31.10.2003 - SHS Newsletter 03

Interview with philosopher Thomas Pogge on the fight against poverty

in SHS Newsletter 03

Thomas Pogge, philosopher and professor at Columbia University (USA), has dedicated a major part of his work to the fight against poverty and written several books on this issue. He is currently participating in the UNESCO project “Ethical and Human Rights Dimensions of Poverty: Towards a New Paradigm in the Fight Against Poverty”.

How do you define poverty?

Poverty is normally defined in income terms, but there are much broader definitions of poverty that also take other aspects of deprivation into account. For purposes of work I have done on the World Bank poverty statistics and in monitoring the first Millennium Development Goal, I stick to a narrow definition of poverty as income poverty. But from a philosophical point of view, the definition of poverty is not terribly important, so long as it is understood that what is of interest, morally, goes far beyond low income.

What do you think about the un definition of poverty?

The first Millennium Goal refers to an income-based definition of poverty, which is perfectly all right so long as other Millennium Goals address other kinds of deprivations.

But the poverty threshold of 1 dollar a day may not cover the same realities in different regions of the world...

Yes, that’s right. Even if you focus just on income poverty, which is indisputably one aspect of human deprivation, you have to focus on it in a plausible way. The threshold has to be consistent both in space and time, so that people who are counted as poor really can buy less of the basic necessities than people who are counted as non-poor in different countries and different years. The World Bank’s methodology does not satisfy this very minimal condition of consistency across space and time. Moreover, the Bank’s threshold is unreasonably low in most countries. Many people who are counted by the Bank as non-poor in fact have too little money to meet their basic human needs.

The first UN Millennium Goal is to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day. In your opinion, can this goal be achieved?

In my view, this goal can easily be achieved. The goal is formulated so that it is supposed to be achieved by the year 2015. Since 1990 was chosen as the baseline, the first Millennium Goal is in fact formulated as a 25 year plan to reduce by one half the percentage of those in the developing countries who live in severe poverty. If you calculate this in numerical terms, what they are aiming for is in fact only a 20 per cent reduction in the number of very poor people from 2000 to 2015. The revised goal is not very ambitious. If the rich countries, in particular, took the problem more seriously, we could not only achieve the 20 per cent reduction but wipe out poverty well before the year 2015.

Does this mean that you are optimistic about these goals being achieved?

No, I’m pessimistic, because there simply is no political will to achieve these goals. At present, each country is in charge of its own poverty eradication and most of the rich countries see no urgency in helping with this process. They do not think that they should for example ease trade rules in such a way as to make it easier for the poor countries to achieve the target. The responsibility is in most cases shifted on to the poor countries. So, with political will lacking on the part of the rich countries, the goal will not actually be achieved.

You have characterized the international community’s efforts to reduce poverty as a “go-slow” approach. What do you mean by that?

As I have said, the Millennium Declaration understanding of “halving severe poverty” is really a complicated way of committing to a 20-per cent reduction in the number of very poor people – a huge cut-back from the reduction the same governments promised at the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome. According to the World Bank’s one dollar a day poverty line, which is not only grotesquely low but also very badly translated into other currencies, the number of very poor people was about 1170 million in 2000, to be reduced to 937 million by 2015. Consider also that the rich countries spend only a little over 50 billion dollars annually on official development assistance, out of which only 4 billion dollars are devoted to basic social services. Compared to their combined GNPs of ca. 26,000 billion, these 4 billion dollars are obviously an extremely small amount devoted to such an extremely large problem – after all, roughly one third of all human deaths, 18 million each year, are due to poverty-related causes. So I am speaking of a go-slow approach because we could easily devote 200 or even 300 billion dollars to poverty eradication and thereby achieve a much greater reduction in the number of very poor people by 2015 than is now being aimed for.

In one of your recent lectures, you even compare the world poverty problem with some of the catastrophes of last century, such as the Holocaust. Aren’t these very different phenomena?

Obviously, the Nazis’ actively and intentionally killing people is morally very much worse than not doing enough to reduce poverty today, because there is no intention among rich-country politicians or citizens to kill a large number of people in poor countries. There is simply indifference. However, if you look at the problem from the standpoint of a politician in a neutral country during the Nazi period who could pursue policies that might defeat the Nazi challenge and might end the Holocaust, then the two problems become much more comparable. If we think that it was morally urgent then to do something to reduce the problem of the Nazi killings, we should for very similar reasons conclude that it’s very urgent now to do something about the world poverty problem.

You published a book entitled World Poverty and Human Rights. What is the link between the two and is poverty in your opinion essentially a human rights issue?

I do not claim that poverty is a human rights issue in principle, or that each and every case of poverty is a human rights issue. However, I am arguing that almost all poverty in the world today is a human rights issue. When poverty is in good part caused by others – by conduct of and in the rich countries – then it should be considered a human rights violation.

Could you give concrete examples?

The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem.

What is your stand on globalization? Has globalization in your opinion led to an increase in poverty-related human rights violations?

Globalization is not one particular homogeneous phenomenon. There are many different ways in which globalization can proceed if we understand globalization as increased economic and political integration of the world. The way globalization has actually been steered for the last 15 years has been much worse than it could have been from a poverty perspective. Open markets could have been created with far fewer grandfathering and other rules favouring the rich countries. Out of the various paths of globalization that were available, the chosen one foreseeably produced much more severe poverty than necessary. To the extent that it did, it was a human rights violating path.

How do you describe the connection between social and economic rights on the one hand, and civil and political rights on the other?

Ever since the end of the Second World War there has been a long dispute between those who think that civil and political rights are the “true” human rights and those who say that social and economic rights are more important than civil and political rights. In the early history of the United Nations that dispute resulted in the separation of what initially was a unified conception of human rights, as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, into two covenants, the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both types of rights are of course of crucial importance and they are in many ways mutually reinforcing. As Amartya Sen has pointed out, civil and political rights are very important supports for social and economic rights. In a country with a free press and an open and competitive political system, it is more likely that the basic needs of the poor are being addressed. Conversely, in a country where social and economic rights are secure, where people do not have to focus all their energy on getting their next meal, a genuine democracy is more likely to exist. So empirically, I think there is a strong connection. Conceptually, as well, human rights are indivisible in the sense that a human life in which some of them are unfulfilled is a blighted human life, a life that in many ways is not as much worth living as a life in which these basic minima are secure. If people in the Western countries tend to consider social and economic rights less compelling, I think it is because they conceive these rights as rights to be helped, to be supported or to be given something. I agree with them that it is morally less urgent to benefit or to help people than it is not to harm them. But to associate civil and political rights with the obligation not to harm, and social and economic rights with the obligation to benefit is a mistake. Through the imposition of economic institutions that predictably make it impossible for many people to meet their basic social and economic needs, those who impose these institutions are actually harming people rather than merely failing to help them. Most severe poverty in the world today is due to poor people being harmed in this way.

In your work, you refer to our negative and positive duties...

This is a very old and conventional distinction in moral philosophy. When the conduct of one person is causally related to the fate of another person, then philosophers distinguish between two different ways in which that relation might exist. In the first case, a person actively does something that causes harm to another person. In the second case, a person merely fails to do something he could have done to prevent something bad from happening to the other person. For example, you might throw a baby into the water and as a consequence the baby drowns, or you might simply fail to rescue a baby that is already in the water and as a consequence of your failure to rescue the baby, it dies. Philosophers believe that this distinction between the negative duty not to harm and the positive duty to help is morally significant. In the context of understanding what human rights are it is a very important distinction. In my view, somebody is a human rights violator only when he or she actively harms others or contributes to harming them. Human rights, this very minimal notion of what human beings owe one another, do not require that people benefit or rescue or protect each other. They merely require that we not harm others. However, with regard to poverty, even this very minimal demand is arguably widely unfulfilled today, since the rich countries and their citizens collectively harm many in the poor countries through the global economic order they impose.

So in your opinion, the fight against poverty is a negative duty.

For us citizens of affluent countries, the eradication of severe poverty is a negative duty, yes.

You argue that not only the international community, but also States, and even citizens of the industrial world share responsibility for poverty. Could you explain why?

The global economic order as we now have it consists of a very large set of rules. Some of these are encapsulated in the WTO, but there are also less obvious rules that have a tremendous negative effect on living conditions in the poor countries. Take the international resource and borrowing privileges, which allow any person or group holding effective power in a developing country to sell the resources of the country or to borrow in its name, irrespective of whether that person or group has any kind of democratic legitimacy. These privileges are very convenient for the rich countries who can buy resources from anybody who happens to exercise power in a country. However, they are devastating for the populations of the developing countries because they make it possible for oppressive and unrepresentative rulers to entrench themselves with money they borrow abroad or get from resource sales. These privileges also provide incentives for potential strongmen in these countries to take power by force. Their existence explains to a large extent why there are so many civil wars and coups d'état in the developing countries, in particular in Africa. This is an example of how the international order, largely upheld by the rich countries, aggravates oppression and poverty in the poor countries.

You are advocating a new global institutional order. What kind of reforms are you in fact recommending?

One of my reform proposals is to suppress, or at least significantly to modify, the international resource and borrowing privileges in order to tie the right of rulers to sell resources and to borrow in the country's name to some minimal degree of democratic legitimacy. This could be implemented by developing countries themselves, by passing a constitutional amendment that would bar anyone who will govern the country in violation of democratic principles from selling its resources or from borrowing in its name. This would make it much harder for anyone to take over the country by force and would also reduce the incentives to do so. Another of my proposals is somewhat less imaginative, namely the idea simply to raise the amount of money dedicated to poverty eradication. A highly unequal distribution of income tends to be self-reinforcing by giving the rich much greater powers to shape the global economic order. One can to some extent compensate for this by channelling funds for development into the poor countries (not necessarily to or through their governments). So I propose a global resources dividend, where a small part of the value of resources that are harvested worldwide would be diverted into a fund specifically for poverty eradication. Approximately 300 billion dollars a year would be the amount needed in order seriously to attack the global poverty problem. 300 billion dollars sounds like a huge amount, but it is really only a little over 1% of the aggregate GNP of the rich countries. So it is still an affordable amount and moreover one that could gradually decline as severe poverty is eradicated.

If poverty is a question of human rights being violated, then can we use the term “abolish” instead of “eliminate” or “eradicate”?

Some say that we should either understand or modify existing human rights instruments in such a way that it would be considered illegal for countries to tolerate poverty within their own borders or to undertake policies that contribute to people remaining below the poverty threshold even in other countries. I do not quite agree with this point of view, because such an understanding or formulation extends human rights to entail positive obligations to help. The term “abolition” has that connotation to it, whereas I insist, partly for rhetorical reasons, on the notion of human rights as entailing only negative obligations.

Could you specify what you mean by rhetorical reasons?

Especially in Western countries, there is great resistance to the idea that there is a strong positive obligation to eradicate poverty abroad. I want to bypass this resistance by appealing not to the good heart or to the charity of citizens and governments of the rich countries. I am only asking them no longer to harm the poor by upholding a global economic order under which severe poverty will, foreseeably and avoidably, persist on a massive scale. It is this violation of a negative duty that should be outlawed first and foremost. Doing so would implement Article 28 of the (legally non-binding) Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized”. Currently, this Article is massively violated.

You have written a lot about the concept of global justice. Could you explain it and the change of paradigm that it proposes?

Thinking about justice is often divided into two domains: international and intra-national. In the first domain, people think in interactional terms about the rules that States ought to obey in their conduct. In the second domain, the question is to what extent the rules according to which each State is organized are producing certain harms or benefits for the population. This institutional analysis, which is commonplace intra-nationally, is one that I want to carry to the global level. With regard to duties across borders, we should not only think about the way States ought to behave in their interactions with one another. We should also consider the framework of global rules and what effects this framework has on phenomena such as poverty.

How do you relate to Rawls’s idea that States have a duty of assistance?

Rawls is certainly right to say that States have a duty to assist one another, for example in cases of emergency. It would be a great step forward to incorporate this principle into international ethics and, more importantly, into international law. However, in suggesting that the problem of world poverty is due to the failure to fulfil such a duty, Rawls is buying into the empirical picture I am criticizing. His theory completely disregards the active contributions the rich countries make to the persistence of the global poverty problem. It is based on the misconception that poverty is essentially home-grown. Rawls does not take into account that we are deeply involved, causally and morally, in perpetuating this problem.

How do you as a philosopher deal with that responsibility? And more generally, how can philosophy contribute to the debate on poverty?

Philosophy means the love of wisdom, and wisdom involves understanding what really matters. I work on poverty because I think it is by far the most important problem the world is facing today. It is not something that threatens people in the rich countries, not something we have any immediate cause to be concerned about; this is why it is so widely neglected. What philosophers can do is recognize the importance of the poverty problem, alert people to it and clarify what our responsibilities are with regard to that problem. In other words, to get people away from the picture that poverty is some remote good cause that they, as a kind of hobby, might do something about. Poverty is a very grave moral responsibility – much greater than any other responsibility we have today. We are involved in a very large crime against humanity through the upholding of the present global economic order. And this is something that most people in the rich countries do not realize but have a responsibility to realize, a responsibility that philosophers can help them at least recognize, if not live up to.

How do you see UNESCO’s role in relation to the international community’s global efforts to combat poverty?

UNESCO has some intellectual leadership within the UN system and it can play a very crucial role in highlighting the issues that other UN organizations ought to be dealing with, in highlighting what is important and in mapping out at least the conceptual and justificatory ramifications of such issues. I am therefore very glad to see that UNESCO is involved in clarifying our moral responsibility with regard to severe poverty worldwide and causally.

Interview by Jeanette Blom


A short bibliography

  • How Not to Count the Poor (Sanjay Reddy and Thomas Pogge)
    www.socialanalysis.org
  • “Assisting the Global Poor” forthcoming in Deen K. Chatterjee, ed.: The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004.
  • World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms. Cambridge: Polity Press 2002. Translations into German, Swedish, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Mandarin Chinese forthcoming.
  • Human Rights and Human Responsibilities in Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff, eds.: Transnational Politics and Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge MA: MIT Press 2002, 151-195.
  • Global Justice (Thomas Pogge, ed.), Oxford: Blackwell 2001.
  • Realizing Rawls. Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1989.



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