Global Poverty: Alternative Perspectives on What We Should Do--and Why David Schweickart



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Global Poverty: Alternative Perspectives on What We Should Do--and Why
David Schweickart
Journal of Social Philosophy (Winter 2008)
Charles Beitz observed recently that "philosophical attention to problems about global justice is flourishing in a way it has not in any time in recent memory." He attributes this phenomenon to two facts: "we face an assortment of urgent practical problems that are not likely to be solved, if they can be solved at all, without concerted international actions," and "there is . . . the emergence of a nascent global capacity to act."1
This observation calls to mind Marx's famous dictum, "Mankind inevitably sets itself only those tasks is it able to solve. . . . The problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present, or at least in the course of formation."2 This dictum fits the issue at hand. The "urgent practical problem" of global poverty has become a problem--as opposed to an inescapable part of the human condition--only because material conditions now exist for its eradication.
In this paper I will consider the similarities and differences between two major philosophers in their treatment of global poverty. Both see global poverty as massive and as eradicatable, but their normative frameworks and policy prescriptions differ. I will then point out that neither pay attention to a major causal culprit: the structural imperatives of global capitalism. I conclude by identifying four reasons for this negligence, then responds briefly to each.
I. Two Philosophers
Among the most prominent philosophers who have taken up the issue of global poverty are Peter Singer and Thomas Pogge. There is a substantial amount of agreement between them. They agree that the extent of global poverty is vast. Pogge points out that 46% of humanity--nearly half the global population--live below the World Bank's $2/day poverty line; 1.2 billion people live on less than half of that, i.e., less than $1/day.3
Poverty statistics can be presented more dramatically. Peter Singer notes that on Sept 11, 2001, 3000 people died in the World Trade Center attack; on Sept 13, 2001, two days later, UNICEF released its report indicating that 30,000 children under five had died that day of preventable diseases—and 30,000 every other day during the past year, some ten million in all.4
Thomas Pogge observes, "[In the fifteen years since the end of the Cold War] some 18 million human beings have died prematurely each year from poverty-related causes, accounting for fully one-third of all human deaths. This fifteen-year death toll of 270 million is considerably larger than the 200-million death toll from all the wars, civil wars, genocides and other government repressions of the entire 20th century combined."5 For those who find this assertion incredible (as I did, initially), Pogge supplies a breakdown in a footnote, adding up the figures for some 284 "mega-death events of violence and repression" that occurred during the century just past, among them World War I, World War II, the atrocities of Stalin and Mao, and some 281 other calamities. The total for the century is a quarter less than the poverty deaths since the end of the Cold War.
Singer and Pogge also agree that it is technically feasible to eliminate poverty. Pogge calculates that $312b per year could eliminate global poverty; that is to say, raise everybody above the $2/day threshold. This represents a mere 1% of total global annual income.6
Recently Singer looked at the UN Millennium goals, which were set in 2000 by the largest gathering of world leaders in history. Among the goals endorsed by these 189 dignitaries:
1) To reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger.

2) To ensure that children everywhere can take a full course of primary schooling.

3) To reduce by two-thirds the under-5 infant mortality rate.

4) To reduce by half the number of people without access to safe drinking water.

5) To halt, then begin to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDs, malaria and other major diseases.

Singer then looked at the cost estimate for meeting these goals, as calculated by the special U. N. task force headed by Jeffrey Sachs, charged with making such an estimate. The Commission came up with the figures--$121b in 2006 rising to $189b in 2015.


He then did something quite interesting. He looked at the incomes of the top tenth of one percent of the U.S. taxpayers, data only recently available, thanks to the work of economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (of École Normale Supérieure, Paris and U.C. Berkeley, respectively).
His conclusion is startling: if the top .01 percent (the top one hundredth of one percent) contributed a third of their annual income (leaving each household with an average $8 million to spend as they please) and the rest of the top one-tenth of one-percent contributed a quarter (leaving them with an average of $1.5 million)--we would have $126b--$5b more than was needed in 2006. That is to say, without any additional contribution from any government, any non-U.S. citizen, or any U.S. citizen from the bottom 99.9% of our population, we could meet the Millennium goals.
Singer himself was startled:
For more than 30 years, I've been reading, writing and teaching about the ethical issue posed by the juxtaposition, on our planet, of great abundance and life-threatening poverty. Yet it was not until, in preparing for this article, I calculated how much America's top one percent actually make that I fully understood how easy it would be for the world's rich to eliminate, or virtually eliminate, global poverty. . . . I found the result astonishing. I double-checked the figures and asked a research assistant to check them as well. But they were right. Measured against our capacity, the Millennium Development Goals are indecently, shockingly modest. 7
Finally, Singer and Pogge are in basic agreement that something must be done--by us. Singer concludes his classic 1972 article, "Famine, Affluence and Morality" with a moral demand:
Discussion is not enough. What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it. The philosopher will not find it any easier than anyone else to alter his attitudes and way of life to the extent that, if I am right, is involved in doing everything we ought to be doing.8
Thomas Pogge, for his part, is furious at our leaders, but he doesn't think that lets the rest of us off the hook: "Such 'honorable' and otherwise unremarkable people [as our politicians and negotiators] have knowingly committed some of the largest human rights violations the world had ever seen. But does their guilt absolve ordinary citizens of responsibility?" Not at all, he says:
The fact that we choose to remain ignorant, choose to allow important structural features of the world economy to be shaped by unknown bureaucrats in secret negotiations cannot negate our responsibility for the harms that our governments inflict upon the innocent.
That quote is from his Ethics and International Affairs (2005) article.9 In his Journal of Ethics article of the same year he is even more scathing about our political leadership: "Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were vastly more evil than our political leaders, but in terms of killing and harming people they never came anywhere near causing 18 million deaths per year."10
Singer and Pogge agree: something must be done. But what? Now things get more complicated. For what is to be done follows from the analysis of the problem--and their analyses differ.
II. What Is to Be Done--Singer
As is well known, Peter Singer is a utilitarian. From a utilitarian perspective, there is no morally relevant distinction between killing and letting die, at least not when that death could be easily prevented by your action. He offers the example of walking past a shallow pond and seeing a child drowning in it. "I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing."11 The principle here is straightforward: "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."12
In One World he uses a different example, taken from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die, which he paraphrases as follows:
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. . . . One day, when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a disused railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one on board, is running down the railway track. Looking further down the track he sees the small figure of a child playing in a tunnel and very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where the Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed--but since the barrier at the end of the siding is in disrepair, the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car, and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch.13
We would all agree, I presume, that Bob did something horribly wrong. But, asks Singer, are we not all in exactly the same situation relative to the world's poor? It has been estimated that a $200 donation to UNICEF or Oxfam America will save the life of a child. Who among us cannot spare $200--a far lesser sacrifice than we think Bob should make?
Singer concludes that each of us with some income to spare ought to give at least one percent of our income toward poverty relief.14 This, he asserts, is a minimal, not optimal, amount. In his popular textbook, Practical Ethics, he proposes 10%.15 In his early essay, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," he cites approvingly Aquinas's even more stringent dictum:
Whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away to the naked . . ." 16

Singer also thinks we should also lobby our government to increase its level of foreign aid, which is a pitiful 0.1% GDP--far below the UN target of 0.7%--and see to it that this aid is really targeted to help the poor and not given simply to enhance our own "strategic or cultural interests" (a polite way of alluding to the fact that Israel and Egypt get the most).17


III. The Fallacy of Philanthropy
Not surprisingly, there have been many criticisms of Singer's troubling argument. One of the most powerful, to my mind, has come from Paul Gomberg. Gomberg argues that our moral intuition about the drowning child does not confirm the utilitarian-consequentialist principle that there is no significant difference between killing and letting die. Indeed, Gomberg claims that our moral intuitions about our "duties of rescue" are not consequentialist at all. To make his point, he presents a variation on Singer's example:
Libby has been so impressed with the discussion of Singer in her Ethics class that she has decided to sell her one valuable prized possession, a pair of boots made by a famous artisan, to a collector who will pay $5000 for them. Having also read Unger, Libby believes that, by the very most conservative estimates, the $5000, given to UNICEF, will give twenty infants who would otherwise die the overwhelming probability of living to adulthood in good health and having productive lives. Libby puts on the boots for the last time (it takes several minutes to put them on and take them off), and, carrying a spare pair of shoes over her shoulder, walks to the collectors house to sell them.
You can see what's coming, can't you?
On the way she encounters a child in imminent danger of drowning in a shallow pond. If Libby wades in to rescue her, the boots will be spoiled and valueless. 18
What should Libby do? Gomberg thinks the answer obvious. "Libby must wade in and pull the child out. To let the child drown is ethically grotesque." (In a footnote Gomberg tells us that Singer (in correspondence) bites the utilitarian bullet and says that "while we would shudder at the sort of person who would walk past the child, [in doing so] she does the right thing."19)
I side with Gomberg here, as will, I presume, most readers. So there is something wrong with Singer's argument. But what? Gomberg makes a compelling observation. Our ethical uneasiness about the persistence of global poverty is about precisely that: the persistence of poverty. It is not focused on specific individuals--as are our duties to rescue. It follows that causality is a concern, as it is not with respect to drowning children. We don't ask ourselves why the child is thrashing about in the water or wandering through a railway tunnel when we assess our ethical duty in those instances. But in deciding what we should do regarding global poverty, it becomes crucially important to know why there is persistent poverty in the face of material abundance. We need to understand causality in order to assess the effects of our actions--not on the specific (though nameless) individuals who could be aided by our charity--but on the problem motivating our concern, namely global poverty itself.20 Indeed, it might be the case--as Garrett Hardin famously (many would say "infamously") argued thirty-some years ago--that our charitable efforts make matters worse.21
IV. What Is to Be Done--Pogge
Thomas Pogge does not challenge Singer's approach directly. He is in fact sympathetic to Singer.
The appeal to positive duties has been well-presented by Peter Singer, Henry Shue, Peter Unger and others. If citizens in the affluent countries were minimally decent and humane, they would respond to these appeals, and would do their bit to eradicate world poverty. If they did this, my argument would be of much less interest and importance.22
Pogge's argument invokes a normative framework that would seem to circumvent the Gomberg critique. Pogge's basic moral framework is human-rights-based, not utilitarian. He does not appeal to the principle to which Singer appeals, namely our duty to alleviate suffering when this can be done at little cost to ourselves. Justice, says Pogge, prescribes only negative duties: one must not violate the human rights of others—or support institutions that do so. There is a morally significant difference between killing and letting die. Killing is worse. But that is exactly what we are doing. "Are we hunger's willing executioners?" he asks.23 He answers this question in the affirmative.
Pogge includes "socioeconomic rights" on his list of human rights. He endorses the U. N. Declaration on Human Rights, which specifies, among other things, the right “to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing shelter and medical care (UDHR, Article 25)." He proceeds to argue that citizens of rich countries, to the extent that they do not challenge certain governmental policies, are violating the human rights of citizens of poor countries.
In doing so, Pogge rejects what he calls “explanatory nationalism”—the notion that poor countries are poor largely through their own fault--defective culture, corrupt leadership, misguided economic policies, whatever. He acknowledges that many poor country regimes are inept and corrupt--but that does not absolve us of responsibility. For two reasons.
First of all, some of our own policies are, in and of themselves, inflicting harm on poor countries. If two factories, A and B, are polluting the local water supply, the fact that A is polluting does not mean that B is free from blame.
Secondly, some of our policies actually encourage the kinds of corrupt, non-democratic governance that we deplore (especially when trying to absolve ourselves of responsibility). Pogge singles out two sorts of "privileges" that we grant these regimes that have this effect: resource privileges and borrowing privileges. We accept the right of a government, no matter how it comes to power or how corrupt it is, to sell its country's resources on the open market. Rather than treating such behavior as trafficking in stolen goods, we avidly purchase the ill-gotten wares. We also allow such governments to borrow freely on the international financial markets--and hold successor governments responsible for the repayment of whatever debt their predecessors have incurred. (Perhaps the most notorious recent example is that of Rwanda. The debt incurred by the genocidal Habyarimana government, much of which was incurred to buy the weapons used against the forces that eventually ended the genocide, was passed on to the new government. Pogge quotes from the report of the International Panel of Eminent Personalities, Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, which notes grimly: "Instead of Rwanda receiving vast sums of money as reparations by those [powerful rich countries] who had failed to stop the tragedy, it in fact owed those same sources a vast sum of money."24)
Needless to say, these privileges make the seizure of power by whatever means highly attractive. There are resources to be sold and money to be borrowed, large chunks of which to be squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts.
Apart from policies that incentivize the non-democratic seizure of power and the corruption that inevitably accompanies non-accountable government, Pogge points his finger at two other sorts of activities in which rich countries engage that damage poor countries. Here the damage is direct.


  1. Rich countries insist that trade barriers erected by poor countries to protect domestic industries be eliminated, while maintaining their own protectionist policies.

  2. Rich countries grant subsidies to many of their own producers, while poor countries are compelled to scrap theirs.

These policy asymmetries derive from the overwhelming superior bargaining power wielded by rich countries in trade negotiations.


Pogge proposes that such rich-country tariffs and subsidies be removed. He cites the Economist's estimate that poor countries could export $700b more per year to rich countries if protectionist measures were eliminated. He notes that rich countries subsidize their agriculture to the tune of $245 billion per year. "My complaint against the WTO regime," he says, "is not that it opens markets too much, but that it opens our markets too little."25
If these measures prove insufficient, he offers an additional policy. He proposes that we institute a "Global Resource Dividend." He proposes that a tax be levied on the sale of natural resources. This tax will, of course, be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices, so this is really a consumption tax, which is appropriate. (The more resources one consumes, the more tax one pays.) The proceeds of this tax should then be distributed to the poorest of the poor. Pogge notes that we need only raise about $300 billion, so this tax need hardly be excessive.
Although Pogge's analysis stirs both brain and blood (and I mean that seriously--I don't in any way want to trivialize the fine work he is doing), there seems to be a problem here. We, citizens of affluent countries, are said to be governed by leaders whose policies are killing millions. Thus we must take action, for they are acting in our name and with our consent. But what policies exactly are doing the damage? Pogge, as I've noted, points to four, two connected with incentivizing dictators, two that damage poor countries directly. Let us concentrate on the latter, since it is obvious that political democracy is not a sufficient condition for eliminating global poverty. (We need only think of India or the Philippines.)
The problem here is that it is not at all clear that if we reverse the policies that Pogge sees as directly damaging, i.e., eliminating our trade barriers and ceasing subsidizing agriculture, then global poverty would disappear. In fact it is quite clear that it would not. Think of the numbers. Pogge says we need $300 billion annually to eliminate global poverty. If the Economist estimate is correct, reducing trade barriers would allow poor countries to export about $700 billion more to us per year than they currently do. But this $700 billion represents the total value of the exports, not the value available for poverty relief. From the $700b in export revenues we must subtract the cost of machinery, pesticides, seeds, and other materials imported from rich countries, as well as service on the foreign loans that allowed these industries to be set up. We must also subtract the costs of labor and raw materials purchased locally. We must then estimate how much of the remainder would actually go to the poorest strata of the society, so as to pull significant numbers above the $2/day poverty threshold. However we calculate these factors, the figure is going to be far, far less than the $300b Pogge says is necessary to bring everyone above that level.
Similar calculations for agricultural subsidies lead to the same conclusion. The fact that rich countries subsidize their agriculture to the tune of $245b/year in no way implies that ending such subsidies would result in a substantial fraction of that total reaching the truly needy. Eliminating subsidies would presumably allow poor countries to export more of their agricultural products to rich countries. But shifting to export agriculture has two problematic consequences. First of all, the extra land that would be cultivated for export crops would likely comes from land formerly devoted to domestic food production, and/or from clearing forests and engaging in other environmentally damaging activities. Secondly, such a shift typically displaces poorer peasants who lack access to the capital necessary to make the shift, thus benefiting the better off at the expense of the worse off.26
So it seems certain that more will be required of us than "merely" pressuring our governments to stop doing the things that Pogge identifies as killing people.
Enter the Global Resource Dividend--Pogge's proposal to tax the sale of natural resources and target the proceeds to the poor. This is his back-up plan. But notice, we are now asked to do something positive. We are now asked to institute a scheme that would require our paying higher prices for items we consume so as to benefit the global poor. We are now back to precisely where we were with Singer--and the question of causality.27 Doubtless channeling the substantial sums that the GRD would generate to poor people would save some of them. But would it eliminate global poverty? We have seen that the "causes" that Pogge has elucidated, namely, our violation of the basic tenets of free trade, cannot be the whole story. They would seem to be not much of the story at all. But if we don't know what the real causes are, how can we be confident that the GRD will do the trick? What if, as a significant number of reputable scholars and practitioners assert, a lack of money is not the problem? What if Thomas Dichter is right? Drawing on his thirty-five years in the field, Dichter, echoing Hardin, argues that what is needed is not more money, but the opposite, "a radical reduction in development assistance."28 What if David Ellerman (mathematician, philosopher, economist and former advisor to Joseph Stiglitz at the World Bank) is right that money is not the key to development assistance, that in fact "money is the magnet that sets all compasses wrong."29 Surely Michael Maren's book, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity should give us pause.30
Perhaps the fact that millions of our fellow citizens have not responded to Singer's clarion call, nor to Pogge's for that matter, is not due to the fact that our citizens lack "minimal decency and compassion," as Pogge, quoted earlier, alleges--but that they harbor a deep suspicion that such remedies as our philosophers propose simply won't accomplish what we want. It can't be that simple, or it would have been done long ago.31 Something else must be going on.
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