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Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties


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

Thomas Pogge , ‘O'Neill on Rights and Duties,” Grazer Philosophische Studien 43 (1992), pp. 233–47.

Patrice Trouiller , Els Torreele , Piero Olliaro , Nick White , Susan Foster , Dyann Wirth , and Bernard Pecoul , “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

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

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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