Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric
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Thomas Pogge has already marked himself out as a philosopher with a strong desire to go beyond the confines of abstract theorising. In his 2008 book, co-authored with Aiden Hollis, The Health Impact Fund: Making New Medicines Accessible For All, Pogge put forward a convincing moral argument for a new organisation, The Health Impact Fund, aimed at ‘a new way of stimulating research and development of life-saving pharmaceuticals,’ especially those related to diseases that afflict the poorest of the world's population.
In his latest book, Politics as Usual, Pogge turns his attention to issues of broader, but of no less, importance: the hypocrisy of world leaders and international organisations in relation to the reproduction and maintenance of global poverty, despite claims that enough is being done to eradicate it. Pogge has, of course, been here before, in World Poverty and Human Rights. There, he argued that rich Western states are complicit in the continued poverty of a majority of the world’s population, especially through trade in the natural resources of poor (and often politically corrupt) countries.
Even before Pogge begins to analyse different aspects of global poverty in Politics as Usual, some uncomfortable statistics are presented that make the need to address this and related issues more pressing. For example, the bottom half of the world’s population ‘has seen its share of global private wealth shrink to 1.1 percent and its share of global household income to 3 percent.’ At the same time, the top ten percent of humankind's share has risen to 85.1 and 71.1 percent, respectively.
If readers of Pogge’s new book feel that they might be able to rest easy and deflect moral responsibility for such an appalling situation, then they will be disappointed, for it is not just politicians who must take more seriously their moral obligations towards the poor: the citizens of wealthy countries must accept that they too are complicit in global poverty. Even though many would initially even deny that moral concerns cross national borders, our moral language, Pogge argues, does not match the reality of what we, the wealthy developed economies of the world, are doing on the ground to actually live up to the values we profess. In fact, one might go even further and argue that we are deceiving ourselves with comfortable stories that obviate our need to properly analyse the causes and effects of global poverty, as well as our role within that dynamic.
One of the things we expect from our governments and from international organisations, such as the IMF and the World Bank (or “the Bank,” as Pogge refers to it), is that their policies be in some way consistent with the demands of justice. One seemingly simple way to guarantee this is that policies are fair, in that they remain either impartial and neutral with regards to the interests of richer countries when they clash with the interests of poorer countries, or else, what is better, privileging the interests of poorer countries so that existing inequalities might be alleviated somewhat. For political philosopher John Rawls, fairness demands, in part, making sure that the position of the worst off members of society is as good as it can be. In that case, on the international level at least, tackling global poverty through the redistribution of wealth becomes paramount. As Peter Singer has argued, there is no good moral argument that allows us to justify the spectacular inequalities that exist between the richest and the poorest nations, and the obscene consumption by some of, while others live in life-threatening poverty.
However, in an age of economic austerity and financial crisis, the temptation is to literally adopt the old adage that “charity begins at home.” While members of our own communities continue to live in poverty, we have a moral obligation to them that overrides any duties we might have to help alleviate the poverty of foreigners, no matter how the two levels of poverty measure up to each other relatively.
Pogge’s book stands as an important corrective to such arguments. Whilst we should not be blind to inequalities that exist within our own rich communities, we should nonetheless be aware that the poverty apparent in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia is relatively more significant, and that a supererogatory moral obligation rests on our collective shoulders.
But Pogge’s book is not a simple outlining of global inequality and the hypocrisy that allows it to be reproduced without complaint or criticism. As part of his analysis of the moral culpability of the citizens of rich Western countries, Pogge recommends that we reinvigorate the democratic process so that citizens can force through changes in foreign policy that would guarantee more fairness and a diminution of the gross inequalities that characterise international relations. We cannot simply allow events to pass us by, complaining that the democratic process stymies political participation and, as a result, renders us helpless in the face of vested powerful interests. So much, of course, has truth to it, but this does not absolve us of all moral responsibility. As Jürgen Habermas has said again and again over the past few years, the EU itself can be arranged along more democratic lines, solving its so-called “democratic deficit” and allowing citizens access to forums of democratic opinion – and will – formation that often begin in civil society. If we can make the democratic systems of Western states and organisations, such as the EU, the UN, and the IMF, more responsive to the needs of citizens, and especially those so poor and marginalised that normal democratic avenues remain closed off, then we might be able to begin solving a global problem that is, in many ways, the most significant we face.