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World Poverty: Explanations and Responsibilities

We citizens of the affluent countries tend to discuss our obligations toward the distant needy in terms of donations and transfers, assistance and redistribution: "How much of our wealth, if any, should we give away to the hungry abroad?" According to philosopher, Thomas Pogge, this way of conceiving the problem is a serious moral error, and a very costly one for the global poor. It depends on the false belief — widespread in the rich countries — that the causes of the persistence of severe poverty are wholly indigenous to the countries in which it occurs. Pogge agrees that there are indeed national and local factors that contribute to persistent poverty in developing countries. But global institutional rules also play an important role in its reproduction, in part by sustaining the national and local factors that affluent Westerners most like to blame for the problem. Since these rules are shaped by our governments, in our name, we hear moral responsibility not merely by assisting the distant poor too little, but also, and more significantly, by harming them too much.

Since receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard, Thomas Pogge has been teaching moral and political philosophy and Kant at Columbia University. His recent publications include Freedom from Poverty as a Human Right, edited, Oxford forthcoming: World Poverty and Human Rights, Polity 2002; and with Sanjay Reddy "How Not to Count the Poor," in Anand and Stiglitz, eds.: Measuring Global Poverty, Oxford forthcoming.

Pogge is editor for social and political philosophy for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science, and is currently Professorial Research Fellow at the ANU Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.