Do the global rich inflict extreme poverty on the global poor?

Emily Vuong


October 19th, 2014

Emily Vuong examines the argument that the current global institutional order is responsible for the suffering of the world’s poor.

In World Poverty and Human Rights, Thomas Pogge argues that ‘we’, the advantaged citizens of affluent western countries, play a key role in the incidence of extreme poverty. He is the pioneer of the case against the world’s richest, making the controversial claim that the suffering of the poor is overtly due to the rich’s imposition of an ‘unjust global institutional order,’ which exacerbates poverty in the world’s poorest nations.[1] Pogge’s argument that the rich are to blame centres on the fact that the rich have not contributed positively through deliberating implementing policies with the aim of heightening the incidence of poverty, but negatively through ignorance, acceptance and as mere beneficiaries. [2] The argument that the rich inflict poverty through acting negatively fails to address the reality that individual citizens may wish to alleviate the suffering of the poor, but are unable to do so due to the fact that it would involve a global movement which fundamentally changes the way affluent countries operate and manage themselves – an unlikely task in the hands of a sole citizen. Even if we can successfully establish the causal nexus between the rich and the implementation of an unjust global order, it is nigh impossible to make solid claims about what the present day institutional order actually does to exacerbate world poverty, or whether it simply fails to eliminate it. To claim that poverty is an ‘ongoing harm’ is to completely negate all the current efforts made by NGOs and governments who are making definitive steps towards eradicating extreme global poverty. The formal order exists as a means of facilitating global economic growth and development, and without it there is a real possibility that the poor will be even worse off. [3]

In order to better make sense of the argument that the rich are actually responsible for the poor’s suffering, we must be able to make the connection between two entities which are said to contribute to extreme global poverty: individual citizens of affluent nations and the ‘global institutional order.’ We can assume that global institutions include international governmental organisations, international law, and associated global institutions such as the World Bank. It makes very little sense to assign blame to those who do not have much influence over the matters deliberated behind the closed doors of these global institutions. It makes more sense to assign collective responsibility to the global institutional framework responsible for the distribution of wealth and facilitation of globalisation, because in the grand scheme of things, the voice of an ordinary citizen bears very little significance. Does the guilt of various key politicians on the global stage ‘absolve ordinary citizens of responsibility’? It is true that we citizens cast the votes that ultimately empower politicians and negotiators. The voting system is relatively non-existent when it comes to assigning leadership roles within global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. It is unrealistic to assume that an individual wanting to stop the incidence of poverty can change the global institutional order. We are unable to formulate quantitative measures of responsibility due to the indirectness of agency relationships, thereby weakening the argument that citizens of rich countries are solely to blame for the incidence of extreme poverty.

If one were to take the critical view that global poverty is the result of egocentric policies devised by powerful states to further their economic and political agendas, then it is likely that non-participation in the global order could make matters even worse. Refusal to cooperate with the world order could result in chaos, and therefore the ‘morally right course of action’ is to comply.’ [4] Global institutions were created under the premise of ensuring that nations adhere to international standards of trade and diplomacy. Regardless of whether these institutions are successful in achieving desired outcomes, they facilitate peace talks and negotiations between nations. The possibility of non-participation would mean eliminating the mechanism and ‘platform’ by which rich countries actually come together to help the poorest. [5]

The World Bank charter explicitly states their central aim of lending money to developing countries for specific projects that will fight poverty. The IMF on the other hand, provides loans it thinks will help alleviate global economic crisis. The overall goal is to promote cooperation between nation states in an increasingly unstable globalized world. By way of analogy, it is plausible to consider the possibility that policies of global institutions and rich countries ‘throw away the ladder’ for poor countries, meaning that they lose the means of empowering themselves in order to actually escape poverty. The ‘ladder’ relates to the trade policy policies that arguably exacerbate world poverty, such as ‘intellectual property rights protection, tariffs on developing world imports, arms sales, and subsidies to domestic agriculture.’[6] It is possible that such policies leave the poorest countries unable to compete with the richest and most powerful nations. It is hoped that these policies provide an alternative ladder for poorer countries to empower themselves and escape extreme poverty through structural reforms and the redistribution of wealth. Without a doubt, the terms of exchange between rich and poor nations are ‘unequal’, but it is important to note the difference between ‘coercion’ and uneven bargaining power.[7] Global institutions provide the most legitimate means of formulating genuine agreements between nations in international relations. In order to prove that the rich cause poverty, we need the tools to prove that inequality is directly the consequence of global institutions such as the UN or WTO – organisations whose central aims stand in stark contrast to exacerbating poverty and inequality.

These organisations implement policies with the aim of increasing levels of global economic growth, widely considered to be the largest poverty reduction tool of all. Despite our inability to assign collective responsibility to citizens of the rich, there is no disputing the fact that global institutions operate as a mechanism by which less affluent countries can escape poverty status. Without these institutions there is a likelihood the world’s poorest will be left even further behind.


Image: then-presidents of the U.S. and Brazil, George W. Bush and Lula da Silva at the WTO Doha Round after discussions of agricultural imports and subsidies.


[1] Pogge, T. W. 2008, ‘World poverty and human rights,’ 2nd edition, Polity.

[2] Reitberger, M. 2008, ‘Poverty, negative duties and the global institutional order’. Politics, philosophy & economics, 7(4), 379-402.

[3] Satz, D. 2005, ‘What do we owe the global poor?’ Ethics & international affairs, 19(1), 47-54.

[4] Reitberger, M. 2008, ‘Poverty, negative duties and the global institutional order’. Politics, philosophy & economics, 7(4), 379-402.

[5] Ibid

[6] Satz, D. 2005, ‘What do we owe the global poor?’ Ethics & international affairs, 19(1), 47-54.

[7] Reitberger, M. 2008, ‘Poverty, negative duties and the global institutional order’. Politics, philosophy & economics, 7(4), 379-402.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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