Priorities of Global Justice

Notes from the extract written by Thomas W. Pogge in the book Global Justice.

It is surprising that so little has been done to combat global poverty in the post-CW period. The conditions for spreading Western values have been favourable and military spending has been reduced (falling from 4.1% of GDP in 1985 to 2.2% in 1998). However, during the same period ODA has actually fallen as a share of GNP by 27%. So what is the problem? 790 million persons are not adequately nourished, while one billion are without safe water and 2.4 billion without basic sanitation (UNDP 2000, 30); more than 880 million lack access to basic health services (UNDP 1999, 22); about one billion are without adequate shelter and two billion without electricity.

Poverty causes massive under-fulfilment of social and economic human rights, as well as massively reducing political and civil human rights associated with democratic governance and the rule of law. Poverty is by far the biggest misery mankind faces today. In 1998 there were 588,000 deaths due to war, 736,000 more due to violence and homicide and a massive 18,000,000 due to starvation and preventable diseases. Attempts to reduce deaths through warfare are often economically and morally costly; this is definitely not the case with reducing deaths through poverty.

The OECD countries spend $4.3 billion annually towards meeting basic needs abroad – 0.02% of their combined GNP. The official position articulated by the United States and other wealthy governments is this: we are able to reduce severe poverty and the hunger and diseases associated with this at a modest cost, we are willing to spend a tiny fraction of our national income towards such a reduction, but we are not legally or morally obliged to give any weight at all to this goal. One may take the view that the invisible hand of neo-liberal market will solve this problem so nothing more must be done. This is wrong; the economic order of the globalised world has actually worsened the plights of many in the poorest parts of the world. The number of persons who are poor by this absolute measure “rose from 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.5 billion today and, if recent trends persist, will reach 1.9 billion by 2015” (World Bank 1999). The new global economic architecture is made up of a complex set of agreements negotiated in areas such as trade, investments, labour standards etc. Societies containing about 1/7th of the global population, who’s interests are closely aligned, have been able to control international talks to fit their needs. They hold the upper hand in expertise, information and global trade power. The world trade markets have undoubtedly become more free and it has become easier for nations to trade with each other; the problem is that this has done very little for the Global South. The basic industries a poor country in Africa needs to achieve an adequate level of human development, such as health, education, basic housing provision, are those least profitable for business and hence have not received the investments they deserve. We should not argue against globalisation but argue against the protectionist barriers that support uncompetitive US/EU industries, as well as the need for non-private control of basic welfare measures. The trend of ever increasing global economic inequality has been persisting for quite a long time, reaching far back into the colonial era. “The income gap between the fifth of the world’s people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 74 to 1 in 1997, up from 60 to 1 in 1990 and 30 to 1 in 1960. Earlier estimates are 11 to 1 for 1913, 7 to 1 for 1870, and 3 to 1 for 1820 (UNDP 1999). We currently enjoy the highest standards of living that we have witnessed; it is now very feasible considering global GNP to wipe out poverty and malnutrition for good – all it would take is 1%, 2% to do it thoroughly and put the Global South on a road to prosperity.

In this highly globalised world, we are more interconnected with those in poverty that we have ever been. There are three key connections which oblige us to act:

  • The Global North’s current economic dominance has been built on the back of previous injustices (e.g. slavery, colonialism, genocide).
  • The whole world shares a single, finite supply of natural resources – much of which the Global South provides, largely without adequate compensation.
  • Every person living today has grown up within an economic climate that has a strong tendency to perpetuate and aggravate global inequalities – those hardest hit in absolute terms by the recent global recession were those who are poorest.

Sometimes what we believe to be the most suitable economic order of our time can be very damaging to millions. Many politicians, economists and diplomats agree that global poverty represents a grave injustice and it makes great sense to deal with the issue, often blaming others in the field for the lack of adequate action. Drawing on the third point mentioned above, it seems quite reasonable to When discussing the economic order of a single society, Rawls pays great attention to the fact that economic cooperation can be structured in many ways and that such structural alternatives have diverse distributional tendencies (Rawls 1996). In response to this fact, he not only insists that the shaping and reshaping of a national economic order should be controlled by all adult participants through a democratic political process. He also argues that justice requires citizens to aim for a national economic order that satisfies the difference principle, that is, that allows social and economic inequalities to arise only insofar as they tend to optimize the lowest socioeconomic position (Rawls 1999). What is true of the domestic order must also be true of the single global economic unit in which we find ourselves in. Rawls argues for “fair standards of trade to keep the market free and competitive” as the answer. He additionally argues against any set of measures that does not have a minimum, cut-off point (i.e. basic standard of living) concerning the distributional effects of the economic structure.

Bankers and economists tell us that the current economic order is suitable and that it is the failure of developing nation governments to pursue optimal policies which is responsible for failure on global poverty. They do however differ on their solutions – those on the libertarian right believe protesting against the likes of the IMF and WTO will only damage the developing world and point to the Asian Tiger economies as examples of how correct market reform (lower taxation and reduced red tape) can raise millions out of poverty. The more social-democratic types point to examples such as Kerala, India as an example of a socialist government which has eradicated serious poverty if the government is actually willing to implement serious policies to deal with it. The answer is the same – correct policy can end poverty – they fail to acknowledge the problems of the current global economic order.