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Poverty is a violation of human rights

By Thomas Pogge - posted Monday, 1 August 2005

Human rights would be fully realised, if all human beings had secure access to the objects of these rights. Our world is today very far from this ideal. Piecing together the global record, we find that most of the current massive underfulfillment of human rights is more or less directly connected to poverty.

The connection is direct in the case of basic social and economic human rights, such as “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care”. The connection is more indirect in the case of civil and political human rights associated with democratic government and the rule of law.

Desperately poor people, often stunted, illiterate, and heavily preoccupied with the struggle to survive, typically lack effective means for resisting or rewarding their rulers, who are therefore likely to rule them oppressively while catering to the interests of other (often foreign) agents more capable of reciprocation.


The statistics are horrifying. Out of a total of 6,373 million human beings (in 2004), about 1,000 million have no adequate shelter; 831 million are undernourished; 1,197 million have no access to safe water; 2,742 million lack access to basic sanitation; 2,000 million are without electricity; 2,000 million lack access to essential drugs; and 799 million adults are illiterate. About 170 million children between 5 and 14-years-old are involved in hazardous work (for example, in agriculture, construction, textile or carpet production); 8.4 million of them in the “unconditionally worst” forms of child labour, “defined as slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, prostitution and pornography, and illicit activities”. People of colour and females bear a disproportionate share of these deprivations.

Roughly one third of all human deaths - about 50,000 daily - are due to poverty-related causes (pdf file 60KB), easily preventable through better nutrition, safe drinking water, mosquito nets, re-hydration packs, vaccines and other medicines. This amounts to 300 million deaths in just the 16 years since the end of the Cold War - more than the 200 million deaths caused by all the wars, civil wars, and government repression of the entire 20th century.

Never has poverty been so easily avoidable. The collective annual expenditure of the 2,735 million people living below the World Bank’s “$2 a day” poverty line is about $400 billion. Their collective shortfall from that poverty line is roughly $300 billion per year. This is 1.1 per cent of the gross national incomes of the high-income countries, which totals $27,732 billion.

These countries contain 15.5 per cent of the world’s population with over 80 per cent of the global product. The global poor are 43 per cent of the world’s population with 1.2 per cent of the global product. At market exchange rates, the per capita income of the former is nearly 200 times greater than that of the latter.

The rich countries’ response to world poverty is mainly rhetorical. Official development assistance has shrunk steadily throughout the prosperous 1990’s, though it has recently been increased in connection with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The portion targeted to basic social services stands at 8 per cent or under $6 billion per year. The citizens of the rich countries give another $7 billion annually to international non-governmental organisations.

On closer inspection, even the rhetoric is appalling. At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, the world’s governments grandly promised to halve the number of extremely poor people between 1996 and 2015, implicitly accepting 25,000 daily poverty deaths in 2015 and some 250 million such deaths in the interim. In the 2000 UN Millennium Declaration, they modified their promise - replacing “number” by “proportion” and extending the plan period backward to 1990. Taking advantage of rapid population growth and a huge poverty reduction in China during the 1990’s, these clever modifications greatly dilute the target: the new promise, if fulfilled, would reduce the number of extremely poor people by only 19 per cent over the same period.


Confronted with such facts, citizens of the rich countries may concede that we affluent should do more to help the poor. But most see this as a demand of humanity or charity - not as a demand of justice and certainly not as a moral duty imposed on us by the human rights of the poor. As the US Government declared after the Rome World Food Summit: “The attainment of any ‘right to adequate food’ or ‘fundamental right to be free from hunger’ is a goal or aspiration to be realised progressively that does not give rise to any international obligations.”

The presumption behind this denial is that, internationally at least, human rights entail only negative duties. They require that one not deprive foreigners of secure access to the objects of their human rights, but they do not require that one help them attain such secure access by protecting them against other threats.

This presumption can be attacked by arguing that human rights do impose positive duties, even internationally. But, even if the presumption is accepted, it shields us, the affluent, from human-rights-based obligations only insofar as we bear no responsibility for the existing radically unequal global economic distribution. And this claim to innocence is highly dubious.

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For a more detailed discussion, see Thomas Pogge: World Poverty and Human Rights, Cambridge: Polity Press 2002.

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About the Author

Since receiving his PhD in philosophy from Harvard, Thomas Pogge has been teaching moral and political philosophy and Kant at Columbia University. He is currently at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University.

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