Global Poverty - a responsibility of the West? A look at Thomas Pogge's argument

Essay 2016 10 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal


The 25th Article of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights declares the right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” which comprises of food, clothing, housing and medical care amongst others (UN General Assembly, 1948). For over 767 million people today, or a tenth of the world’s population located primarily in the Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, those rights are being taken away further undermining the ability to pursue other basic civil and politics rights as a consequence (World Bank, 2016). With an average income in the world now surpassing 10,000 USD per capita and the 2.47% of the world’s annual GDP growth things seem to be moving for the better (World Bank, 2015). From 1988 up to 2008 financial crisis, the global Gini index declined from around 72.2% to 70.5% (Lakner et al, 2013). However, the disparity between the top 20% of global population owning over 90% of the global household income has changed in the aftermath of the global economic crisis with the richest 1% now owning more than 99% of world’s population (Oxfam, 2016). In the meantime, billions of people suffer from basic human rights violations every day, of which poverty is recognized as by far “the most widely unrealized and unfulfilled human right” (Pogge, 2012). Such dramatic change in figures can be addressed in examination to the radical shift of global economic order, maldistribution of resources and income as well as historical development of the ‘global poor’ in the face of rapid globalization processes – all of which will be analysed in various forms in the essay. Whilst I agree with Thomas Pogge’s arguments that it is the wealthy societies to blame for the expanding global inequality thus ought to be responsible to restore it, the nature of political development and social relations within each individual developing country, I believe, shall be taken into a thorough consideration whilst eradicating poverty through grassroots decision-making.

For long the eradication of global poverty has been at the forefront of the political discussion amongst the political philosophers and cosmopolitan internationalists of the developed nations. The gap between the rich and the poor in wealthy and yet rapidly growing societies such as the United States, Brazil or China has widened immensely in the aftermath of the global economic recession of 2008. Although the socialist revolutionary ideas portrayed in the Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign earlier this year escalated populous grievances about the growing economic inequality and political lobbying, policies of the wealthy nations fail to address the scale of global poverty within their foreign policy agenda. There are numerous reasons for why should the West take responsibility for global poverty. Perhaps the most influential and challenging political philosophers on global justice and human rights, Thomas Pogge, believes that wealthy societies are to be hold responsible for the global poverty due to shared history, resources and global economic order. For Pogge, global poverty is a moral obligation for the West to take responsibility for the ‘grievous wrongs’, such as the Holocaust in Europe, slavery in the United States and the vast history of colonialism in the Global South. Such historical injustices play a role in explaining both the poverty of developing nations and the affluence of the rich countries alike (Pogge, 2001, p. 15). To extend the argument he introduces the so-called ‘explanatory nationalism’ which claims that passive Germans under the Nazi regime were as much responsible for Holocaust as the citizens of the United States, who support the current international system, for one-fourth of the world’s population living in abject poverty today (Carnegie Council, 2012). To prove his argument, Pogge distinguishes two distinct duties that wealthy nations have in order to assist the developing states. The so-called ‘positive duty’ to assist or protect a less developed state, or those in need, with little cost to oneself thus controversially characterized cosmopolitan interventionist ideology of the West. In order to prevent any possible violations of human rights for smaller benefits at greater cost, Western hypocrisy celebrates humanitarian interventions and peacekeeping missions in the conflict zones thus further endangering and alienating populations of those countries and contributing to their bad governance by direct violence or arms exports (Pogge, 2001, p. 7). As in the case of Syria or Iraq to name but a few, recognizing illegitimate rules of undemocratic regimes, Western interference often result in fuelling internal repressions and civil wars. For Pogge, it would make more sense to spend similar sums on “leading many millions out of life-threatening poverty” without endangering any lives (Pogge, 2001, p. 7), thus focusing more on the importance on ‘negative duties’ so to ensure that developing states are not unduly harmed through Western interference. Take Rwandan genocide for example: whilst one might think that the Western inaction simply indicates its ignorance and oblivion of the human loss abroad, abstention from intervention might have prevented from a possible greater calamity in the country. No such excuse, Pogge argues, is available to tolerate the massive death toll from starvation and preventable diseases, which altogether comprises at least a third of all human deaths (2001, p. 9). In 22 years since the end of the Cold War, 400 million deaths were estimated due to severe poverty which is more than twice as much as the number of all lives taken away by the government-sponsored violence in the entire XXth century (Pogge, 2012). Inaction in the face of violence, he argues, is often the choice that has “strong and morally significant reasons in its favour” (2001, p. 9). Which is why it is much more risk-free and cost-effective to invest in the development of local infrastructure, Pogge states, and enable poor people to afford shelter, food and education than “buying political support from their rulers” (Pogge, 2001, p. 9).

Perhaps few cosmopolitan internationalists would argue against the notion that because of the political power Western countries gained throughout the development of colonial history, not only they have means to eradicate global poverty but have a moral obligation to do so. In reality, however, the pursuit of such moral obligations to diminish the scope of global poverty have had detrimental impact on the developing nations through numerous interventionist policies of global economic order. Over the last 20 years, with the exception of most Latin American countries, globalization processes deepened the income gap between the rich and the poor with supranational rules being highly influenced by the regulatory capture. With the shrinking military expenditures from 4.1% of GDP in 1985 to 2.2 percent in 1998 (UNDP 1998, 197; UNDP 2000, 217), the developed states failed to seize the opportunity to pursue the eradication of global poverty and export their ideological and moral values to the developing nations in the post-Cold War period (Pogge, 2001, p. 6). Pogge argues, that it has a lot to do with the so-called ‘inequality spiral’, when investors use regulatory capture or more commonly known as lobbying in the national or international decision-making processes so to influence policies and shift the rules of the application in their own favour. Whether it is rich individuals, banks, supranational cooperations or industry associations, through the influence of the formulation or the implication of the rules they capture more and more of the social product resulting in the so-called ‘inequality spiral’, which can be perceived in the current global economic and political order thus worsening inequality furthermore. Pogge claims that for the lack of access and information to such decision making processes ultimately endangers democratic order of international relations. For the 71% global poor, 15% of which live on $2 or less per day (Pew Research Center, 2015), such globalization processes between the wealthy donor country—usually the US for its political purchase power—and the developing recipient are detrimental. Desperately poor people, often stunted from infancy, illiterate and heavily preoccupied with the struggle to survive, Pogge argues (2001, p. 8), can “do little by way of either resisting or rewarding their local and national rules, who are therefore likely to rule them oppressively while catering to the interest of other (often foreign) agents more capable of reciprocation.” Take arms export in the war-trenched areas, pharmaceuticals, pollution rules, labour standards, illicit financial flows or protectionist policies of agricultural trade as an example: all of these areas, Pogge argues, are entrenched in the architecture of supranational institutions such as IMF or WTO with benefits which developing countries are excluded from (Pogge, 2012). Exploitation of natural resources of the developing nation, such as fossil fuels in Venezuela or Nigeria or the garment industry in Bangladesh and Vietnam not only justify the infamous dependency theory of international relations but also escalate economic competition between the developing nations resulting in a form of industrial capitalism characterized by the so-called ‘cheap labour’. Indeed due to the ill-designed and unfair global economic order in addition to a shared colonial history, unjustified humanitarian interventions and exploitation of natural resources of the developing nations, the reduction if not the eradication of global poverty lies in the hands of Western political elite.



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Title: Global Poverty - a responsibility of the West? A look at Thomas Pogge's argument