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Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties

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Mathias Risse discusses whether the global system of territorial sovereignty that emerged in the fifteenth century can be said to harm the poorer societies. This question is distinct from the question I raise in my book—namely, whether present citizens of the affluent countries, in collusion with the ruling elites of most poor countries, are harming the global poor. These questions are different, because present citizens of the affluent countries bear responsibility only for the recent design of the global institutional order. The effects of the states system as it was shaped before 1980, say, is thus of little relevance to the question I have raised. A further difference is that whereas Risse's discussion focuses on the well-being of societies, typically assessed by their GNP per capita, my discussion focuses on the well-being of individual human beings. This difference is significant because what enriches a poor country (in terms of GNP per capita) all too often impoverishes the vast majority of its inhabitants, as I discuss with the example of Nigeria's oil revenues (pp. 112–14).

My focus is then on the present situation, on the radical inequality between the bottom half of humankind, suffering severe poverty, and those in the top seventh, whose per capita share of the global product is 180 times greater than theirs (at market exchange rates). This radical inequality and the continuous misery and death toll it engenders are foreseeably reproduced under the present global institutional order as we have shaped it. And most of it could be avoided, I hold, if this global order had been, or were to be, designed differently. The feasibility of a more poverty-avoiding alternative design of the global institutional order shows, I argue, that the present design is unjust and that, by imposing it, we are harming the global poor by foreseeably subjecting them to avoidable severe poverty.

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1 Pogge Thomas W., World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002). All in-text citation references are to this book, unless otherwise noted.

2 Chen Shaohua and Ravallion Martin, ‘How Have the World's Poorest Fared since the Early 1980s?” World Bank Research Observer 19 (2004), p. 153.

3 This figure is reported each year by the United Nations Development Programme. The latest figure is 831 million. see UNDP, Human Development Report 2004 (New York: UNDP, 2004), pp. 129–30.

4 UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 2005 (New York: UNICEF, 2005), inside front cover.

5 For example, those living below $2 a day in 1987 constituted 49.3 percent of the global population then, whereas those living below $2 a day in 2001 constituted only 44.5 percent; see

6 See Thomas Pogge, “Real World Justice,” Journal of Ethics 9 (2005), pp. 38–39. This essay is a defense of my book, first presented at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Meeting, Washington, D.C., December 30, 2003, where Risse, Patten, and Satz were the featured critics of an author-meets-critics session.

7 See the example of human rights deficits on Venus in Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, p. 198. To be sure, there may well be a duty to create a common institutional scheme when this is needed to fulfill human rights. But this question falls outside the scope of my book, which focuses on the moral claims persons have, by virtue of their human rights, on any institutional order imposed upon them and hence against those who are imposing this order.

8 Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), ch. 4. See also Pogge Thomas W., Realizing Rawls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), p. 19, n. 6.

9 Examples abound and have now come to be publicly deplored even by pillars of the establishment. A classic example of grandfathering is the so-called Peace Clause, Article 13 in the WTO Agricultural Agreement, which protected the agricultural subsidies of the affluent countries; see Some of the abuses are summarized in a recent speech, “Cutting Agricultural Subsidies,” by World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern; available at See also the book by Stern's predecessor, Stiglitz Joseph: Globalization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W Norton, 2003).

10 Citing research by the IMF, Nicholas Stern estimated that rich-country protectionism in textiles alone entails 27 million lost jobs in developing countries. “Every textile job in an industrialized country saved by these barriers costs about 35 jobs in these industries in low-income countries” (Stern, “Cutting Agricultural Subsidies”). By depressing wage levels, such unemployment aggravates severe poverty far beyond the ranks of the unemployed and their extended families.

11 See Pogge, “Real World Justice,” p. 48.

12 See Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1996–2003 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2004), p. 43; available at

13 I suspect that Cruft's sentiment here is partly explained by his occasionally losing sight of the fact that there are two other kinds of positive duties: those indirectly entailed by human rights and those not entailed by human rights at all. Thus, he writes, for example: “If human rights are negative rights that entail no other-directed precautionary duties, then you cannot be subject to such a duty. But this overlooks the ties of community and fraternity that should bind us all” (p. 33 R, this journal). Clearly, there are important positive (and negative) duties that are not entailed by human rights—duties to ensure that others not inflict cruelty on animals, for instance (and duties not to lie).

14 The distinction is most fully developed in Pogge Thomas, ‘O'Neill on Rights and Duties,” Grazer Philosophische Studien 43 (1992), pp. 233–47.

15 I leave her important challenge regarding individual responsibility to the following section.

16 See Pogge, “Real World Justice,” pp. 36ff.

17 Ibid., pp. 3436.

18 Ibid., p. 34. See Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights, pp. 132, 240 n. 207,241 n. 216.

19 See Pogge, “Real World Justice,” pp. 45–46.

20 Ibid., pp. 4453.

21 Ibid., pp. 4748.

22 This regime was created through the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, concluded in 1995.

23 Medecins Sans Frontières, Fatal Imbalance: The Crisis in Research and Development for Drugs for Negkcted Diseases (Geneva: Médecins Sans Frontières, 2001), pp. 1011; available at

24 Trouiller Patrice, Torreele Els, Olliaro Piero, White Nick, Foster Susan, Wirth Dyann, and Pecoul Bernard, “Drugs for Neglected Diseases: A Failure of the Market and a Public Health Failure?” Tropical Medicine and International Health 6, no. 11 (2001), pp. 945–51; available at

25 See Pogge Thomas W., “Human Rights and Global Health: A Research Program,” in Barry Christian and Pogge Thomas, eds., Global Institutions and Responsibilities, special issue of Metaphilosophy 36, nos. 1–2 (2005), pp. 182209.

26 See, e.g., WHO, Macroeconomics and Health: Investing in Health for Economic Development (Geneva: WHO Publications, 2001); available at The commission that produced this report, chaired by Jeffrey Sachs, concluded that some 8 million deaths could be prevented each year in the poor countries through real access to medical care at a cost of about $60 billion annually.

27 She asks: “Is a laid-off American steelworker really more responsible for global poverty than a rich citizen of a poor country?” (p. 51 L, this journal). The answer is: certainly not. The present global institutional order is designed by, and for the benefit of, the political and economic elites of both rich and poor countries. The rich citizen of a poor country thus typically shares responsibility for global institutional arrangements. In addition, he or she also shares responsibility for the national institutional order of his/her country, which typically promotes domestic corruption and severe poverty.

28 Of course, we ought not to employ such a most miserly estimate of our compensation obligations because, seeing how very badly off the global poor are relative to us, underestimates (to their detriment) are vastly more consequential than overestimates. See Christian Barry, “Applying the Contribution Principle,” in Barry and Pogge, eds.: Global Institutions and Responsibilities, pp. 210–27.

29 The statement, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” has been attributed to her.

30 See United Press International, “Iraq War Topping $5.8 Billion A Month,” November 17,2004.

* Many thanks to the editors of Ethics & International Affairs and my fellow symposiasts for making this exchange possible, and to David Álvarez García, Nicole Hassoun, Keith Horton, Rekha Nath, and Ling Tong for their critical comments.

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