ODVV Interview: Affluent countries are plainly unwilling to invest in fighting poverty

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Publish Date : 09/06/2021 1:55
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ODVV Interview: Affluent countries are plainly...
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The affluent countries should work on making the rules of the world economy fairer for the poorer countries: on removing trade barriers to their exports, on increasing the tax revenues they can collect from multinational corporations, especially in the extractive and digital sectors, on compensating for pollution and the brain drain, and on raising international labor standards.

There are always social plagues that stifle the prosperity of our communities and deny people the chance to actualize their potentials. Poverty, however, seems to be the most terminal and chronic adversity that can pervade societies, and its significance is reflected in the fact that in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals adopted by 193 countries in 2015, fighting poverty was designated as the first global priority.


International organizations are upbeat that the efforts to eradicate poverty are on the right track, citing figures by the World Bank that extreme poverty has diminished by more than half since 1990, and that 1.1 billion people have moved out of extreme poverty in the past three decades. Yet the more skeptical scholars argue in addition to the detrimental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate emergency and increasing debt on slowing down and even reversing the progresses made in tackling poverty, the affluent countries are not doing enough to mitigate inequalities in the underprivileged and underdeveloped countries in the Global South, while they spend their resources lavishly on militarism, weapons and widening the racial gaps.


In 2020, the global military expenditure rose to a staggering USD1.9 trillion, including work on the development of weapons of mass destruction, while the entire foreign aid allocated by the high-income nations to the poorer, low-income countries totaled USD161.2 billion, which included expenditure to help the developing countries confront the coronavirus crisis. It is widely perceived that poverty inherently denies people the enjoyment of a range of human rights, and the United Nations describes it as both the cause and effect of human rights violations. Bad governance and government mismanagement, in a blend with natural influences and geopolitical paradigms, proliferate poverty and reproduce rights violations.


Thomas Pogge is the director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University. A noted German philosopher, Pogge is one of the editors of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He has published several academic studies and books on the concept of poverty and socioeconomic injustices, including his 2009 co-authored book “Absolute Poverty and Global Justice: Empirical Data - Moral Theories – Initiatives.”

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Pogge to discuss the interplay between human rights and poverty, poverty in the rural areas, the economic fallouts of COVID-19 and the responsibility of the global powers to address disparities in the developing societies.


Q: Freedom from poverty and being entitled to a sufficient standard of living and wellbeing as well as access to food, clothing, housing, healthcare and social services are the basic human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and numerous other legal. That nearly 9.2 percent of the world population, equaling 700 million people, live in extreme poverty, and millions of others are on the cusp of plunging into extreme poverty signifies many governments are failing to provide these rudiments to their citizens. Are the eradication of poverty and equal distribution of wealth and reasonable amenities of a dignified living commitments that the governments can be held liable to fulfill?

A: I believe that, by the human rights standard you cite, poverty is far more widespread than the World Bank figures would indicate. Have a look at the latest State of Food Security report of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, for example. It states that fully 3 billion human beings cannot afford a healthy diet and that 2.36 billion suffer food insecurity, a number that has risen each and every year since 2014, long before COVID. You can find similar official figures for other human-rights relevant deprivations: about 2 billion lack access to essential medications, 2.2 billion lack access to safe drinking water, 1.8 billion lack adequate housing, and 2 billion lack adequate sanitation. So, the World Bank’s poverty measurement exercise really captures only the tip of the iceberg. It defines poverty in terms of consumption expenditure per person per day equivalent to USD1.90 in 2011, which is USD2.30 today. Living in the US, I can assure you that you cannot meet a person’s basic needs – food, water, clothing, shelter, utilities, medical care – here on USD70 per month. Nowhere near!

Of course, governments have a responsibility to organize their countries so that, insofar as reasonably possible, human rights are fulfilled. Today many governments fail to do this, preferring to spend their resources on the country’s political and economic elites. Holding them liable for this is not so easy, presupposing as it does independent courts willing and able to enforce international law or the country’s own constitutional right. Still, it should be tried where promising; and here, recent successful climate litigation provides helpful precedents and encouragement.

In addition to each government’s legal obligation to organize its own country in a human-rights compliant way, there is also the collective obligation of governments to structure global institutional arrangements in a human-rights compliant way, as well. I am thinking here for instance of the rules of the World Trade Organization, most obviously perhaps its intellectual property provisions as enshrined in the TRIPS Agreement. These rules require governments to institute and enforce 20-year product patents which, for example, prevent generic producers of pharmaceuticals from manufacturing and delivering medicines to the local population at competitive prices. Millions of people die each year as a result – from their inability to afford the high monopoly markups on drugs which can easily raise their price to 3,000 times the cost of production, as in the case of the important hepatitis-C drug sofosbuvir. It would be great if such devastating international treaties could be challenged in court – certainly something to work toward.


Q: According to a World Bank report, extreme poverty was on a steady decline over a 25-year period until 2020. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic upended the positive trend as a disruptive force and drove more than 120 million people worldwide into poverty. By the end of the current year, it is expected that the number of people pushed into poverty due to the pandemic will total 150 million. Do all countries have the wherewithal and resources like the high-income states in Europe and North America to keep the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis at bay and restore normalcy in the lives of their people?

A: I have little confidence in the World Bank’s poverty numbers. They are easily manipulated to fit preferred narratives [such as] globalization has lifted millions out of poverty, setbacks are due to COVID, etc. They employ far too minimalist a poverty threshold. And their conversions employ national consumer price indexes and international purchasing power parities that reflect the prices of consumer good generally rather than the prices of the few basic necessaries on which poor people do and must concentrate their consumption. As the FAO numbers show, the incidence of food poverty has been steadily rising since 2014.

Anyway, many countries are evidently unable to ensure the realization of social and economic human rights within their territory, especially under the added strains of COVID and climate change. Here the affluent countries and their relevant agencies and organization should step in to shoulder some of the cost, as they have promised to do so many times, most recently with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Climate Finance Commitment.

These same countries should also work on making the rules of the world economy fairer for the poorer countries: on removing trade barriers to their exports, on increasing the tax revenues they can collect from multinational corporations, especially in the extractive and digital sectors, on compensating for pollution and the brain drain, and on raising international labor standards. As it is, these global rules of the game are designed by the rich for the rich and therefore generate substantial centrifugal forces that tend to aggravate global inequality. As a result, worldwide poverty has become ever more grotesque, morally. Converted at purchasing power parities, the average global income today is about USD50 per person per day. In such a world, no one should be living on less than USD5 per day, let alone on less than the USD2.30 of the World Bank’s extreme poverty definition.


Q: Your argument is definitely a thought-provoking one. Moving on, in 2018, four out of every five people under the poverty threshold lived in rural areas. Why is poverty so widespread in the rural communities, even though opportunities in agriculture, fishing, forestry, animal husbandry, horticulture and small-scale industries are almost ubiquitously available to them? Among factor like culture, climate change, gender variables, markets and government policies, what are the key parameters dampening poverty in rural communities?

A: I think the answer is government policies and, more generally, politics. People in urban areas live close together and can easily mobilize to express their dissatisfaction and to pressure for change. Therefore, politicians have strong incentives to keep them content, and to prioritize them over people in the countryside. Yes, food is grown in the countryside, not in the cities. But when food comes to be in short supply, it is most often the rural population that bears the brunt. The city folks have more money with which to win the bidding for foodstuffs and, if all else fails, governments use violence to ensure the populations of important cities are fed. To be sure, as you say, there are foodstuffs locally available in the countryside. But they have owners who protect them. And this availability varies seasonally and thus does not assist poor people throughout the year.


Q: Scientists and United Nations experts name climate change as the most significant human rights challenges of our time, in that it multiplies air pollution, depletes water resources, curbs access to food and manipulates human health. The United Nations Development Programme predicts by 2030, nearly 100 million people might be forced into extreme poverty due to the ramifications of climate change. Is fighting climate change one of the pathways to curtailing global poverty? Do you see a symbiotic relationship between climate change and poverty?

A: We should always be clear: climate change as such does not force anyone into poverty. It is the combination of climate change and extreme global economic inequality that does so. If the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population had, say, 2 percent of the global income at their disposal rather than 0.4 percent, then they would be in a much better position to protect themselves from climate change and other challenges [like] pandemics, natural disasters, price fluctuations, personal adversities, etc.

And, yes, there is a symbiotic relationship. Climate change and air pollution aggravate inequality. If clean water and air are plentiful, then the poor have equality with the rich at least in these respects: they can breathe clean air and drink clean water. But in a world where clean air and clean water must be paid for, there are yet two more respects in which the poor are being left behind. While the rich breathe filtered air in their limousines, mansions, yachts and private planes, the poor gum up their lungs with particle pollution. While the rich drink filtered water, the poor drink filthy water, risking disease from contamination with chemicals, metals and microbes. While the rich set their thermostat for the most comfortable temperature, the poor are exposed to sweltering heat and often must perform heavy labor in such heat: harvesting crops, delivering goods, constructing buildings, driving rickshaws, baking bricks, fetching water from a stream and much more.


Q: Wars and armed conflicts are among the catalysts of poverty. In wars, infrastructures are destroyed, people’s assets are ruined, communities are broken up, unemployment and inflation are multiplied, displacement and forced migration are accelerated, investment in social services are slashed and death and injury spiral. Considering that wars are ongoing in different corners of the world, particularly parts of Asia and Africa, is it realistic to expect that the first priority of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which is “no poverty” by 2030, will be fulfilled, even if the world’s governments commit all their resources to combatting poverty?

A: Governments of affluent countries are currently devoting only a tiny fraction of their resources to eradicating global poverty: 0.32 percent at last count, and most of this goes to their own firms doing overpriced work in poor countries. The OECD has an aggregate GDP of about USD52 trillion. Imagine what one could do with 5 percent of that! For example, one could pay out a universal basic income of USD1,000 per person per year to the 2.6 billion poorest people on this planet. This would essentially wipe out poverty worldwide, especially when one considers the higher purchasing power of money in the poorer countries. And 5 percent isn’t even anywhere near what affluent countries would be capable of. In the Second World War, the participating governments devoted 30 to 50 percent of their GDPs to the military. They certainly could devote a similar proportion of their national incomes today to ending poverty. But in reality, they will never even reach the 0.7 percent of gross national income that they have promised since 1970 or so.

You are right that war and conflicts typically produce severe poverty, for example by disrupting food deliveries. We have such situations now in Yemen, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar, for example. These conflict zones attract media attention, but they constitute a tiny fraction of the global poverty problem. The vast majority of poor people suffer and die prematurely in places where they can easily be reached, places where they could easily take care of their own needs if only they had more money.

It is also important to note that the affluent countries contribute greatly to the violence you are concerned about. They sell the weapons that are being used and they often instigate the violence for geopolitical reasons [such as] installing a friendly government, overthrowing a government allied to a rival, securing access to important natural resources, protecting the economic interests of a domestic corporation, etc.


Q: The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the economic inequalities of the world noticeably. According to a report by Agence France-Presse, the world’s high-income nations, despite making up only 16 percent of the world population, have received 47 percent of the entire COVID-19 vaccines administered, while the inhabitants of low-income countries have received only 0.2 percent of the vaccines rolled out globally. Of course, income and wealth inequalities are patent within the high-income states, as well. For example, in the United States, the top 10 percent of the society now earn more than nine times as much income as the bottom 90 percent. Do the high-income and powerful nations have a role in compounding economic disparities and reproducing poverty in underprivileged countries? How can they morph this role into a constructive and positive impact?

A: Like climate change, the pandemic aggravates inequality by adding yet one more respect in which the rich and the poor are unequal. This manifests itself especially in international differences – not so much intra-nationally in the affluent countries, which are keen to have their entire populations vaccinated in order to get their economies growing again. Poor countries, especially in Africa, are being left behind; there only a small rich elite gets access. We could have produced enough doses to vaccinate everyone worldwide, of course, but those who hold patents on the vaccines are not ready to produce the supply needed to immunize poor people unless and until they have assurances that they will be well paid for doing so. They are doing very nicely in the present period of short supply, which fuels a bidding war among affluent states.

I have already said something about how the affluent countries have shaped our global order for the benefit of their own corporate elites and about how they could reform this order to make it less hostile to humanity’s poorer half. Key reforms that I would like to add to this involve reduction of the incentives toward corruption and bad governance. These widespread evils are facilitated by an elaborate network of tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions, letterbox companies, fake trusts and anonymous accounts, along with an army of shady lawyers, accountants, lobbyists and financial advisors. This global haven industry is estimated to manage wealth in the amount of USD30-50 trillion, equivalent to about 7 to 12 percent of all household wealth worldwide or one third to half of the world’s annual product. As recently revealed by LuxLeaks, Panama Papers, Bahamas Leaks, Paradise Papers and others, this sophisticated infrastructure facilitates not only massive tax abuse, but also crimes of many other kinds such as illegal trade in persons, drugs and weapons, international terrorism, subverting democracy, bribery, embezzlement and the money laundering associated with all such activities. In these ways, the global haven industry massively aggravates national and global inequalities and greatly impedes the development of poor countries by enabling multinational corporations, autocrats, corrupt officials, millionaires and criminals to drain them of capital and tax revenues. Illicit financial outflows from developing countries are estimated at nearly USD1 trillion per annum.

Also relevant here is the important fact that the existing international order recognizes rulers –merely because they exercise effective power within a country and regardless of how they acquired or exercise such power – as entitled to confer legally valid property rights in this 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. Such recognition accords international resource, borrowing, treaty, and arms privileges to many governments that are unworthy of the name. These privileges are impoverishing, because their exercise often dispossesses a country’s people who are excluded from political participation as well as from the benefits of their government’s borrowing or resource sales. These privileges are moreover oppressive because they often give dictatorial rulers access to the funds that they need to keep themselves in power even against near-universal popular opposition. And these privileges are disruptive because they provide strong incentives toward the undemocratic acquisition and exercise of political power, resulting in the kinds of coups and civil wars that are so common in the African continent.


Q: Do you think the research literature on poverty has paid sufficient attention to the role of governance in the economic deprivation of masses and their dispossession from natural resources and the means of socioeconomic progress? In your view, how does democratic backsliding contribute to the entrenchment of poverty?

A: Briefly, I think there is a lot of attention on inadequate governance and its effects in the poorer countries, but insufficient understanding of the underlying international causes, some of which I have highlighted in the preceding answer. The literature tends to explain poor governance by reference to national causes: culture, history, resource endowments, geography, and so on. These are important factors which help explain why some developing countries tend to be much worse governed than others. But there are also important supranational factors at work without which we cannot understand the high incidence of inadequate governance in the developing countries. Again, some of these factors were discussed earlier: the global haven industry, the four privileges, etc.


Q: In your 2002 book “World Poverty and Human Rights,” you point out that with an investment equivalent to two-third of the United States military expenditure, wealthy countries are able to eradicate global poverty. Do you think the developed, affluent countries lack the determination to fight poverty by making such an investment or is it that despite numerous initiatives by such organizations as the United Nations and European Union, there are other obstructions that complicate the fight against poverty?

A: The affluent countries are plainly unwilling to make such an investment, they are willing to spend 0.32 percent of their GNIs on official development assistance which in part consists of loans and mostly goes to agents capable of reciprocation, that is, to their own firms and consultants as well as to the political and economic elites in the developing world whose political support they want to purchase. If the OECD countries spent more money, and spent it effectively, they could make far more progress against poverty. Simply paying poor people a universal basic income through phone credit or debit card would be far more cost-effective than the ways in which development funds are currently being spent.

Let me also reiterate here the important point that, in addition to spending more, we should also be harming less – reduce the harms we cause through the badly slanted supranational institutional arrangements we are imposing upon the Global South: the globalized intellectual property regime, the international tax and financial system, the four privileges, the asymmetrical trade barriers, the uncompensated emissions, the missing labor standards, and so on. If these harmful supranational institutional arrangements were suitably reformed, the need for aid to the world’s poor would be greatly diminished.



By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV Interview: Affluent countries are plainly unwilling to invest in fighting poverty ”