Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Do We Owe the Global Poor Assistance or Rectification? Response to World Poverty and Human Rights

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Do We Owe the Global Poor Assistance or Rectification? Response to World Poverty and Human Rights

Article excerpt

A central theme throughout Thomas Pogge s pathbreaking World Poverty and Human Rights is that the global political and economic order harms people in developing countries, and that our duty toward the global poor is therefore not to assist them but to rectify injustice. (1) But does the global order harm the poor? I argue elsewhere that there is a sense in which this is indeed so, at least if a certain empirical thesis is accepted. (2) In this essay, however, I seek to show that the global order not only does not harm the poor but can plausibly be credited with the considerable improvements in human well-being that have been achieved over the last 200 years. Much of what Pogge says about our duties toward developing countries is therefore false.

Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by "the global political and economic order" ("the global order"). For the first time in history, there is one continuous global society based on territorial sovereignty. This system has emerged from the spread of European control since the fifteenth century and the formation of new states through wars of independence and decolonization. Even systems that escaped Western imperialism had to follow legal and diplomatic practices imposed by Europeans. This state system is governed by rules, the most important of which are embodied in the UN Charter. The Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, IMF, and later the GATT/WTO) were founded as a framework for economic cooperation that would prevent disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s. These institutions, together with economically powerful states acting alone or in concert, shape the economic order. Although this order is neither monolithic nor harmonious, it makes sense to talk about a global order that includes but is not reducible to the actions of states.

In what follows, then, I argue that this global order does not harm the poor according to the benchmarks of comparison used by Pogge, but that on the contrary, according to those benchmarks, this order has caused amazing improvements over the state of misery that has characterized human life throughout the ages. The global order is not fundamentally unjust; instead, it is incompletely just, and it should be credited with the great advances it has brought.


One might think the present extents of poverty and inequality by themselves reveal the injustice of the global order. (3) But they do not. While indeed 1.2 billion people in 1998 lived below the poverty line of $1.08 PPP (Purchasing Power Parities) 1993 per day, it is also true that there is now less misery than ever before, at least as measured in terms of any standard development indicator. The progress made over the last zoo years is miraculous. In 1820, 75 percent of the world population lived on less than $1 a day (appropriately adjusted). Today, in Europe, almost nobody does; in China, less than 20 percent do; in South Asia, around 40 percent do; and globally, slightly more than 20 percent do. The share of people living on less than $1 a day fell from 42 percent in 1950 to 17 percent in 1992. Historically almost everybody was poor, but that is no longer true.

It is true that the high-income economies include 15 percent of the population but receive 80 percent of the income. Around 1820, per capita incomes were similar worldwide, and low, ranging from around $500 in China and South Asia to $1,000-$1,500 in some European countries. So the gap between rich and poor was 3 to 1, whereas, according to UNDP statistics, in 1960 it was 60 to 1, and in 1997, 74 to 1. But it is also true that, between 1960 and 2000, real per capita income in developing countries grew on average 2.3 percent (doubling living standards within thirty years). Britain's GDP grew an average of 1.3 percent during its nineteenth-century economic supremacy. For developing countries, things have been better recently than they were for countries at the height of their power during any other period in history. …

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