Recognized and Violated by International Law : The Human Rights of the Global Poor

Sunday 21 March 2010, by Thomas Pogge

Thèmes : Inégalités

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Introduction [1]

Various human rights are widely recognized in codified and customary international law. These human rights promise all human beings protection against specific severe harms that might be inflicted on them domestically or by foreigners. Yet, international law also establishes and maintains institutional structures that greatly contribute to violations of these human rights: fundamental components of international law systematically obstruct the aspirations of poor populations for democratic self-government, civil rights, and minimal economic sufficiency. And central international organizations, like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, are designed so that they systematically contribute to the persistence of severe poverty.

Human Rights and Correlative Duties

Supranational, national and subnational systems of law create various human rights. The content of these rights and of any corresponding legal obligations and burdens depends on the legislative, judicial and executive bodies that maintain and interpret the laws in question. In the aftermath of World War II, it has come to be widely acknowledged that there are also moral human rights, whose validity is independent of any and all such governmental bodies. In their case, in fact, the dependence is thought to run the other way: only if they respect moral human rights do governmental bodies have legitimacy, that is, the capacity to create moral obligations to comply with, and the moral authority to enforce their laws and orders.

Human rights of both kinds can coexist in harmony. Whoever cares about moral human rights will grant that laws can greatly facilitate their realization. And human rights lawyers can acknowledge that the legal rights and obligations they draft and interpret are meant to give effect to pre-existing moral rights. In fact, this acknowledgment seems implicit in the common phrase ‘internationally recognized human rights.’ It is clearly expressed in the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR 1948), which presents this Declaration as stating moral human rights that exist independently of itself. This acknowledgement bears stressing because the distinction between moral and legal human rights is rarely drawn clearly. Many are therefore inclined to believe that our human rights are whatever governments declare them to be. This may be true of legal human rights. But it is false, as these governments have themselves acknowledged, of moral human rights. Governments may have views on what moral human rights there are - their endorsement of the UDHR and various subsequent human rights covenants and treaties expresses one such view. But even all governments together cannot legislate such rights out of existence.

The widespread recognition of moral human rights is important because it makes room for an independent critical assessment of existing international law. A more limited form of such assessment is possible even within the law itself - one can investigate how well international law complies with the human rights it itself recognizes. But such a purely internal assessment is vulnerable to legal change. The critical potential of legal human rights can be sapped through revisions of the law - through explicit reformulation or amendment (‘anti-terrorism’ legislation), through adjudications that render other parts of the law coherent with human rights by diluting the latter, or through precedents that modify customary international law (recognizing preemptive occupations or the status of ‘enemy combatants’). Dependent as they are on good arguments rather than the good will of those in power, moral human rights provide a more solid basis for critical assessment, and I base my case upon them. In doing so, I conceive human rights and their correlative duties quite narrowly to ensure that the moral premises I invoke are widely acceptable. I do not contend that human rights are exhausted by what I invoke - only that human rights require at least this much.

I focus on the human rights of the global poor because the great human rights deficits persisting today are heavily concentrated among them. Socio-economic human rights, such as that “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care” (UDHR: article 25) are currently, and by far, the most frequently violated human rights. Their widespread violation also plays a decisive role in explaining the global deficit in civil and political human rights which demand democracy, due process, and the rule of law. Very poor people - often physically and mentally stunted due to malnutrition in infancy, illiterate due to lack of schooling, and much preoccupied with their family’s survival - can cause little harm or benefit to the politicians and officials who rule them. Such rulers therefore have far less incentive to attend to the interests of the poor compared with the interests of agents more capable of reciprocation, including foreign governments, companies, and tourists.

For purposes of this essay, we may think of the very poor narrowly as those who lack secure access to the minimum requirements of human existence - safe food and water, clothing, shelter, basic medical care and basic education. This narrow and absolute definition of severe poverty corresponds roughly to the World Bank’s ‘$2/day’ international poverty line, which is defined in terms of the purchasing power that $2.15 had in the United States in 1993. A household in the United States counts as poor by this standard today (2007) only if its entire annual consumption expenditure per person falls below US$1120 ( Some 2735 million human beings - over 40% of the world’s population - are officially considered to be living below this poverty line, many of them far below it, according to Chen and Ravallion (2004: 153) who have managed the World Bank’s income poverty assessments for well over a decade. They also report that 1089 million human beings lived on less than half this amount ($1/day). It is likely that flaws in the World Bank’s methodology cause it to understate the world poverty problem (Reddy and Pogge 2007).

The effects of severe poverty are staggering. It is estimated that 830 million human beings are chronically undernourished, 1100 million lack access to safe water and 2600 million lack access to basic sanitation (UNDP 2006: 174, 33). About 2000 million lack access to essential drugs ( Some 1000 million have no adequate shelter and 2000 million lack electricity (UNDP 1998: 49). Some 799 million adults are illiterate ( and 250 million children between 5 and 14 do wage work outside their household - often under harsh or cruel conditions: as soldiers, prostitutes, or domestic servants, or in agriculture, construction, and textile or carpet production. [2] Roughly one third of all human deaths, 18 million annually, are due to poverty-related causes, easily preventable through better nutrition, safe drinking water, cheap re-hydration packs, vaccines, antibiotics, and other medicines. [3] People of color, females, and the very young are heavily overrepresented among the global poor, and hence also among those suffering the staggering effects of severe poverty. Children under five account for nearly 60% or 10.6 million of the annual death toll from poverty-related causes (UNICEF 2005: inside front cover). The overrepresentation of females is clearly documented (UNDP 2003: 310-330; UNRISD 2005; Social Watch 2005).

Despite the undisputed great importance of basic necessities for human life, the existence of social and economic human rights is controversial, especially in the United States which never ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR 1966). Much of this controversy is due to the false assumption that a human right to freedom from poverty must entail correlative positive duties. Such human-rights-imposed positive duties to aid and protect any human beings who would otherwise suffer severe deprivations are widely rejected in the United States and in other affluent countries. But what is rejected here is not a specific class of rights, but a specific class of duties: positive duties. Those who deny that very poor foreigners have a human-rights-based moral claim to economic assistance typically also deny that foreigners have any other human-rights-based moral claims to aid or protection - against genocide, enslavement, torture, tyranny, or religious persecution. What these people actually reject are not human rights as such or any particular category of human rights. They reject human-rights-imposed positive duties and therefore any human rights specified so that they entail general correlative positive duties.

While some passionately reject such human-rights-imposed positive duties and others passionately endorse them, I simply leave them aside here, without prejudice. To keep my argument widely acceptable, I conceive human rights narrowly as imposing only negative duties. This way, my argument can be acceptable to those who reject human-rights-imposed positive duties, because they generally endorse only stringent negative duties not to torture, not to rape, not to destroy crops and livestock needed for survival. And my argument can also be acceptable to those who endorse human-rights-imposed positive duties because, by failing to invoke such duties, I am not denying them.

Negative duties are of two main kinds: interactional and institutional. The human right not to be tortured is violated by torturers as well as by many of those who cooperate in imposing social institutions under which human beings foreseeably suffer torture. The latter category includes in the first instance bureaucrats and politicians who permit or even order torture. But it also includes ordinary citizens who make an uncompensated contribution to the imposition of social institutions that foreseeably give rise to an avoidable human rights deficit. For example, through their uncompensated support of the grievously unjust Nazi regime, many Germans facilitated the human rights violations it foreseeably gave rise to: they participated in a collective crime and thereby violated the human rights of its victims, even if they never personally killed or tortured or otherwise harmed anyone directly. With the word ‘uncompensated,’ I mean to exempt people like Oskar Schindler (as depicted in Spielberg’s movie). Through his manufacturing activities and tax payments, Schindler cooperated in imposing the social institutions and policies of Nazi Germany. But doing this allowed him to compensate (more than adequately) for his contributions to harm through protection efforts for its victims. His conduct complied with the negative duties imposed on him by the human rights of the victims of the Third Reich - no less fully than if he had left Germany. In fact, Schindler did much better by these victims than he would have done by emigrating.

Even conservatives and libertarians, who often present themselves as rejecting subsistence rights, will recognize as human rights violations some institutional arrangements that foreseeably and avoidably produce life-threatening poverty - the feudal systems of France’s Ancien Régime or tsarist Russia, for instance, or Stalin’s economic policies during 1930-33, which caused some 7-10 million famine deaths among peasants, mostly in the Ukraine, whom he considered hostile to his regime.

In what follows, I leave interactional negative duties aside as well and base my argument entirely on institutional negative duties correlative to human rights. I contend that most of the vast human rights deficits persisting in today’s world can be traced back to institutional factors - to the national institutional arrangements in many so-called less developed countries, for which their political and economic elites bear primary responsibility, as well as to present global institutional arrangements, for which the governments and citizens of the affluent countries bear primary responsibility. Focusing on the latter subject, I argue that current global institutional arrangements as codified in international law constitute a collective human rights violation of enormous proportions to which most of the world’s affluent are making uncompensated contributions.

The moral plank of my argument was concisely stated 57 years ago:
“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (UDHR: article 28, see also article 22).
I read this Article in light of four straightforward interpretive conjectures:
(1) Alternative institutional designs that do not satisfy the requirement of Article 28 can be ranked by how close they come to enabling the full realization of human rights: any social system ought to be structured so that human rights can be realized in it as fully as is reasonably possible.
(2) How fully human rights can be realized under some institutional design is indicated by how fully these human rights generally are, or (in the case of a hypothetical design) generally would be, realized in it.
(3) An institutional design realizes a human right insofar as (and fully if and only if) this human right is fulfilled for the persons upon whom this order is imposed.
(4) A human right is fulfilled for some person if and only if this person enjoys secure access to the object of this human right.
Taking these four conjectures together, Article 28 should be read as holding that the moral quality, or justice, of any institutional order depends primarily on the extent to which it affords, insofar as is feasible, all its participants secure access to the objects of their human rights: Any institutional design is to be assessed and reformed principally by reference to its relative impact on the realization of the human rights of those on whom it is imposed. I call this ‘relative’ impact, because a comparative judgment is needed about how much more or less fully human rights are realized in this institutional order than they would be realized in its feasible alternatives. An institutional order and its imposition are human-rights-violating if and insofar as this order foreseeably gives rise to a substantial and avoidable human rights deficit.

Features of the Present Global Order Cause Massive Severe Poverty [4]

Each day, some 50,000 human beings - mostly children, mostly female and mostly people of color - die from starvation, diarrhea, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, measles, perinatal conditions and other poverty-related causes. This continuous global death toll matches that of the December 2004 tsunami every few days, and it matches, every three years, the entire death toll of World War II, concentration camps and gulags included.

I believe that most of this annual death toll and of the much larger poverty problem it epitomizes are avoidable through minor modifications in the global order that would entail at most slight reductions in the incomes of the affluent. Such reforms have been blocked by the governments of the affluent countries, which are ruthlessly advancing their own interests and those of their corporations and citizens, designing and imposing a global institutional order that, continually and foreseeably, produces vast excesses of severe poverty and premature poverty deaths.

There are three main strategies for denying this charge. One can deny that variations in the design of the global order have any significant impact on the evolution of severe poverty worldwide. Failing this, one can claim that the present global order is optimal or close to optimal in terms of poverty avoidance. And, should this strategy fail as well, one can still contend that the present global order, insofar as it is suboptimal in terms of poverty avoidance, is not causing severe poverty but merely failing to alleviate such poverty (caused by other factors) as much as it might. I will discuss these three strategies in this sequence.

The Purely Domestic Poverty Thesis

Those who wish to deny that variations in the design of the global institutional order have a significant impact on the evolution of severe poverty explain such poverty by reference to national or local factors alone. John Rawls is a prominent example. He claims that, when societies fail to thrive, “the problem is commonly the nature of the public political culture and the religious and philosophical traditions that underlie its institutions. The great social evils in poorer societies are likely to be oppressive government and corrupt elites” (Rawls 1993: 77). He adds that “the causes of the wealth of a people and the forms it takes lie in their political culture and in the religious, philosophical and moral traditions that support the basic structure of their political and social institutions, as well as in the industriousness and cooperative talents of its members, all supported by their political virtues. … the political culture of a burdened society is all-important ... Crucial also is the country’s population policy” (Rawls 1999: 108). Accordingly, Rawls holds that our moral responsibility with regard to severe poverty abroad can be fully described as a “duty of assistance” (Idem: 37-8, 106-20).

It is well to recall briefly that existing peoples have arrived at their present levels of social, economic, and cultural development through an historical process that was pervaded by enslavement, colonialism, even genocide. Though these monumental crimes are now in the past, they have left a legacy of great inequalities which would be unacceptable even if peoples were now masters of their own development. In response, it is often said that colonialism is too long ago to contribute to the explanation of poverty and inequality today. But consider the 30:1 inequality in per capita income in 1960, when Europe released Africa from the colonial yoke. Even if Africa had consistently enjoyed annual growth in per capita income one full percentage point above Europe’s, this inequality ratio would still be 19:1 today. At this rate, Africa would be catching up with Europe at the beginning of the 24th century.

Consider also how such a huge economic inequality entails inequalities in the expertise and bargaining power that Africans and Europeans can bring to bear in negotiations about the terms of their interactions. Relations structured under so unequal conditions are likely to be more beneficial to the stronger party and thus tend to reinforce the initial economic inequality. This phenomenon surely plays some role in explaining why the inequality in per capita income has actually increased since 1960. In 2005, gross national income per capita was $745 in sub-Saharan Africa ( versus $35,131 in the high-income countries (World Bank 2006: 289) - a 47:1 ratio. Rawls (implausibly) finds such entrenched economic inequality morally acceptable when it originates in earlier choices freely made within each people. But his justification is irrelevant to this world, where our enormous economic advantage is deeply tainted by how it accumulated over the course of one historical process that has devastated the societies and cultures of four continents.

Let us leave aside the continuing legacies of historical crimes and focus on the empirical view that, at least in the post-colonial era which brought impressive growth in global per capita income, the causes of the persistence of severe poverty, and hence the key to its eradication, lie within the poor countries themselves.

Many find this view compelling in light of the great variation in how the former colonies have evolved over the last forty years. Some of them have done very well in economic growth and poverty reduction while others exhibit worsening poverty and declining per capita incomes. Is it not obvious that such strongly divergent national trajectories must be due to differing domestic causal factors in the countries concerned? And is it not clear, then, that the persistence of severe poverty is due to local causes?

However oft-repeated and well-received, this reasoning is fallacious. When national economic trajectories diverge, then there must indeed be local (country-specific) factors at work that explain the divergence. But it does not follow that global factors play no role in explaining this divergence. We can see this by considering a parallel case. There may be great variations in the performance of students in one class. These must be due to student-specific factors. Still, it does not follow that these ‘local’ factors fully explain the performance of a class. Teacher and classroom quality, teaching times, reading materials, libraries, and other ‘global’ factors may also play an important role. Dramatic contrasts of success and failure, among students or among less developed countries, do not then show global factors to be causally inert. In the former case, such global factors can greatly influence the overall progress of a class; they can influence the distribution of this progress by being differentially appropriate to the needs and interests of different students; and they can affect the student-specific factors, as when a racist or sexist teacher causes or aggravates motivational deficits in his black or female students. Analogous to these three possibilities, global institutional factors may greatly influence the evolution of severe poverty worldwide.

Exposure of the popular fallacy does not yet settle the issue. Dramatic divergences in national poverty trajectories do not prove that decisions about the design of global institutional arrangements exert no powerful influence on the evolution of severe poverty worldwide. But is there such an influence? It is hard to doubt that there is. In the modern world, the traffic of international and even intranational economic transactions is profoundly shaped by an elaborate system of treaties and conventions about trade, investments, loans, patents, copyrights, trademarks, double taxation, labor standards, environmental protection, use of seabed resources and much else. These different aspects of the present global institutional order realize highly specific design decisions within a vast space of alternative design possibilities. It is incredible on its face that all these alternative ways of structuring the world economy would have produced the same evolution in the overall incidence and geographical distribution of severe poverty. The discussion of this question will continue in the immediately following section and in the later ‘Third Idea’ subsection.

The Panglossian View of the Present Global Order

Once it is accepted that how we structure the world economy makes a difference to the evolution of world poverty, it becomes interesting to examine the present global institutional order in regard to its relative impact on severe poverty. Here it is often claimed that we live, in this regard, in the best of all possible worlds: that the present global order is optimal or nearly optimal in terms of poverty avoidance.

A commonsensical way of doubting this claim might develop a counter-hypothesis in four steps. First, the interest in avoiding severe poverty is not the only interest to which those who negotiate the design of particular aspects of the global institutional order are sensitive. Any such negotiators are likely to be sensitive also to the interest of their home government in its domestic political success and, partly as a consequence of this, sensitive to their compatriots’ interest in economic prosperity. Second, at least with negotiators for the more affluent states, these ‘nationalist’ interests are not (to put it mildly) perfectly aligned with the interest in global poverty avoidance. In negotiations about the design of the global order, particular decisions that are best for the governments, corporations, or citizens of the affluent countries are sometimes not best in terms of avoiding severe poverty elsewhere. Third, when faced with such conflicts, negotiators for the affluent states generally (are instructed to) give precedence to the interests of their own country’s government, corporations and citizens over the interests of the global poor. Fourth, the affluent states enjoy great advantages in bargaining power and expertise. With only 15.7% of the world’s population, the high-income countries have 79% of the world’s income (World Bank 2006: 289) and can therefore exact a high price for access to their gigantic markets. Their advantages in bargaining power and expertise enable the affluent states and their negotiators to deflect the design of the global order from what would be best for poverty avoidance toward a better accommodation of the interests of the governments, corporations and citizens of the affluent countries. These four steps lead to the commonsensical counterhypothesis: we should expect that the design of the global institutional order reflects the shared interests of the governments, corporations and citizens of the affluent countries more than the interest in global poverty avoidance, insofar as these interests conflict.

There is a great deal of evidence that this counterhypothesis is true. The present rules of the game favor the affluent countries by allowing them to continue protecting their markets through quotas, tariffs, anti-dumping duties, export credits and subsidies to domestic producers in ways that poor countries are not permitted, or cannot afford, to match. [5]Other important examples include the WTO regulations of cross-border investment and intellectual property rights, such as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Treaty of 1995 whose content and impact are discussed in UNDP (2001: chapter 5); Correa (2000); Juma (1999); Watal (2000); Pogge (2005a), and

Such asymmetrical rules increase the share of global economic growth going to the affluent and decrease the share of global economic growth going to the poor relative to what these shares would be under symmetrical rules of free and open competition. The asymmetries in the rules thus reinforce the very inequality that enables the governments of the affluent countries to impose these asymmetries in the first place. Branko Milanovic (2005: 108) reports that real incomes of the poorest 5% of world population declined 20% in the 1988-93 period and another 23% during 1993-98, while real global per capita income increased by 5.2% and 4.8% respectively. For the 1988-98 period he finds that the Gini measure of inequality among persons worldwide increased from 62.2 to 64.1, and the Theil from 72.7 to 78.9 (Idem: 112). All these statistics convert incomes at purchasing power parity (PPP), which problematically (Reddy and Pogge 2007) multiplies the incomes received in poor countries by a factor of typically between 3 and 6. Assessed in this way, income inequality between the top and bottom 10% of the human population was 71:1 in 1998 while, assessed in terms of market exchange rate, this same inequality was 320:1 (Milanovic 2005: 107-08).

We can confirm and update his findings with other data. The World Bank reports that gross national income (GNI) per capita, PPP (current international $s), in the high-income OECD countries rose 53.5% in real terms over the 1990-2001 globalization period: from $18,740 in 1990 to $28,761 in 2001 (and on to $33,622 in 2005; World Bank interactive software ( can be used to calculate how the poorer half of humankind have fared, in terms of their real (inflation/PPP adjusted) consumption expenditure, during this same period. Here are the gains for various percentiles, labeled from the bottom up:
+20.4% for the 50th percentile (median)
+21.0% for the 45th percentile
+21.1% for the 40th percentile
+20.0% for the 35th percentile
+18.7% for the 30th percentile
+17.2% for the 25th percentile
+15.9% for the 20th percentile
+14.4% for the 15th percentile
+12.9% for the 10th percentile
+11.9% for the 7th percentile
+10.4% for the 5th percentile
+6.6% for the 3rd percentile
+1.0% for the 2nd percentile
-7.3% for the 1st (poorest) percentile.
There is a clear pattern: the global poor are not participating proportionately in global economic growth. This pattern is further confirmed by trend data about malnutrition and poverty. The number of malnourished, reported annually by the UNDP, has been stuck around 800 million and recently stood at 830 million (UNDP 2006: 174) - even while the ranks of the hungry are thinned by millions of deaths each year from poverty-related causes. For 1987-2001, Chen and Ravallion (2004: 153) report a 7% drop in the population living below $1/day but a 10.4% rise in the population below $2/day.

As the global poor fall further and further behind, they become ever more marginalized, with their interests ignored in both national and international decision making. Annual spending power of $100 or $200 per person does not command much attention from international negotiators when per capita incomes in the affluent countries are some 150-300 times higher. And poor African countries do not command much attention when the combined GNI of 26 of them, representing over 400 million people, falls short of the annual sales volumes of the world’s largest corporations.

Increasing income inequalities accumulate into even larger inequalities of wealth. A recent WIDER study (Davies et al. 2006: Appendix 1, Table 10a) estimates that in 2000 the bottom 50% of the world’s adults together had 1.1% of global wealth while the top 10% had 85.1% and the top 1% had 39.9%. The authors stress that their study may understate global wealth inequality because the superrich - the world’s few hundred billionaires alone accounted for 1.7% of global household wealth - are typically not captured in household surveys (Idem: 31). [6]

These facts and figures should suffice to refute the Panglossian view: the present design of the global order is not, and nowhere near, optimal in terms of poverty avoidance. This value would be better served, for instance, if the poorest countries received financial support toward hiring first-rate experts to advise them how to articulate their interests in WTO negotiations, toward maintaining missions at WTO headquarters in Geneva, toward bringing cases before the WTO, and toward coping with the mountains of regulations they are required to implement. Poverty avoidance would also be better served if these countries faced lesser constraints and handicaps on their exports into the affluent countries: the $700 billion reported annual loss in export opportunities due to rich-country protectionism (UNCTAD 1999) amounts to over 10% of the aggregate gross national incomes of all less developed countries combined. Poverty avoidance would also be better served if the poor countries did not have to pay for what market access they get by collecting billions in economic rents to be paid to rich-country corporations for use of their ‘intellectual property,’ and if the WTO Treaty had included a global minimum wage and minimal global constraints on working hours and working conditions in order to constrain the current ‘race to the bottom’ where poor countries competing for foreign investment must outbid one another by offering ever more exploitable and mistreatable workforces. Poverty avoidance would also be better served if the Law of the Sea Treaty guaranteed the poor countries some share of the value of harvested seabed resources (see Pogge 2002: 125-6) and if the affluent countries were required to pay for the negative externalities we impose on the poor: for the pollution we have produced over many decades and the resulting effects on their environment and climate, for the rapid depletion of natural resources, for the contribution of our sex tourists to the AIDS epidemic in Asia and for the violence caused by our demand for drugs and our war on drugs.

Examples could be multiplied. But I think it is clear that there are feasible variations to the present global order that would dramatically reduce the incidence of severe poverty worldwide, far below the current, staggering figures. This order is not optimal in terms of poverty avoidance.

Is the Present Global Order Merely Less Beneficial Than It Might Be?

As the first two possible lines of defense have turned out to be indefensible, attention turns to the third: can one say that the global institutional order, though clearly and greatly suboptimal in terms of poverty avoidance, is nonetheless not harmful to the global poor and therefore not a violation of their human rights? Let us turn to this last challenge to my view.

This challenge is especially important if one leaves undisputed, as I have here done, the narrow account of human rights violations according to which agents can be condemned as human rights violators only if they actively cause human rights to be underfulfilled, in violation of a negative duty. Appealing to this narrow account, the countries shaping and imposing the present global order could argue as follows: it is true that the incidence of severe poverty is greater under the present regime than it would be under some of the outlined variations thereof that would create or improve for the global poor access to medicines and vaccines, basic schooling, school lunches, safe water and sewage systems, housing, power plants and networks, banks and microlending, road, rail and communication links, and export opportunities into the developed world. But it does not follow that the existing global order causes excess poverty or excess poverty deaths, that it harms or kills anyone, or that it violates human rights. The design of this order is merely failing to benefit people, failing to be as protective of human life as it might be. And the same should then be said about our decision to impose the existing global institutional order rather than a more poverty-avoiding alternative: this decision does not cause excess poverty or excess poverty deaths, is not violating human rights by harming and killing people. It is merely failing to benefit people and failing to prevent human deaths. Collectively (just as individually), we are at most failing to do all we can to fulfill human rights.

This third defense strategy appeals to something like the distinction between acts and omissions. Its objective is to diminish the moral significance of the rich states’ decision to impose the present global order rather than a foreseeably more poverty-avoiding alternative by assigning this decision the status of a mere omission. Now the relevant countries are clearly active in formulating the global economic rules they want, in pressing for their acceptance, and in prosecuting their enforcement. This is undeniable. To be plausible, the defense strategy must then apply the act/omission distinction at another place: not to how the relevant governments are related to the global rules, but to how these global rules are related to the excess poverty. The idea must be that the rules governing the world economy are not actively causing excess poverty, thus harming and killing people, but merely passively failing to prevent severe poverty, failing to protect people from harm.

The distinction between acts and omissions is difficult enough when applied to the conduct of individual and collective agents. The application of such a distinction to social institutions and rules is at first baffling. When more premature deaths occur under some system of rules than would occur under a feasible alternative, we might say that there are excess deaths under the existing regime. But how can we sort such excess deaths into those that the existing rules cause (bring about) and those these rules merely fail to prevent (let happen)? Let us examine three ideas for how this defense strategy can be made to work.

First Idea: Invoking Baseline Comparisons

The apparently empirical question whether ‘globalization’ is harming or benefiting the global poor plays a major role in public debates about the present global order and, more specifically, the WTO treaties and the roles of the IMF, the World Bank, the G7/G8 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Harm and benefit are comparative notions, involving the idea of people being worse off, or better off. But what is the implied baseline to which the current fate of the global poor is to be compared? What is the alternative fate in comparison to which they are either worse off (and therefore being harmed) or better off (and therefore being benefited by globalization)?

In most cases, it turns out, the popular debate is about the question whether severe poverty worldwide has been rising or falling in the period since this globalization process began in the late 1980s. This question is hotly debated, with considerable career prizes awarded to any economists with a good story of declining poverty.

Yet, this debate is irrelevant to the moral assessment of this globalization process, epitomized by the WTO framework, which the governments of the developed West have pressed upon the word. The moral charge before us is that governments, by imposing a global institutional order under which great excesses of severe poverty and poverty deaths persist, are violating the human rights of many poor people. The plausibility of this charge is unaffected by whether severe poverty is rising or falling. To see this, consider the parallel charges that slaveholding societies harmed and violated the human rights of those they enslaved, or that the Nazis violated the human rights of those they confined and killed in their concentration camps. These charges can certainly not be defeated by showing that the rate of victimization declined (with fewer people being enslaved or killed each year than the year before). Of course, the words ‘harm’ and ‘benefit’ are sometimes appropriately used with implicit reference to an earlier state of affairs. But in the case at hand, such an historical baseline is irrelevant. For even if it were true that there is not as much severe poverty in the world today as there was 15 years ago (but see the data presented earlier), we could not infer therefrom that the present global order is (in a morally significant sense) benefiting the global poor. Drawing this inference, we would beg the whole question by simply assuming the incidence of severe poverty 15 years ago as the appropriate no-harm baseline. Just as the claim that the US violated the human rights of black slaves in the 1850s cannot be refuted by showing that such slaves were fewer or better off than had been the case in earlier decades, so the claim that the imposition of the present global order violates the human rights of those who live in and all too often die from severe poverty cannot be refuted by showing that their numbers are falling (see Pogge 2005b: 55-8).

No less inconclusive than such diachronic comparisons are subjunctive comparisons with an historical baseline. Even if it is true that there is not as much severe poverty under the present WTO regime as there would now be if the preceding regime (GATT) had continued, we cannot infer therefrom that the present global institutional order is (in a morally significant sense) benefiting the global poor. Drawing this inference, we would once again beg the question by simply assuming the incidence of severe poverty as it would have evolved under continued GATT rules as the appropriate no-harm baseline. By the same reasoning the military junta under Senior General Than Shwe could be said to be benefiting the Burmese people provided only that they are better off than they would now be if the predecessor junta under General Ne Win were still in power. And by the same reasoning we could argue that the regime of Jim Crow laws ( did not harm African Americans in the US South because they were better off than they would have been had slavery continued.

Sometimes subjunctive comparisons are presented with an historical baseline that is defined by reference to a much earlier time. Thus it is said that Africans today are no worse off than they would now be if there had never been any significant contacts with people outside Africa. In response, we should of course question to what extent there are knowable facts about such a remote alternate history. We should also, once again, question the moral relevance of this hypothetical baseline involving continued mutual isolation: if world history had transpired without colonization and enslavement, then there would -perhaps - now be affluent people in Europe and very poor ones in Africa. But these would be persons and populations entirely different from those now actually living there, who in fact are very deeply shaped and scarred by their continent’s involuntary encounter with European invaders. So we cannot tell starving Africans that they would be starving and we would be affluent even if the crimes of colonialism had never occurred. Without these crimes there would not be the actually existing radical inequality which consists in these persons being affluent and those being extremely poor.

Similar considerations also refute the moral relevance of subjunctive comparison with a hypothetical baseline - the claim, for instance, that even more people would live and die even more miserably in some fictional state of nature than in this world as we have made it. In response, there are many different ways of describing the ‘state of nature,’ and it is unclear from the received literature offering and discussing such descriptions how one of them can be singled out as the morally uniquely appropriate specification. Moreover, it is doubtful that any coherently describable state of nature on this planet would be able to match our globalized civilization’s record of sustaining a stable death toll of 18 million premature deaths per year from poverty-related causes (see Pogge 2002: 136-9). If no such state of nature can be described, then it cannot be said that the present global order is benefiting the global poor by reducing severe poverty below what it would be in a state of nature. Finally, it still needs to be shown how the claim that some people are being harmed now can be undermined by pointing out that people in a state of nature would be even worse off. If such an argument succeeded, would it not show that anything one person or group does to another count as a harming only if it reduces the latter below the state-of-nature baseline? If we are not harming the 2735 million human beings we are keeping in severe poverty, then enslavement did not harm the slaves either, if only they were no worse off than people would be in the relevant state of nature.

Baseline comparisons do not then afford a promising ground for denying that the present global institutional order involves violations of the human rights of those impoverished under it - or, indeed, for defending any other institutional schemes from the charge that they involve human rights violations. Recall, for instance, the early decades of the US, when men designed and imposed an institutional order that greatly disadvantaged women. The claim that the imposition of this order violated the human rights of women cannot be refuted by any diachronic comparison with how women had fared before, under British rule. It cannot be refuted by any subjunctive comparison with how women would have been faring under continued British rule or in a state of nature. What matters is whether the imposition of the institutional order in question foreseeably led to severe burdens on women which were reasonably avoidable through a more even-handed institutional design (see Pogge 2005b: 61).

Second Idea: Invoking the Consent of the Global Poor

Another common way of denying that the present global institutional order is harming the poor, violating their human rights, is by appeal to the venerable precept of volenti not fit iniuria - no injustice is being done to those who consent. Someone physically abusing another is not harming him in the morally relevant sense if he has given prior consent to such treatment, for money perhaps or masochistic pleasure. Likewise, a social order under which excess poverty persists is not harming the poor if they have previously consented to the imposition of this order. And consent they surely did! Membership in the WTO is voluntary. Since the poor themselves have signed on to the rules as they are, the imposition of these rules cannot be characterized as harming them.

This line of argument is thoroughly refuted by four mutually independent considerations. First, appeal to consent can defeat the charge of human rights violation only if the human rights in question are alienable and, more specifically, waivable by consent. Yet, on the usual understanding of moral and legal human rights, they cannot be so waived: persons cannot waive their human rights to personal freedom, political participation, freedom of expression, or freedom from torture. Persons can promise, through a religious vow perhaps, to serve another, to refrain from voting, or to keep silent. But, wherever human rights are respected, such promises are legally unenforceable and thus do not succeed in waiving the right in question. There are various reasons for conceiving human rights in this way: a person changes over time, and her later self has a vital interest in being able to avoid truly horrific burdens her earlier self had risked or incurred. Moreover, the option of placing such burdens on one’s future self is likely to be disadvantageous even to the earlier self by encouraging predators seeking to elicit a waiver from this earlier self through manipulation of her or of her circumstances - for instance, by getting her into a life-threatening situation from which one then offers to rescue her at the price of her permanent enslavement (Pogge 1989: 49-50). Finally, waivers of human rights impose considerable burdens on third parties who will be (more or less directly) confronted with the resulting distress of people enslaved or tortured or starving.

Second, even assuming that human rights to basic necessities are waivable, an appeal to consent cannot justify the severe impoverishment of children who are greatly overrepresented among those suffering severe poverty and its effects (note 1). Of roughly 18 million annual deaths from poverty-related causes, 10.6 million are children under five (UNICEF 2005: inside front cover). Does anyone really want to claim that these small children have consented to our global order - or that anyone else is entitled to consent to their horrifying fate on their behalf? Insofar as the present global order is, foreseeably, greatly suboptimal in terms of avoiding severe poverty of children, the claim that this order violates their human rights cannot be blocked by any conceivable appeal to consent.

Third, most countries containing severely impoverished people were and are not meaningfully democratic. For example, Nigeria’s accession to the WTO, on 1 January 1995, was effected by its military dictator Sani Abacha; Myanmar’s, on the same day, by the notorious SLORC junta (State Law and Order Restoration Council); Indonesia’s, on the same day, by Suharto; Zimbabwe’s, on 5 March 1995, by Robert Mugabe; and that of Zaire (since renamed the Congo), on 27 March 1997, by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. These rulers consented - presumably for good prudential reasons. But does their success in subjecting a population to their rule by force of arms give such mass murderers the right to consent on behalf of those they are oppressing? Does this success entitle us to count the rulers’ signatures as the populations’ consent? On any credible account of consent, the answer is no. We cannot invalidate the complaint of those now suffering severe poverty by appealing to the prior consent of their ruler when this ruler himself lacks any moral standing to consent on their behalf.

Fourth, insofar as very poor people did and do consent, through a meaningfully democratic process, to some particular global institutional arrangement, the justificatory force of such consent is weakened when this consent is compelled. Thus it is doubtful that taking all your possessions could be justified by consent you gave when doing so was your only escape from drowning after a boating accident. To be sure, you are better off penniless than dead, and in this sense your consent was rational. But it remains tainted by the fact that you had no other tolerable option.

The justificatory force of consent given in calamitous circumstances is even weaker when the calamity is partly due to those whose conduct this consent is meant to justify. If your boating accident was caused by your would-be rescuer, for example, your consent to give her your possessions if she rescues you is of even more dubious justifying force. Poor countries need trade for development. They do not get fair trading opportunities under the WTO regime; but one that failed to sign up would find its trading opportunities even more severely curtailed. Any poor country is forced to decide about whether to sign up to the WTO rules against the background of other rules that it cannot escape and that make it extremely costly to decline. One such rule is, for instance, that the people and firms of the poorer countries may not freely offer their products and services to people in rich countries. This rule enables the rich countries to exact a price for whatever limited access to their markets they are prepared to offer. Part of this price is that the intellectual property rights of rich-country corporations must be respected and enforced. Poor-country governments must help collect rents for those corporations, thereby driving up the cost of pharmaceuticals for their own populations. Paying this price makes sense perhaps for poor countries, given their calamitous circumstances. But this calamity is due to a rule that the rich countries impose unilaterally, without any consent by the poor.

One may think that this rule is so natural and obvious that any calamity it may entail cannot be attributed to those who are imposing it: surely, any country is entitled to restrict access to its territory and markets as it pleases, regardless of the economic consequences for foreigners. Well, not too long ago, the rich countries proclaimed the opposite to be natural and obvious, when they forcefully insisted on their right to sell opium in China for example. [7] And the claimed right of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to exclude outsiders from their territories and markets is further undermined by the historical path on which their present occupants have come to possess them.

It is worth mentioning in this context yet another popular fallacy often adduced in justification of the status quo. As elaborate empirical research shows, poor countries that embrace the new global rules perform better, economically, than countries that don’t. This is taken to prove that the new global rules benefit the poor countries. To see the fallacy, consider this parallel reasoning. Suppose empirical research had shown that around 1940 smaller European states collaborating with the fascist alliance performed better than the rest. Would this have proved that the new dominance of this fascist alliance was good for small European states? - Of course not. Drawing this conclusion, one would be conflating two separate questions. First, given the dominance of fascism in Continental Europe, is it better for a small state to cooperate or not? Second, is the fascist dominance in Continental Europe itself better for small European states than, say, the hypothetical dominance of parliamentary democracies? However obvious the fallacy is in this case, its analogue is endlessly adduced in the contemporary globalization debates, where many fail to distinguish the two analogous questions. First, given the dominance of the rich countries and of their rules and organizations (WTO, World Bank, IMF, OECD, G7), is it better for a poor country to cooperate or not? Second, is the dominance of these rich-country rules and organizations itself better for the poor countries than, say, the full abolition of protectionist constraints?

Third Idea: Invoking the Flaws of the Poor Countries’ Social Institutions and Rulers

A further, popular way of denying that the present global institutional order is harming the poor points once more to the great differences among less developed countries’ economic performance. The success stories - such as the Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea) and China - show that poor countries can defeat severe poverty under the global order as it is, hence that this order is not inhospitable to poverty eradication. Poor people in countries where severe poverty is not melting away therefore have only their own social institutions and governments to blame.

This reasoning involves a some-all fallacy. The fact that some individuals born into poverty become millionaires does not show that all such persons can do likewise (see Cohen 1988: 262-3). The reason is that the pathways to riches are sparse. They are not rigidly limited, to be sure, but it is clearly impossible to achieve the kind of economic growth rates needed for everyone to become a millionaire (holding fixed the value of the currency and the real income millionaires can now enjoy). The same holds true for formerly poor countries. The Asian tigers achieved impressive rates of economic growth and poverty reduction. They did so through a state-sponsored build-up of industries that mass produce low-tech consumer products. These industries were globally successful by using their considerable labor-cost advantage to beat competitors in the developed countries and by drawing on greater state support and/or a better-educated workforce to beat competitors in other less developed countries. It also helped that the US, eager to establish healthy capitalist economies as a counterweight to Soviet influence in the region, allowed the tigers free access to its market even while they maintained high tariffs to protect their own. Building such industries was hugely profitable for the Asian tigers. But if many other poor countries had adopted this same developmental strategy, competition among them would have rendered it much less profitable.
Over the last two decades, China has been the great success story, achieving phenomenal growth in exports and per capita income. So China’s example is now often used to argue that the rules of the world economy are favorable to the poor countries and conducive to poverty eradication. These arguments commit the same some-all fallacy. Exporters in the poorer countries compete over the same heavily protected rich-country markets. Thanks to its extraordinary ability to deliver quality products cheaply in large quantities, China has done extremely well in this competition. But this great success has had catastrophic effects in many poorer countries by reducing their exporters’ market share and export prices. To be sure, the world economy as presently structured is not a constant-sum game, where any one player’s gain must be another’s loss. Yet, outcomes are strongly interdependent. We cannot conclude, therefore, that the present global institutional order, though less favorable to the poor countries than it might be, is still favorable enough for all of them to do as well as the Asian tigers and then China have done in fact.

Still, could the poor countries on the whole not do much better under the present global order than they are doing in fact? And must the present global order then not be acquitted of responsibility for any excess poverty that would have been avoided if the political elites in the poor countries were competent and uncorrupt?

Suppose the two sets of relevant causal factors - the global institutional order and the economic regimes and policies of the countries in which severe poverty persists - were symmetrically related so that each set of factors is necessary for the current reproduction of severe poverty worldwide. Then, if we insist that the global factors must be absolved on the ground that modification of national factors would suffice to eradicate world poverty, defenders of national factors could insist, symmetrically, that these national factors must be absolved on the ground that modification of global factors would suffice to eradicate world poverty. Acquitting both sets of factors on these grounds, we would place their cooperative production of huge harms beyond moral criticism.

The implausibility of such an assessment can be illustrated through a more straightforward interactional case. Suppose two upstream tribes release pollutants into a river on which people downstream depend for their survival. And suppose that each of the pollutants causes only minor harm, but that, when mixed, they react to form a lethal poison that kills many people downstream. In this case, both upstream tribes can deny responsibility, each insisting that the severe harm would not materialize if the other upstream tribe stopped its polluting activity. Such a denial is implausible. Both upstream tribes are required to stop the severe harm they cause together. They can cooperate to meet this responsibility. Failing that, each has a duty to stop its pollution and each is fully responsible for any harm that would not have materialized but for the pollutants it has released (see Pogge 2005b: 63-4).

The persistence of severe poverty worldwide is importantly analogous to the harms suffered by the people downstream. It is true - as the defenders of the rich countries and of their present globalization project point out - that most severe poverty would be avoided, despite the current unfair global order, if the national governments and elites of the poor countries were genuinely committed to ‘good governance’ and poverty eradication. It is also true - as the defenders of governments and elites in the poor countries insist - that most severe poverty would be avoided, despite the corrupt and oppressive regimes holding sway in so many less-developed countries, if the global institutional order were designed to achieve this purpose. This mutual finger-pointing serves both sides well, convincing many affluent citizens in rich and poor countries that they and their government are innocent in the catastrophe of world poverty. But on reflection it is clear that, while each side is right in pointing at the other, neither is right in acquitting itself. Like the two upstream tribes, each side is fully responsible for its marginal contribution to the deprivations they together produce. The ‘multiplicative’ cooperation of causal factors thus not merely fails to decrease, but increases total responsibility. This is analogous to how two criminals, if each makes a necessary contribution to a homicide, are each legally and morally fully responsible for that single death.

This response suffices to maintain the responsibility of the citizens and governments of the rich countries: they can be responsible for the severe poverty of even those people who would not be poor if their countries were better governed.

Still, by assuming symmetry between the two sets of relevant causal factors, the response is too simple, failing fully to expose the responsibility of the rich countries and of their globalization project. There is an important asymmetry. While national institutional arrangements and policies in the poor countries have very little influence on the design of the global order, the latter has a great deal of influence on the former. Yes, the social institutions and policies of many poor countries are far from optimal in terms of domestic poverty avoidance. But substantial improvement in this set of causal factors is unlikely so long as global institutional arrangements remain the way they are. The global institutional order exerts its pernicious influence on the evolution of world poverty not only directly, in the ways already discussed, but also indirectly through its influence on the national institutions and policies of the poorer countries. Oppression and corruption, so prevalent in many poor countries today, are themselves very substantially produced and sustained by central features of the present global order.

It was only in 1999, for example, that the developed countries finally agreed to curb their firms’ bribery of foreign officials by adopting the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions (the convention came into effect in February 1999 and has been widely ratified since, see at Until then, most developed states did not merely legally authorize their firms to bribe foreign officials, but even allowed them to deduct such bribes from their taxable revenues, thereby providing financial inducements and moral support to the practice of bribing politicians and officials in the poor countries. [8] This practice diverts the loyalties of officials in these countries and also makes a great difference to which persons are motivated to scramble for public office in the first place. Poor countries have suffered staggering losses as a result, most clearly in the awarding of public contracts. These losses arise in part from the fact that bribes are priced in: bidders on contracts must raise their price in order to get paid enough to pay the bribes. Additional losses arise as bidders can afford to be non-competitive, knowing that the success of their bid will depend on their bribes more than on the substance of their offer. Even greater losses arise from the fact that officials focused on bribes pay little attention to whether the goods and services they purchase on their country’s behalf are of good quality or even needed at all. Much of what poor countries have imported over the decades has been of no use to them - or even harmful, by promoting environmental degradation or violence (bribery is especially pervasive in the arms trade).

Preliminary evidence suggests that the new Convention is ineffective in curbing bribery by multinational corporations. The Economist (2002: 63) summarizes: “Plenty of laws exist to ban bribery by companies. But big multinationals continue to sidestep them with ease.” And banks in the rich countries continue to assist corrupt rulers and officials in the poorer countries to move and invest abroad their gains from bribery and embezzlement (see Baker 2005, estimating that such illicit transfers divert around $500 billion annually from less developed to affluent countries). But even if it were effective, it would be difficult to purge the pervasive culture of corruption that is now deeply entrenched in many less developed countries thanks to the extensive bribery they were subjected to during their formative years.

The issue of bribery is part of a larger problem. The political and economic elites of poor countries interact with their domestic inferiors, on the one hand, and with foreign governments and corporations, on the other. These two constituencies differ enormously in wealth and power. The former are by and large poorly educated and heavily preoccupied with the daily struggle to make ends meet. The latter, by contrast, have vastly greater rewards and penalties at their disposal. Politicians with a normal interest in their own political and economic success can thus be expected to cater to the interests of foreign governments and corporations rather than to competing interests of their much poorer compatriots. And this, of course, is what we find: there are plenty of poor-country governments that came to power or stay in power only thanks to foreign support. And there are plenty of poor-country politicians and bureaucrats who, induced or even bribed by foreigners, work against the interests of their people: for the development of a tourist-friendly sex industry (whose forced exploitation of children and women they tolerate and profit from), for the importation of unneeded, obsolete, or overpriced products at public expense, for the permission to import hazardous products, wastes, or factories, against laws protecting employees or the environment, and so on.

To be sure, there would not be such huge asymmetries in incentives if the poor countries were more democratic, allowing their populations a genuine political role. Why then are most of these countries so far from being genuinely democratic? This question brings further aspects of the current global institutional order into view.

It is a very central feature of this order that any group controlling a preponderance of the means of coercion within a country is internationally recognized as the legitimate government of this country’s territory and people - regardless of how this group came to power, of how it exercises power and of the extent to which it is supported or opposed by the population it rules. That such a group exercising effective power receives international recognition means not merely that we engage it in negotiations. It means also that we accept this group’s right to act for the people it rules and thereby in effect authorize any person or group holding effective power in a country - regardless of how they acquired or exercise it - to sell the country’s resources and to dispose of the proceeds of such sales, to borrow in the country’s name and thereby to impose debt service obligations upon it, to sign treaties on the country’s behalf and thus to bind its present and future population, and to use state revenues to buy the means of internal repression. This global practice goes a long way toward explaining why so many countries are so badly governed.

The resource privilege we confer upon a group in power is much more than mere acquiescence in its effective control over the natural resources of the country in question. As understood by Wesley Hohfeld (1964), a power involves the legally recognized authority to alter the distribution of first order liberty rights, claim rights and duties. Having a power or powers in this sense is distinct from having power (that is, control over physical force and/or means of coercion). The resource privilege includes the power to effect legally valid transfers of ownership rights in such resources. Thus a corporation that has purchased resources from the Saudis or Suharto, or from Mobuto or Sani Abacha, has thereby become entitled to be - and actually is - recognized anywhere in the world as the legitimate owner of these resources. This is a remarkable feature of our global order. A group that overpowers the guards and takes control of a warehouse may be able to give some of the merchandise to others, accepting money in exchange. But the fence who pays them becomes merely the possessor, not the owner, of the loot. Contrast this with a group that overpowers an elected government and takes control of a country. Such a group, too, can give away some of the country’s natural resources, accepting money in exchange. In this case, however, the purchaser acquires not merely possession, but all the rights and liberties of ownership, which are supposed to be - and actually are - protected and enforced by all other states’ courts and police forces. The international resource privilege, then, is the legal power to confer globally valid ownership rights in a country’s resources.

This international resource privilege has disastrous effects in poor but resource-rich countries, where the resource sector constitutes a large segment of the national economy. Whoever can take power in such a country by whatever means can maintain his rule, even against widespread popular opposition, by buying the arms and soldiers he needs with revenues from the export of natural resources and with funds borrowed against future resource sales. The resource privilege thus gives insiders strong incentives toward the violent acquisition and exercise of political power, thereby causing coup attempts and civil wars. Moreover, it also gives outsiders strong incentives to corrupt the officials of such countries who, no matter how badly they rule, continue to have resources to sell and money to spend.

Nigeria is a case in point. It exports about 2 million barrels of oil per day which, depending on the oil price, are worth fetch some US$10-40 billion annually - a huge fraction of gross domestic product (GDP). Whoever controls this revenue stream can afford enough weapons and soldiers to keep himself in power regardless of what the population may think of him. And so long as he succeeds in doing so, his purse will be continuously replenished with new funds with which he can cement his rule and live in opulence. With such a powerful incentive, it cannot be surprising that, during 28 of the past 38 years, Nigeria has been ruled by military strongmen who took power and ruled by force. [9] Nor can it be surprising that even a polished elected president fails to stop gross corruption: Olusegun Obasanjo knows full well that, if he tried to spend the oil revenues solely for the benefit of the Nigerian people, military officers could - thanks to the international resource privilege - quickly restore their customary perks. [10] With such a huge price on his head, even the best-intentioned president could not end the embezzlement of oil revenues and survive in power.

The incentives arising from the international resource privilege help explain what economists have long observed and found puzzling: the significant negative correlation between resource wealth (relative to GDP) and economic performance. This ‘resource curse’ or ‘Dutch disease’ is exemplified by many less developed countries which, despite great natural wealth, have achieved little economic growth and poverty reduction over the last decades (UNDP 2006: 332-4). Two Yale economists confirm this explanation through a regression analysis, which shows that the causal link from resource wealth to poor economic performance is mediated through reduced chances for democracy: “All petrostates or resource dependent countries in Africa fail to initiate meaningful political reforms. ... besides South Africa, transition to democracy has been successful only in resource poor countries” (Lam and Wantchekon 1999: 31). “Our cross country regression confirms our theoretical insights. We find that a one percentage increase in the size of the natural resource sector [relative to GDP] generates a decrease by half a percentage point in the probability of survival of democratic regimes” (Idem: 35). See also Wantchekon (1999). Holding the global order fixed as a given background, the authors do not consider how the causal link they analyze itself depends on global rules that grant the resource privilege to any group in power, irrespective of its domestic illegitimacy.

The borrowing privilege we confer upon a group in power includes the power to impose internationally valid legal obligations upon the country at large. Any successor government that refuses to honor debts incurred by an ever so corrupt, brutal, undemocratic, unconstitutional, repressive, unpopular predecessor will be severely punished by the banks and governments of other countries. At minimum it will lose its own borrowing privilege by being excluded from the international financial markets. Such refusals are therefore very rare, as governments, even when newly elected after a dramatic break with the past, are compelled to pay the debts of their ever so awful predecessors.

The international borrowing privilege makes three important contributions to the incidence of oppressive and corrupt elites in the less developed countries. First, this privilege facilitates borrowing by destructive rulers who can borrow more money and can do so more cheaply than they could do if they alone, rather than the whole country, were obliged to repay. In this way, the borrowing privilege helps such rulers maintain themselves in power even against near universal popular discontent and opposition. Because they have collateral to offer, the rulers of resource rich less developed countries have enjoyed greater freedom than their peers to supplement their income from resource sales by imposing huge debt service burdens on their countries (UNDP 2006: 344-347). Needless to say, little of the borrowed funds were channeled into productive investments, for example in education and infrastructure, which would augment economic growth and generate additional tax revenues that could help meet interest and repayment obligations. Much was taken for personal use or expended on ‘internal security’ and the military. Second, the international borrowing privilege imposes upon democratic successor regimes the often huge debts of their corrupt predecessors. It thereby saps the capacity of such democratic governments to implement structural reforms and other political programs, thus rendering such governments less successful and less stable than they would otherwise be. (It is small consolation that putschists are sometimes weakened by being held liable for the debts of their democratic predecessors.) Third, the international borrowing privilege strengthens incentives toward coup attempts: whoever succeeds in bringing a preponderance of the means of coercion under his control gets the borrowing privilege as an additional reward.

The ongoing international resource and borrowing privileges are complemented by the international treaty privilege, which recognizes any person or group in effective control of a country as entitled to undertake binding treaty obligations on behalf of its population, and the international arms privilege, which recognizes such a person or group as entitled to use state funds to import the arms needed to stay in power. Like the formerly tax-deductible bribery of poor-country officials, these privileges are highly significant features of the global order which tend to benefit the governments, corporations and citizens of the rich countries and the political-military elites of the poor countries at the expense of the vast majority of ordinary people in the poor countries. Thus, while the present global order indeed does not make it strictly impossible for poor countries to achieve genuine democracy and sustained economic growth, central features of it contribute greatly to poor countries’ failing on both counts. These features are crucial for explaining the inability and especially the unwillingness of these countries’ leaders to pursue more effective strategies of poverty eradication. And they are crucial therefore for explaining why global inequality is increasing so rapidly that substantial global economic growth since the end of the Cold War has not reduced income poverty and malnutrition - despite substantial technological progress and global economic growth, despite a huge reported poverty reduction in China, [11] despite the post-Cold-War ‘peace dividend,’ [12] despite substantial declines in real food prices [13] despite official development assistance and despite the efforts of international humanitarian and development organizations.


In just 17 years since the end of the Cold War, some 300 million human beings have died prematurely from poverty-related causes, with some 18 million more added each year. Much larger numbers of human beings must live in conditions of life-threatening poverty that make it very difficult for them to articulate their interests and effectively to fend for themselves and their families. This catastrophe was and is happening, foreseeably, under a global institutional order designed for the benefit of the affluent countries’ governments, corporations and citizens and of the poor countries’ political and military elites. There are feasible alternative designs of the global institutional order, feasible alternative paths of globalization, under which this catastrophe would have been largely avoided. Even now severe poverty could be rapidly reduced through feasible reforms that would modify the more harmful features of this global order or mitigate their impact.

Take the unconditional international resource privilege for example. It is beneficial to the affluent countries by giving us access to a larger, cheaper and more reliable supply of foreign natural resources, because we can acquire ownership of them from anyone who happens to exercise effective power without regard to whether the country’s population either approves the sale or benefits from the proceeds. Unconditional international resource and borrowing privileges are also highly advantageous to many a putschist or tyrant in the poor countries, for whom they secure the funds he needs to maintain himself in power even against the will of a large majority of his compatriots. Such privileges are, however, an unmitigated disaster for the global poor who are being dispossessed through loan and resource agreements over which they have no say and from which they do not benefit. For an idea about how to modify the international resource and borrowing privileges see Pogge (2002: chapter 6).

The example illustrates the clear-cut injustice of the present global institutional order. It also illustrates that this injustice does not consist in too little aid being dispensed to the poor. There is still so much severe poverty, and so much need for aid, only because the poor are systematically impoverished by present institutional arrangements and have been so impoverished for a long time during which our advantage and their disadvantage have been compounded. Eradicating severe poverty at a morally acceptable speed would impose substantial costs and opportunity costs on the affluent countries. But acceptance of such costs is not generous charity, but required compensation for the harms produced by unjust global institutional arrangements whose past and present imposition by the affluent countries brings great benefits to their citizens. See Pogge (2002: chapter 8), proposing such a compensation scheme in the form of a Global Resources Dividend.

Given that the present global institutional order is foreseeably associated with such massive incidence of avoidable severe poverty, its (uncompensated) imposition manifests an ongoing human rights violation - arguably the largest such violation ever committed in human history. It is not the gravest human rights violation, in my view, because those who commit it do not intend the death and suffering they inflict either as an end or as a means. They merely act with willful indifference to the enormous harms they cause in the course of advancing their own ends while going to great lengths to deceive the world (and sometimes themselves) about the impact of their conduct - but still, the largest.

To be sure, massive poverty caused by human agency is certainly not unprecedented. British colonial institutions and policies are blamed for up to a million poverty deaths in the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-49 and for about three million poverty deaths in the Great Bengal Famine of 1943-44. Up to 30 million poverty deaths in China during 1959-62 are attributed to Mao Tse-Tung’s insistence on continuing the policies of his ‘Great Leap Forward’ even when their disastrous effects became apparent. Still, these historical catastrophes were of more limited duration and even at their height did not reach the present and ongoing rate of 18 million poverty deaths per annum.

The continuing imposition of this global order, essentially unmodified, constitutes a massive violation of the human right to basic necessities - a violation for which the governments and electorates of the more powerful countries bear primary responsibility. This charge cannot be defeated through appeal to baseline comparisons, by appeal to the consent of the global poor themselves, or by appeal to other detrimental causal factors that the present global order may merely do too little to counteract.

The Promise of Global Institutional Reform

Human rights impose on us a negative duty not to contribute to the imposition of an institutional order that foreseeably gives rise to an avoidable human rights deficit without making compensating protection and reform efforts for its victims. In analogy to the negative duties not to break a promise or contract and not to make emergency use of another’s property without compensation, this negative institutional duty may impose positive obligations on advantaged participants: obligations to compensate for their contribution to the harm. Such compensation can take the form of protection efforts, perhaps through donations to international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as Oxfam, or it can focus on institutional reform. Let me comment on the importance of the latter option.

In the modern world, the rules governing economic transactions - both nationally and internationally - are the most important causal determinants of the incidence and depth of severe poverty and of the human rights deficit more generally. They are most important because of their great impact on the economic distribution within the jurisdiction to which they apply. Thus, even relatively minor variations in a country’s laws about tax rates, labor relations, social security, and access to health care and education can have a much greater impact on poverty than even large changes in consumer habits or in the policies of a major corporation. This point applies to the global institutional order as well. Even small changes in the rules governing international trade, lending, investment, resource use, or intellectual property can have a huge impact on the global incidence of life-threatening poverty.

Another reason why rules governing economic transactions are the most important causal determinants of the incidence and depth of poverty in the modern world derives from their greater visibility. To be sure, like the conduct of individual and collective agents, rule changes can have unintended and even unforeseeable effects. But with rules it is much easier to diagnose such effects and to make corrections. Assessing adjustments of the rules within some particular jurisdiction is relatively straightforward: one can try to estimate how a rise in the minimum wage, say, has affected the unemployment rate and per capita income in the bottom quintile. (Of course, there are other things happening in the economy besides the change in the minimum wage, so the exercise is complex and imprecise. Still, exercises of this sort can be done, and are done, sufficiently well in many countries.) It is more difficult, by contrast, to assess the relative impact of variations in the conduct of individual or collective agents. Such an assessment can be confined to the persons immediately affected - for example, to the employees of a corporation or to the inhabitants of a town in which an aid agency is running a project. But such a confined assessment is always vulnerable to the charge of ignoring indirect effects upon outsiders or future persons.

A further reason why rules governing economic transactions are the most important causal determinants of the incidence and depth of poverty in the modern world is because morally successful rules are so much easier to sustain than morally successful conduct. This is so, because individual and collective agents are under continuous counter-moral pressures not merely from their ordinary self-interested concerns, but also from their competitive situation as well as from considerations of fairness. These phenomena are illustrated by the case of competing corporations, each of which may judge that it cannot afford to pass up immoral opportunities to take advantage of its employees and customers because such unilateral self-restraint would place it at an unfair competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis its less scrupulous competitors. Domestically, this sort of problem can be solved through changes in the legal rules that require all corporations, on pain of substantial penalties, to observe common standards in their treatment of customers and employees. Corporations are often willing to support such legislation (to improve the image of their industry, perhaps) even while they are unwilling to risk their competitive position through unilateral good conduct.

Similar considerations apply in the international arena, where corporations and governments compete economically. Given their concern not to fall behind in this competition and not to be unfairly handicapped through unilateral moral efforts and restraints, it is perhaps not surprising (though still appalling) that individuals, corporations and governments have been so reluctant to make meaningful efforts toward eradicating global poverty. [14] Again, it is possible that affluent governments and corporations could be brought to do a lot more by accepting and complying with legal rules that apply to them all and thereby relieve each of the fear that its own good conduct will unfairly disadvantage it and cause it to lose ground against its competitors. Successful efforts to reduce poverty within states exemplify this model of structural reform rather than individual moral effort.

To be sure, this thought is not new, and governments have been very reluctant to commit themselves, even in joint mutuality, to serious global anti-poverty measures. Their solemn promise to halve global poverty by 2015 has been reiterated - in cleverly weakened formulations - but has yet to result in serious implementation efforts. At the World Food Summit in Rome, organized by the FAO in November 1996, the 186 participating governments agreed to “pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to an on-going effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate [!] view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015” (Rome Declaration, my emphasis). The UN Millennium Declaration proclaimed in September of 2000 commits states “to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from hunger” (my emphasis). While the old formulation aimed for a 50% reduction in the number of poor people between 1996 and 2015, the new formulation - taking advantage of the 45%-increase projected for 1990-2015 in the population of the less developed countries and a large 1990-2000 poverty reduction in China - aims for only a 19% reduction between 2000 and 2015. See Pogge (2004) for fuller analysis.

Official development assistance (ODA) from the affluent countries, once supposed to reach 1%, then 0.7% of their combined GNPs, has actually shrunk throughout the 1990s, from 0.33% in 1990 to 0.22% in 2000 (UNDP 2002: 202). The US led the decline by reducing its ODA from 0.21 to 0.10% of GNP in a time of great prosperity culminating in enormous budget surpluses (Ibidem). With the ‘war on terror,’ ODA is reported to have grown back to 0.33% of GNP in 2005 due to dramatic growth in spending on Musharraf’s Pakistan and post-occupation Afghanistan and Iraq ( Yet, even this new $106.5-billion level is only a third of what would be needed to eradicate severe poverty – and only a tiny fraction of it is spent for this purpose.

This discouraging historical evidence suggests that improvements in the global institutional order are difficult to achieve and difficult to sustain. However, this fact does not undermine my hypothesis that such structural improvements are easier to achieve and much easier to sustain than equally significant unilateral improvements in the conduct of individual and collective agents. We know how much money individuals, corporations and the governments of the affluent countries are now willing to set aside for global poverty eradication: about $14 billion annually (note 13). This amount is very small in comparison to the harms inflicted on the global poor by evident injustices in the present global order. It is very small also in comparison to what would be required for substantial progress: the amount needed in the first few years of a serious offensive against poverty is closer to $300 billion annually. [15] It is not realistic to hope that we can achieve such a 20-fold increase in available funds through a moral change of heart of the relevant agents: affluent individuals, corporations and the governments of the rich countries. It is more realistic - though admittedly still rather unrealistic - to achieve substantial progress on the poverty front through institutional reforms that make the global order less burdensome on the global poor. Accepting such reforms, affluent countries would bear some opportunity costs of making the international trade, lending, investment and intellectual-property regimes fairer to the global poor as well as some costs of compensating for harms done - for example by helping to fund basic health facilities, vaccination programs, basic schooling, school lunches, safe water and sewage systems, basic housing, power plants and networks, banks and microlending, road, rail and communication links where these do not yet exist. If such a reform program is to gain and maintain the support of the citizens and governments of affluent countries, it must distribute such costs and opportunity costs fairly among them in a reliable and transparent way, assuring them that their competitive position will not be eroded through others’ non-compliance.

The path of global institutional reform is far more realistic and sustainable for three obvious reasons. First, the costs and opportunity costs each affluent citizen imposes on herself by supporting structural reform is extremely small relative to the contribution this reform makes to avoiding severe poverty. The reform lowers your family’s standard of living by $900 annually, say, while improving by $300 annually the standard of living of hundreds of millions of poor families. By contrast, a unilateral donation in the same amount would lower your family’s standard of living by $900 annually while improving by $300 annually the standard of living of only three poor families. Given such pay-offs, rational agents with some moral concern for the avoidance of severe poverty will be far more willing to support structural reform than to sustain donations. [16] Second, structural reform assures citizens that costs and opportunity costs are fairly shared among the more affluent, as discussed. And third, structural reform, once in place, need not be repeated, year after year, through painful personal decisions. Continual alleviation of poverty leads to fatigue, aversion, even contempt. It requires affluent citizens to rally to the cause again and again while knowing full well that most others similarly situated contribute nothing or very little, that their own contributions are legally optional and that, no matter how much they give, they could for just a little more always save yet further children from sickness or starvation. Today, such fatigue, aversion and contempt are widespread attitudes among citizens and officials of affluent countries toward the ‘aid’ they dispense and its recipients.

For these reasons, I believe that today’s vast human rights deficit, especially among the global poor, is best addressed through efforts at global (and national) institutional reform. Relatively small reforms of little consequence for the world’s affluent would suffice to eliminate most of this human rights deficit, whose magnitude makes such reforms our most important moral task.


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by Thomas Pogge

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[1] This is an updated version of an essay first published under the same title in the Leiden Journal of International Law (18 (4) 2005: 717-745) Symposium on ‘Cosmopolitism, Global Justice and International Law,’ along with contributions of Kok-Chor Tan and Simon Caney. Many thanks to Roland Pierik for very helpful comments and suggestions.

[2] The UN International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that “some 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working in developing countries - 120 million full time, 130 million part time” ( Of these, 170.5 million children are involved in hazardous work and 8.4 million in the “unconditionally worst” forms of child labor, which involve slavery, forced or bonded labor, forced recruitment for use in armed conflict, forced prostitution or pornography, or the production or trafficking of illegal drugs (ILO 2002: 9, 11, 17, 18).

[3] In 2002, there were about 57 million human deaths. The main causes highly correlated with poverty were (with death tolls in thousands): diarrhea (1798) and malnutrition (485), perinatal (2462) and maternal conditions (510), childhood diseases (1124 - mainly measles), tuberculosis (1566), malaria (1272), meningitis (173), hepatitis (157), tropical diseases (129), respiratory infections (3963 - mainly pneumonia), HIV/AIDS (2777) and sexually transmitted diseases (180) (WHO 2004: 120-5).

[4] This part of my essay is adapted from a longer essay, ‘Severe Poverty as a Human Rights Violation,’ in Thomas Pogge (2007: 11-53). UNESCO’s permission for this adaptation is gratefully acknowledged.

[5] In his speech, ‘Cutting Agricultural Subsidies’ (, former World Bank chief economist Nick Stern stated that in 2002 the rich countries spent about $300 billion on export subsidies for agricultural products alone, roughly six times their total development aid. He said that cows receive annual subsidies of about $2,700 each in Japan and $900 in Europe - far above the annual income of most human beings. He also cited protectionist anti-dumping actions, bureaucratic applications of safety and sanitation standards, and textile tariffs and quotas as barriers to poor country exports: “Every textile job in an industrialized country saved by these barriers costs about 35 jobs in these industries in low-income countries.” Stern was especially critical of escalating tariffs - duties that are lowest on unprocessed raw materials and rise sharply with each step of processing and value added - for undermining manufacturing and employment in poor countries, thus helping to confine Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire to the export of unprocessed cocoa beans, Uganda and Kenya to the export of raw coffee beans, and Mali and Burkina Faso to the export of raw cotton. He estimated that full elimination of agricultural protection and production subsidies in the rich countries would raise agricultural and food exports from low and middle-income countries by 24% and total annual rural income in these countries by about $60 billion (about three quarters of the global poor live in such rural areas).

[6] Many economists find such comparison misleading, claiming that they should instead be made in terms of PPPs, which would reduce the ratio by a factor of about 4. However, market exchange rates are the more appropriate measure for assessing the influence (bargaining power and expertise) that parties can bring to bear. Market exchange rates are also the appropriate measure for assessing the avoidability of poverty. For comparing standards of living, market exchange rates are indeed inappropriate. But general-consumption PPPs are also problematic for the assessment of very low incomes because the consumption expenditure pattern of the very poor differs greatly from the pattern of international consumption expenditure on which PPPs are based. By using PPPs, we are in effect saying that the poor are not all that much worse off than we are because services are so much cheaper where they live. But this cheapness of labor does not benefit them as consumers, because they must concentrate their meagre funds on basic necessities. See Reddy and Pogge (2007) for details.

[7] In the middle of the 19th century, Great Britain and other Western powers prosecuted a series of ‘opium wars’ against China. The first invasion was initiated in 1839 when Chinese authorities in Canton (Guangzhou) confiscated and burned opium brought in illegally by foreign traders (

[8] In the United States, the post-Watergate Congress sought to prevent the bribing of foreign officials through its 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, passed after the Lockheed Corporation was found to have paid - not a modest sum to some third-world official, but rather - a US$2 million bribe to Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka of powerful and democratic Japan. Not wanting its firms to be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their foreign rivals, the US was a major supporter of the Convention, as was the non-governmental organization Transparency International, which helped mobilize public support in many OECD countries.

[9] See ‘Going on Down,’ in The Economist (8 June 1996: 46 8). A later update says: “oil revenues [are] paid directly to the government at the highest level .... The head of state has supreme power and control of all the cash. He depends on nobody and nothing but oil. Patronage and corruption spread downwards from the top” (The Economist 12 December 1998: 19). See also

[10] Because Obasanjo was the chair of Transparency International’s Advisory Council, his election in early 1999 had raised great hopes. These hopes were sorely disappointed. Nigeria still ranks near the bottom of TI’s own Corruption Perception Index (

[11] The number of Chinese living below $1/day is reported to have declined by 31%, or 97 million, and the number of Chinese living below $2/day by 19%, or 137 million, between 1987 and 2001 (Chen and Ravallion 2004: 153).

[12] Thanks to the end of the Cold War, military expenditures worldwide have declined from 4.7% of aggregate GDP in 1985 to 2.9% in 1996 (UNDP 1998: 197) and to about 2.6% or $1035 billion in 2004 ( Today, this global peace dividend is worth nearly $1000 billion annually.

[13] The World Bank Food Index fell from 139.3 in 1980 to 100 in 1990 and then to 90.1 in 2002. These statistics are published by the World Bank’s Development Prospects Group. See, 277.

[14] Their current effort amounts to ca. $14 billion annually - 0.04% of the gross national incomes of the affluent countries - consisting of $7 billion annually from individuals and corporations (UNDP 2003: 290) and another $7 billion annually from governments in official development assistance (ODA) for basic social services ( Aggregate official development assistance is some 10 times higher, but the vast majority of it is spent for the benefit of agents more capable of reciprocations, as is well expressed in this statement recently removed from the USAID’s main website: “The principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans.”

[15] See Pogge (2002: chapter 8), basing this ballpark figure on the aggregate poverty gap relative to the World Bank’s higher $2/day poverty line. Amazingly, $300 billion is only 0.67% of the global product or 0.84% of the combined gross national incomes of the affluent countries (World Bank 2006: 289) - considerably less than the annual US military budget (ca. $500 billion) or the annual ‘peace dividend’ the affluent countries are reaping from the end of the Cold War (ca. $675 billion, see note 11).

[16] I owe full appreciation of the importance of this point to a discussion with Derek Parfit.

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