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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Freedom from poverty a human right

Published: October 18, 2013
Section: News

Thomas Pogge, the world’s leading spokesperson for freedom from poverty as a human right, spoke at Brandeis on Oct. 8. The Graduate Programs in Sustainable International Development and Health at the Heller School with the Philosophy department in the College of Arts and Sciences presented the first ever human rights and social justice lecture with Pogge, the director of the Global Justice Program at Yale, Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International affairs.

“The present rules of our current economy foreseeably produce massive human rights deficits and is therefore extremely unjust,” Pogge said. “At least a third of all human rights deficit from poverty-related causes, conservatively speaking,” he said.

400 million people die from poverty-related causes, deaths that are easily preventable through better nutrition, safe drinking water, mosquito nets, rehydration packs, vaccines and basic medicines.

“Poverty today is very different from poverty as it was 40 to 50 years ago. Today, we can really avoid it: It’s no longer something that the wealth of the world doesn’t suffice, as the distribution of the global household income implies. It suffices very easily, at very low costs. In economic terms, just a shift of one to two percent of the global household income distribution in favor of the poorer half, and that’d end at least the very severe poverty,” he said.

Pogge elaborated that in the current distribution of the global household income, the top five percent of the world’s population takes about 46 percent of the total global household income, and about the same goes to the next 20 percent of the population. This leaves about 10 percent of the global income to be distributed to the other three quarters of the population. The uneven distribution of the global income is even more exaggerated by the rich’s ability to lobby.

“Lobbying really works and really pays. In the last 30 years or so, the poorer half lost about half of their share of the global household income, while the top half gained. The top 30,000 people of the entire population have more income than the poorest 40 percent of the population, 2.8 billion people,” Pogge said.

The power of lobbying doesn’t only contribute to human rights deficit through the uneven distribution of the income. “If there is a new law that the Congress wants to propose, that law has to be publicized and it has to be known to us—we can weigh in on it, we can organize demonstrations and so on. But international laws are proposed behind closed doors, they’re negotiated behind closed doors. You don’t even know what they’re negotiating until finally the result of the treaty is publicized,” Pogge remarked. The lack of transparency makes for an ideal environment for lobbying, and for those who lobby to hide their tracks. “It’s so easy for them to just say that was the best we could do—they can’t pin it on anybody.”

We can’t rationalize to ourselves that we are helping the poor because they’re doing better than they did 20 to 25 years ago, argued Pogge. “It’s what matters morally,” he said, “We shouldn’t be comparing how they’re doing now relative to how they were doing 20 to 25 years ago. What matters morally is how they are doing, relative to how they might be doing now.” Although the situation may be better now than it was years ago, Pogge said that this does not make the current situation any more acceptable, because human rights continue to be violated.

We have negative duties to human rights. For example, we have the duty to keep people from being tortured and from having their possessions taken away. But human rights do impose positive duties as well, even internationally. The U.S. government declared the attainment of any “right to adequate food” or “fundamental right to be free from hunger” as a goal or aspiration. Pogge, however, asserts that they are rights, positive duties that human rights obligate us to take action for all people.

“Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized,” Pogge quoted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “That’s all I need as a moral premise for this argument, saying that it’s fundamentally important that insofar as we impose any sort of supranational institutional order at all, it must be one that is human rights compliant. Our international order cannot be one that automatically ensures human rights fulfillment perfectly, human rights fulfillment anywhere and everywhere, but it certainly can fulfill human rights to a much larger extent than the current international order is doing,” he said.