Human Rights and Global Wrongs

By Thomas Pogge

Half of humankind is poor, living on less than 3 percent of global household income, as against 69 percent captured by the top tenth.

Even on the narrowest conception of (“extreme”) poverty, the number of poor is somewhere around the 1.02 billion counted as chronically undernourished (2009)1 or the 1.377 billion counted in 2005 as living below the World Bank’s international poverty line of $1.25 per person per day at 2005 PPPs (Purchasing Power Parities).2 About one third of all human deaths – eighteen million per annum – are due to poverty-related causes, mostly diseases that cause little or no damage in more affluent populations.3

Surprisingly, the world poverty problem – so unimaginably large in human
terms – is also tiny in economic terms. The World Bank quantifies the collective shortfall in 2005 of all those living in extreme poverty at 0.33 percent (at PPPs) of the sum of all gross domestic products.4 At currency exchange rates this shortfall is merely $76 billion or one-sixth of one percent of world income or about one-ninth of current U.S. military spending.5 And even the collective shortfall of the 3.085 billion whom the World Bank counts as living on less than twice its poverty line have a collective shortfall from this line ($2.50 per person per day at 2005 PPPs) of only $506 billion or 1.13 percent of world income or about two-thirds of U.S. military spending.6

The rich countries’ response to world poverty is mainly rhetorical.

Though modest institutional reforms, affecting just over 1 percent of the global income distribution, could overcome severe poverty, existing institutional arrangements drive this distribution in the opposite direction: they induce greater inequality. The nearby table shows how humanity’s top few percentiles are growing their share of global household income while the remainder, and especially the bottom quarter, are losing ground.7

This pattern manifests itself in the evolution of hunger. The number of chronically undernourished people has not declined from the 800-million level reported in the mid-1990s. In fact, a spike in global food prices (2006-08) and the recent global financial crisis have caused this number to break above the one-billion mark for the first time in human history8 – even while the ranks of the hungry are continuously thinned by millions of deaths each year from poverty-related causes.

The rich countries’ response to world poverty is mainly rhetorical. Though official development assistance (ODA) has in the aftermath of 9/11 reversed its long-term decline, it is still only $120 billion annually or 0.3 percent of Gross National Income (2008) as compared to the 0.7 percent target promised over thirty years ago.9 More importantly, only $15 billion of annual ODA is earmarked for basic social services.10

And even the rhetoric is appalling. At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, the world’s governments pledged themselves “to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015,”11 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 substituted a diluted promise “to halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world’s people” living in extreme poverty.12 Because of 2000-15 population growth, this promise requires only a 40 percent reduction in the number of poor. The poverty promise was diluted again in the final formulation of the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG-1), which defines poverty as a “proportion of people in the developing world”13 and thus takes advantage of even faster population growth in the reference group (denominator of the proportion). MDG-1 also backdates the baseline to 1990. It thereby counts China’s poverty reduction in the 1990s toward the goal and, by lengthening the plan period, doubles population growth in the reference group. The 50-percent reduction in the number of extremely poor people promised in Rome for the 1996-2015 period has thus been twisted into a 20-percent reduction of this number; and 496 million were thereby added to the number of those whose extreme poverty in 2015 will be deemed consistent with having kept the grand poverty promise. Half a billion additional extremely poor people mean about six million additional deaths from poverty-related causes in 2015 and each subsequent year.14

Bad leadership, civil wars, and widespread corruption in the developing countries are not wholly homegrown, but strongly encouraged by the existing international rules and extreme inequalities.

Helping and Hurting the Poor

Confronted with such facts, citizens of the rich countries may concede that we affluent should do more to help the poor. But they 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 U.S. government declared after the 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 realized progressively that does not give rise to any international obligations.”15

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. 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 toward foreigners. But, even if the presumption is accepted, it shields the rich from human-rights-based obligations only insofar as they bear no responsibility for the existing ever-more-radically unequal global economic distribution. And this claim to innocence is highly dubious at best.

For one thing, the existing radical inequality is deeply tainted by how it accumulated through one historical process that was deeply pervaded by en- slavement, colonialism, even genocide. The affluent are quick to point out that they cannot inherit their ancestor’s sins. Indeed. But how can they then be entitled to the fruits of these sins: to their huge inherited advantage in power and wealth over the rest of the world? If we are not so entitled, then we are, by actively excluding the global poor from our lands and possessions, contributing to their deprivations.

Rules of the Game

Moreover, even the causes of the current persistence of severe poverty are by no means exclusively domestic to the countries in which it occurs. The asymmetries inherent in the current global economic (World Trade Organization) regime are well documented: it allows the rich countries to favor their own companies through tariffs, quotas, anti-dumping duties, export credits and huge subsidies. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that the latter market distortions cost the developing countries $700 billion annually in lost export revenue – a huge amount relative to the needs of their poor.16 And the constrained trading opportunities the rich countries afford the poor do not come for free. To obtain them, poor countries must spend large amounts on enforcing the intellectual property rights of the rich, thereby depriving their own populations of access to cheap generic versions of patented life-saving medicines, seeds, and clean green technologies.

To be sure, many developing countries are run by corrupt and incompetent leaders, unwilling or unable to make serious poverty-eradication efforts. But their ability to rule, often against the will and interests of the population, crucially depends on outside factors. It depends, for instance, on their being recognized by the rich countries as entitled to borrow in their country’s name, to confer legal title to its natural resources, and with the proceeds to buy the weapons they need to stay in power. By assigning these privileges to such rulers, on the basis of their effective power alone, the rich countries support their banks and secure their resource imports. But they also greatly strengthen the staying power of oppressive rulers and the incentives toward coup attempts and civil wars, especially in the resource-rich countries.

More generally, bad leadership, civil wars, and widespread corruption in the developing countries are not wholly homegrown, but strongly encouraged by the existing international rules and extreme inequalities. The rulers and officials of these countries have vastly more to gain from catering to the interests of wealthy foreign governments, corporations, and tourists than from meeting the basic needs of their impoverished compatriots.

Are the rich countries violating human rights when they, in collaboration with Southern elites, impose a global institutional order under which, foreseeably and avoidably, hundreds of millions cannot attain “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, §25)? The Declaration itself makes quite clear that they do when it proclaims that “everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (ibid., §28).

The existing international institutional order fails this test. It aggravates extreme poverty through protectionism and aggressive enforcement of intellectual property rights in seeds and essential medicines. And it fosters corrupt and oppressive government in the poorer countries by recognizing any person or group holding effective power – regardless of how they acquired or exercise it – as entitled to sell the country’s natural 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.

Some parts of international law contain inspiring affirmations of human rights. Other parts contribute massively to the underfulfillment of these same rights. These contributions are foreseeable and avoidable. To avoid them, human rights must be mainstreamed to constrain the design of all global institutional arrangements.

Thomas Pogge is Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University. His books include Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (Polity, 2010), World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (Polity, 2008), and John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice (Oxford University Press, 2007).


1 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). “1.02 Billion People Hungry.” News Release. June 19, 2009. item/20568/icode/ (accessed July 31, 2010).

2 Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion. “The Developing World Is Poorer than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper WPS 4703 (Washington DC, 2008), http://econ. The World Bank counts as poor only those living on less, per person per day, than what $1.25 could buy in the US in 2005. The UN follows this definition.

3 WHO (World Health Organization). The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update (WHO Publications, 2008), table A1, pp. 54–9.

4 Chen and Ravallion (n.2), p. 27.

5 Thomas Pogge. Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (Polity, 2010), pp. 69–70.

6 Ibid.

7 Data kindly supplied by Branko Milanovic of the World Bank in a personal e-mail of April 25, 2010.

8 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). “1.02 Billion People Hungry.” News Release. June 19, 2009. item/20568/icode/ (accessed July 31, 2010).

9 See aspx?srid=569&crid= (accessed August 1, 2010) for ODA allocations. The corresponding GNIs can be found in World Bank, World Development Report 2010 (The World Bank, 2010), pp. 378-9.

10 See aspx?srid=592&crid= (accessed Aug. 1, 2010).

11 Rome Declaration on World Food Security. November 1996.

12 UN General Assembly. United Nations Millennium Declaration. A/res/55/2, Sept. 8, 2000. millennium/declaration/ares552e.htm. Article 19.

13 United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2008), p. 6.

14 Pogge, pp. 58–62.

15 Rome Declaration (n.11), Annex II to the Final Report of the World Food Summit.

16 UNCTAD, Trade and Development Report: Fragile Recovery and Risks (UN Publications 1999), p. IX. Available at en.pdf.