Thomas Pogge: Who is Responsible for Global Poverty

This is a paraphrased summary of a segment of Thomas Pogge’s book titled, Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric. But first, who is Thomas Pogge. He is amongst other things:

  • A German philosopher
  • Director of the Global Justice Program at Yale University
  • Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University
  • Research Director of the Centre for the Study of the Mind in Nature at the University of Oslo
  • Professorial Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University
  • Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Central Lancashire’s Centre for Professional Ethics
  • Editor for social and political philosophy for the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
  • Member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

The title of his book captures the spirit of its message aptly…What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric?

Staggering statistics depict a world where global poverty has been on the increase for years with no signs of a turn for the better. The share of global wealth held by the poor is steadily decreasing while the share of global wealth held by the rich keeps increasing.

How can this be when so much overseas development assistance keeps being pumped into less developed countries from the developed world?

The relationship between affluent states that have the power to formulate and implement policies with global repercussions and poor states who bear the brunt of these policies is compared and contrasted in Pogge’s book.

Governments of developed economies rhetorically promote development, send some overseas development aid (ODA) to poor countries and preach trade as a way to alleviate global poverty but at the same time implement international regulations which widen global inequality which leads to trans-generational poverty. While world leaders use the mass media as their mouth pieces to broadcast their presupposed benevolent intentions; the same media does not adequately capture the practical outcomes of such rhetoric and regulations—thus not exposing what lies behind the veil of such rhetoric.

In international politics, it is understandable that richer nations have more influence than their poor counterparts. When one considers the Bretton Woods Institutions which include the World Bank, International Monetary Fund as well as other public international organizations such as the United Nations, it is easy to see that developed nations specifically the victors of the World Wars and their allies exert the most influence in these spheres. They determine the policy direction of these institutions in part because they also form the main financial backers of these institutions. One would have thought they would have used this influence to narrow global inequality and reduce global poverty. But looking back, it is evident that the exact opposite has transpired. Generally speaking, the poor has gotten poorer and the rich richer. This is supported by the statistics presented in Professor Pogge’s book. Since the Second World War, life has gotten only better for the victors who have become prone to over-consumption at the expense of the poor.

This as well as the data on global poverty and global inequality leads one to assume that rich nations might not necessarily have an interest in reducing inequality. Poverty presumably has declined somewhat whereas global inequality (income and wealth-wise) has grown by leaps and bounds. If the rich truly wanted to alleviate global poverty or to promote equity of wealth distribution in the global arena, they would and could have done this since 1945. One simple thing that they could have introduced are fair trade regimes as well as the removal of unfair conditionalities attached to overseas development assistance packages, that in majority of cases have further crippled developing nations.

For instance, when Aid was sent to countries in sub-Saharan Africa under the structural adjustment programmes and other such programmes, a conditionality attached was that African governments could not use the assistance to assist their farmers by subsidizing them. Yet in the European Union, the practice of subsidizing European farmers was rampant. This put the African farmer at a disadvantage. The existence of such double standards made it difficult for diversified Agriculture to flourish within sub-Saharan Africa. Many farmers in this sub-region are still using methods that are not mechanized because mechanization is capital intensive.

Such behaviour does not tally with the pro-poor rhetoric delivered by leaders of rich nations. Why the discrepancy? A number of reasons are proffered by Professor Pogge.

One reason is simply the need to project oneself as benevolent benefactors of the world’s poor. Another reason is to appease the conscience of the citizens they lead.

Pogge identifies leaders of rich nations and their citizens as directly and indirectly responsible for global poverty respectively.

The citizens use the rhetoric as inoculation to make themselves feel good that they are helping the poor. By choosing to be sated with the pro-poor rhetoric alone without demanding results-oriented action from their leaders, the citizens are complicit in the unjust action or inaction of their governments. Public policy can be defined as a course of action or inaction—rather than a single, discrete decision or action. Some Europeans powers divided and plundered Africa during the scramble for Africa. Its only right that the powers that benefited from colonization and slavery give back in a way that meaningfully contributes to development of former colonies. But that does not seem to be the case.

Based on this line of thought, the inaction of citizens of the developed world with regards to unfair or unjust policies promulgated by their governments towards underdeveloped nations is as much to blame for the sustenance of global poverty as the actions or inaction of their governments.

But one may ask, do citizens of rich nations really know much of what is transpiring in the globe as pertains to global poverty i.e. outside of the propaganda material they see on television? The response to that is probably no. The onus however rests on these citizens to educate themselves as to real challenges such as global inequality and poverty so they can better hold their governments accountable and responsible for questionable action or inaction.

The weightiness of the author’s arguments draws from the unimaginable cost of lives as a result of injustices against the poor addressed by his work.

This cost can be deduced from his assertion that the combined death toll of World Wars 1 and 2, the cold war, civil wars and all other forms of governments repressions over the course of the entire twentieth century (i.e. a space of one hundred years) pales in comparison to the death toll in only twenty years resulting from hunger and remedial diseases associated with global poverty in peacetime beginning from the end of the Cold War.

The death toll from global poverty is 360 million lives—much of which could have been avoided if politics was not done as usual and the pro-poor rhetoric was actually accompanied with real efforts that were devoid of discriminatory conditionalities, trade regimes, regulations etc. that did little to advance global equality.


Enough of the empty pro-poor rhetoric! World leaders need to adopt a new paradigm for promoting development that actually works. Maybe its time for a rearrangement of the world order.

The following is not from Pogge’s book but rather my thoughts. Governments of rich nations could end severe global poverty and reduce global inequality if they so desire. When they did not want an under-developed hole left in the middle of Europe after the World War, they implemented the Marshall plan in Germany and it worked. So the issue is not ignorance of what works but rather the will to do what is right and moral for all. There are enough resources to go around for all the global family. The presumption that there is not enough resources to go round (i.e. scarcity of resources) is what some actors use to console themselves that it is okay to rob Peter to pay Paul.