Sun | Jan 17, 2021

Poverty: a human-rights violation

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Karen Martin and her three children, featured in THE STAR newspaper last Thursday, live in a one-room zinc shack with no running water. The poverty seen in Frazer's Content, St Catherine, where they live, is not unfamiliar in Jamaica. - File
Ananada (right) feeds milk through a food pipe to his cancer-patient wife Mangalabai outside a cancer-speciality hospital in Mumbai, India, last Thursday. Patients from across the country who are too poor to pay for cancer treatment crowd this hospital, sometimes waiting days for their turn to get treated free of cost. - AP

Ian Boyne, Contributor

The Western intervention in Libya has been justified on the basis of the international community's responsibility to protect people from even their own governments. When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorising military action to protect civilians in Libya, they were overturning narrow notions of the Westphalian state.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, first enshrined in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty set up by the Canadian Government, and later adopted by the United Nations in 2005, represents a triumph for liberal internationalism and moral universalism. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine sets out the principle, as stated in its 2001 report, that "where a population is suffering serious harm as a result of internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect".

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan waged a courageous and fruitful battle to get the international community to come to terms with its failure to deal with Rwanda particularly, and its tardiness in dealing with the atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo. After a particularly impassioned address to the UN General Assembly in 1999, the Canadian government the following year responded to his call for serious reflection on this responsibility to act in the face of atrocities and genocide.

But the commission's report does not only deal with the need for international action in cases of state failure, genocide, etc. Importantly, it addresses the issue of poverty and underdevelopment as legitimate cases for international concern. For not only does the commission focus on the responsibility to protect, but it also explicitly addresses the issue of 'the responsibility to prevent' - an issue which has received far less attention by even those few acquainted with this path-breaking international report.


The commission acknowledges that there are factors which lead to the catastrophes which eventually necessitate military intervention. Says the report: "There remains a gap between rhetoric and financial and political support for prevention. Not the least of the problems has been with development assistance ... . The trade policies applied by many richer industrialised countries, unfairly disadvantaging or restricting access to markets, together with terms of trade being experienced by many developing countries, have not made any easier the reduction of the debt burden or the capacity to meet the social and economic development needs of the populations."

But if Annan has been the face of humanitarian interventionism, political philosopher Thomas Pogge has been the pre-eminent scholar waging a ceaseless and intellectually masterful struggle for the recognition that poverty is a human-rights violation - and one for which the international community bears responsibility. His best-known work has been his 2002 book, World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms. Just last year, he published his Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric, a robust and engaging defence of his thesis. Last year also, as a tribute to Pogge's stature in political philosophy and his influence in the debate on global justice, Alison Jaggar brought together a group of essays by leading political philosophers (including Jamaica's Charles Mills, son of Gladstone Mills) titled Thomas Pogge and His Critics. In 2007, Pogge came out with his own edited work, Freedom From Poverty as a Human Right: Who Owes What to the Very Poor.

It is Pogge's view that the international economic and political system is skewed against the interests of the poor; indeed, that it perpetuates and reproduces poverty, and that citizens in the rich West particularly have a moral duty to work to influence their governments to reform the international system in the interest of the poor.

Pogge adduces a wealth of statistics to dramatise the extent of poverty and inequality in the world: Nearly three billion people are living below the poverty line - nearly half of mankind - yet he says a two per cent shift in the distribution of global household income could take care of that. He cites statistics that the bottom half of the world's population own just 1.1 per cent of global wealth, while the top one per cent controls 39.9 per cent. Some 1.1 billion persons lack access to clean drinking water; one billion children live in poverty; 15 million children die of malnutrition every year; 950 million are chronically malnourished; nearly 800 million are illiterate; and more than one billion don't have adequate shelter.

Pogge is the master of the dumbfounding comparison. In his book Politics As Usual, he points out that since 2001, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, "funded by all willing governments and devoted to combating diseases that kill 4.4 million people each year'', has committed about US$12.6 billion and spent about US$8.6 billion. This expenditure comes to roughly US$220 per fatality, yet between 2001 and 2009 the US government alone has spent US$944 billion on the War on Terror. "This amount comes to roughly US$314 million per US fatality - over a million times more per fatality."

war on terror

Pogge adds, defending his thesis: "Millions of deaths from extreme poverty and curable diseases could be avoided each year if the world's governments were willing to devote even one quarter as much to the fight against world poverty as they are now spending on their war on terror. Such a war on poverty and disease would also avoid the substantial human costs of the war on terror."

Pogge, Leitner professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale University, observes that "half of all human beings live in severe poverty and about one-third of all human deaths are from poverty-related causes: lack of nutrients, clean water, sanitation, medical care, clothing, shelter, basic education. This continuous human death toll of about 50,000 human beings per day matches that of four major airplane disasters every hour, and it matches every three years the entire toll of World War Two, concentration camps and gulags included".

And he goes on to say that "many more people - 360 million - have died from hunger and remediable diseases in peacetime in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War than perished in wars, civil wars and Government repression over the entire 20th century".

Pogge develops a sophisticated and cogent case that poverty is a human-rights violation and that citizens in the affluent West, particularly, are duty-holders and, therefore, culpable for this gross violation. Following a tradition of philosophical reflection on perfect and imperfect duties, as well as bystander obligations, Pogge says citizens have a duty to work for their institutions to enact just laws, and at least to do no harm.

The international economic system harms the poor, Pogge asserts, and citizens of developed countries cannot disavow responsibility. Thomas Pogge and His Critics is the work which takes on Pogge, but even there much of the commentary is like footnotes to his work, rather than merciless critique: A tribute to his nuanced scholarship and intellectual rigor.

international reforms

Pogge sets out clearly what he thinks the West can do to end the human-rights violation of poverty: It must reform the international trading, investment and market system to create a true development round to benefit the interests of the poor. "Finally, it may involve some institutional mechanisms through which the benefits of the world's resources, as well as the burdens of various externalities would be more fully shared around the globe. It seems entirely realistic that popular pressure on G-7 governments could lead to significant reforms of this kind. In fact, it is possible to eradicate global poverty in a decade - and at a cost below one per cent of the gross national income of the affluent countries."

Of course, issues such as the culpability of poor countries own governments, their corruption, pillage and kleptocracy as well as their counterproductive economic policies can be raised and are raised in Thomas Pogge and his Critics. Pogge, in a concluding chapter, addresses all the objections. (Indeed, he does that also in Politics As Usual).

There is an important fact that most of us conveniently ignore, including those who speak loudest about human rights: The fact that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not only speaks about political rights and civil liberties which have been given pre-eminence by the bourgeoisie in the West, but also economic rights. It says, unequivocally: "Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care."

Also, it says, significantly: "Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration can be fully realised." It has been Pogge's task to demonstrate that this is patently violated by the international economic system we now have.

If people are entitled to an international order ensuring justice and human rights, their rights are being violated when they don't have that order, and citizens in the powerful countries are complicit in the human-rights violation of the poor. That will be controversial, but cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Pogge cleverly and convincingly cites the hot-button issue of abortion to drive home his case. Someone who is sincerely convinced that every abortion constitutes the destruction of an innocent human life is rational in campaigning against abortion. But, reasons Pogge, if the needless deaths of the unborn children constitute a moral evil, so, too, must the needless deaths of innocent children through poverty. Eighteen million people, many of them children, die every year from poverty-related causes. Why aren't pro-life people alarmed by that and actively campaigning to end it? If you think philosophers are dull, read Thomas Pogge.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to