Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Poverty is not socially, economically or politically inevitable-the poor are not "always with us' as the erroneous maxim suggests. Rather poverty and inequality are largely the result of global economic and political decisions. (Photo: shutterstock)

Thomas Pogge and the Challenge of Global Justice

Mark Kernan

Philosopher Thomas Pogge in his seminal book, World Poverty and Human Rights, asks a deceptively simple and ultimately moral question on the nature of what he calls the ‘global institutional order’: can authentic reform be made of this international order, and can any proposed reform better align with our moral values in order to alleviate the suffering of the global poor?

By Global Institutional Order (GIO) he is referring to the architecture of global economic, financial and political governance, for example the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and increasingly private actors such as multinational corporations and financial investment instruments; private equity and hedge funds for example.

By moral values, he is referring to the moral norms which are, hopefully, alive and well within global civil society and in the actions and motivations of our governments, especially the wealthy and influential governments of the Global North. The kind of values he proclaims which have historically led to the abolition of state organised slavery in the 18th century and which have tried in the 20th century to restrain and contain, through International Law and other means, genocide and colonialism-or, as he terms them, historical ‘paradigms of injustice’.

How successful and even genuine these attempts have been are of course open to question. Nevertheless international society particularly since the Second World War has at least attempted to act morally, legally, and politically in some way or form to overcome these successive paradigms of injustice.

Global Poverty and Economic Inequality: The Principle Paradigm of Injustice of the 21st Century  

Global poverty and its close correlate, economic inequality, are according to Pogge the principle moral questions facing global society today. The figures on poverty and inequality are truly staggering, and at times overwhelming. Extreme poverty is measured in monetary terms by the World Bank as the percentage of people living below the $1.25-a-day threshold. Currently according to the Bank’s data in 2011, 14.5 % of the world’s population eke out a life on $1.25-a-day, over a billion people.  Also, according to the Bank, there has been a drop in extreme poverty globally. These somewhat optimistic assertions however are disputed.

The  World Bank’s data, and in particular the figure of $1.25 a day as an indicator of extreme poverty, has been criticised as ‘extremely misleading’ and ‘overly optimistic’ by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh for example,  as they give a distorted account of the actual global figures in poverty. The Banks’ designated poverty line in other words according to Pogge and others is much too low, the truth is much starker: the bottom half of humanity lives in serious poverty, over 3.5 billion.

Add in the unequal distribution of global and national wealth, now at an all-time high, and extraordinarily, wealth disparity is even more extreme than income disparity. Oxfam, in January of this year reported that the richest 1 percent have,  “seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 percent in 2016”.

Nevertheless taking the data at face value over a billion people live in extreme poverty. This, Pogge argues, and the chronic undernourishment, lack of basic sanitation and lack of access to adequate drugs for example which accompanies such poverty is at its fundamental core a question of global justice, and not something that technocratic fixes, grand humanitarian gestures or overly optimistic economic indicators can possibly address.

Pogge asserts an uncomfortable point in relation to global poverty, inequality and global justice: which is that western governments are at least partially responsible for the severe poverty afflicting those of the “bottom billion”.  Through intergovernmental negotiations, large corporations, banks and industry lobbies are in an especially advantageous position to influence trade deals in their own favour. The institutional rules of global trade have a direct and negative effect on the poor. The GIO is designed to benefit the powerful, consequently disempowering the global poor. Pogge contends that since western governments are powerful participants in trade negotiations, acting in our name in essence, therefore as a result we all as citizens share responsibility for the harms that slanted supranational institutional arrangements inflict on the global poor. Essentially, he argues that we have as citizens of rich western states have influence on the behaviour of our governments in these negotiations and talks, and therefore we have a moral duty to stop actively harming the global poor.

In other words, international economic rules are ‘fixed’ to serve the interests of rich countries: the global economic institutional order produces, reproduces the rules to suit the powerful global actors and so repeatedly contributes, and exacerbates, global poverty.

For example, Pogge considers the current WTO treaty system which as part of the global institutional order:

Permits the affluent countries to protect their markets against cheap imports (agricultural products, textiles and apparel, steel, and much else) through tariffs, anti-dumping duties, quotas, export credits, and huge subsidies to domestic producers. Such protectionist measures reduce the export opportunities from poor countries by constraining their exports into the affluent countries and also, in the case of subsidies, by allowing less efficient rich-country producers to undersell more efficient poor-country producers in world markets.”  

We have Pogge proclaims a moral imperative to act, to act that is to redress the wrongs done to the global poor in ‘our name’. It is undoubtedly a challenging view.

If Pogge’s thought-provoking challenge on global justice, however, can be distilled to a concise summary it would be this: Poverty and extreme inequality are not predetermined by any man-made or supernatural laws. Poverty is not socially, economically or politically inevitable-the poor are not “always with us” as the erroneous maxim suggests. Rather poverty and inequality are largely the result of global economic and political decisions. And, working within the global GIO framework, the gross inequality and poverty is a result of choices, & policies by governments, multilateral financial and economic institutions, and global corporations.

In other words, the global poor Pogge argues, need not just our good will or technical know-how, they also demand that we as citizens of rich countries act justly to transform the global institutional order, by acting ethically as good global citizens.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Mark Kernan

Mark Kernan is a freelance journalist and independent researcher witing mostly, but not exclusively, on development,human rights, international law and indigenous peoples. Follow him on Twitter: @markkernan1

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Australian Report Advises 'Urgent Action' to Combat Slavery in Clean Energy Supply Chains

"We need to see industry, government, the financial sector, and civil society working together to provide access to competitively costed, slavery-free renewable energy."

Brett Wilkins ·

Progressives Mobilize in Georgia for Dec. 6 Senate Runoff

Advocacy groups backing Sen. Raphael Warnock call the Democrat a "reproductive rights champion" who is also "fighting to stop the climate crisis and create good jobs in the process."

Jessica Corbett ·

Senate Report Details Failure to Confront 'Persistent and Lethal' Threat of White Supremacists

"The federal government has continued to allocate resources disproportionately aligned to international terrorist threats over domestic terrorist threats," the report reads.

Julia Conley ·

Justice Demanded After Qatari World Cup Official Admits Hundreds of Migrant Worker Deaths

"Until all abuses suffered by migrant workers in Qatar are remedied, the legacy of this World Cup will be severely tarnished by their mistreatment," said Amnesty International's head of economic and social justice.

Brett Wilkins ·

Congressional Labor Caucus Demands More Funding for NLRB Before GOP Takes House

"Workers need the NLRB to receive funding that allows it to fully implement its mission," several Democratic lawmakers told House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Schumer.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo