the lavish presidential palace, opting instead to live in his ramshackle farm with his wife. For the longest time, his sole personal asset amounted to a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.
Mujica also fearlessly admonished other world leaders for their unfettered allowance of globalization and inequality. Although Mujica left politics earlier this year, his almost mystical reputation as a political leader remains — and we suspect will linger for a while.
2. Joyce Banda
Shortly after being elected the first female president of Malawi, Joyce Banda sold off the presidential jet and the fleet of 60 Mercedes limousines in an effort to steer the then-struggling country to financial austerity. At the time, she said she didn't mind flying commercial: "I am already used to hitchhiking," she had joked.
Later, the money earned from selling the plane went to feeding more than 1 million people, the treasury department said.
As someone who fled an abusive marriage to become the head of state, Banda also touted the importance of Malawian women's economic independence.
3. Sushil Koirala
His term as Nepal's prime minister may have been short-lived, but Sushil Koirala was widely lauded for eschewing the perks associated with being the leader of his country.
In a nation where politicians are typically associated with wealth, Koirala's only declared assets while prime minister were three mobile phones. Before moving into the official prime minister residences, the BBC reported that he rented a house in Kathmandu. Koirala is also said to have stayed with his brother when he visited the city instead of a hotel.
4. Pope Francis
Since he was declared leader of the Catholic church, Pope Francis has been on a roll — not just in his efforts to modernize the religious institution, but in ensuring that the church serves the people.
The world's first Latin American pope altered his role to "foremost a pastor to the flock, not a king," as the New York Times called it. Francis has been vocal about global poverty, the plight of refugees — even climate change, to the disdain of some American conservatives. In his widely publicized visit to the U.S., Pope Francis passed up the chance to lunch with lawmakers, choosing instead to dine with Washington D.C.'s homeless.
5. Warren Buffett
The business magnate is widely considered the most successful investor in the world. In spite of his mind-boggling wealth (about $66.7 billion total), Warren Buffett still pretty much lives the same kind of life as he did before becoming a billionaire. His frugal ways are legendary — Buffett has lived in the same house in Omaha, which he bought in 1958, and has expressed disdain for splurging on luxury cars and items.
Cover image via Pool / Getty Images