Priorities of Global Justice by Thomas Pogge — A Summary

Title: Priorities of Global Justice
Author: Thomas Pogge
Publication: Metaphilosophy, Vol. 32, Nos 1/2 (January 2001)


  • As in the essay, all first person plurals (“we”, “us”, “our”, “ourselves”) refer to the developed countries while third person plurals refer, unless explicitly stated or obvious from the context, to developing countries;
  • The divisions are my own insertions and are not present in the original essay; and
  • Although I should not mention this, all facts and figures are dated to the time the essay was written (i.e., the dawn of the millennium).


Why have the affluent states done so little to alleviate global poverty? The demise of the Soviet Union not only enabled the availability of funds for such a purpose by reducing military spending but also facilitated the incorporation of moral values into foreign policy. But official development assistance (ODA) from developed countries has actually decreased.

To add to the puzzle, developed countries have been very willing to spend obscene amounts in military interventions to save, say, a million Serbs in Yugoslavia. Why not spend similar amounts without endangering anyone in order to save many millions of lives?

To put the importance of this question in perspective, consider the following facts: a quarter of all people live below the international poverty line[1]; 790 million people are malnourished; one billion are without safe water; 2.4 billion are without basic sanitation; 880 million lack basic services; one billion are without shelter and two billion are without electricity.

Deprivation not only leads to the underfulfillment of social and economic human rights but also civil and political human rights. Severe poverty is the greatest source of human misery today causing more suffering and deaths than all violent conflicts around the world combined.

Reducing severe poverty is not easy but it is easier than violent ‘humanitarian’ interventions which, unlike poverty reduction, have significant moral and economic costs that are hard to determine and often end up worsening the situation.


The position of the developed countries on global poverty can be summed up as under:

  1.  We are able to reduce poverty and hunger and diseases associated therewith at a modest cost, [2]
  2. We are willing to spend a tiny fraction of our national income toward such a reduction,
  3. But we are not legally or morally obligated to give any weight at all to this goal.

The denial of the obligation to reduce would be acceptable if the invisible hand of the market were doing the job on its own. But along with the ascendency of the “new economic architecture” consisting of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO as well as the healthy aggregate economic growth, there has been an increase in poverty in absolute terms.[3]

This new architecture has to be rethought if poverty is to be eradicated within an acceptable time span. It is completely dominated by a few countries and the openness of the global market has little positive consequence for poor countries whose lack of infrastructure excludes them from the ‘open’ market. A special effort is needed to jump-start development.

This is not an argument against globalisation. But it does show that the developed states must remove their protectionist barriers and make a considerable non-market-driven effort to get the poorest quartile to the point where they too can benefit from globalisation. Failing that, the new economic architecture will further increase global economic inequality or even aggravate the horrendous conditions among the poorest quartile.

Global economic inequality has persistently increased.[4] What has changed though is the capacity of the affluent states to effect massive and rapid reductions in severe poverty. It is economically feasible to wipe out poverty, hunger and disease without real inconvenience to anyone.


The conclusion from the foregoing paragraphs could be: “If we can make so huge a difference to hundreds of millions at so little cost to ourselves, we must not refuse to make this effort.”

The call for action, in this instance, is predicated on the fact that it can be done at “so little cost to ourselves”. This ground for action is misleading. It is a moral duty that requires serious effort toward reducing poverty. But not only that, the incidence of poverty among the billions in impoverished countries is deeply connected to us.

“First, their social starting positions and ours have emerged from a single historical process that was pervaded by massive grievous wrongs. … Second, they and we depend on a single natural resource base, from the benefits of which they are largely, and without compensation, excluded. … Third, they and we coexist within a single global economic order that has a strong tendency to perpetuate and even to aggravate global economic inequality.”

Given these connections, the failure to act on poverty is not merely a lack of beneficence (a line of thought popular among leaders) but an active impoverishing, starving and killing of millions of innocent people by economic means (an idea that is, unfortunately, rarely taken seriously). The harms were not intended nor foreseen, but now that the results are in, we have to realise that it was our mistake and act to rectify it.

(The next section explores the third connection between the affluent and the poor countries)


(Note: Familiarity with John Rawl’s conception of “justice as fairness” especially the “difference principle” and, to a lesser extent, his conception of the Society of Peoples is recommended.)

Free and competitive markets are quite compatible with huge and ever increasing inequality. A principle, like Rawls’ difference principle for national economies, is needed that would help assess the distributive effects of alternative global orders. Rawls, for his Society of Peoples, insists on a universal minimum as a constraint on unbridled inequality. This principle is unobjectionable and hugely important. But it does not suffice. The inegalitarian tendencies built into the global market oriented order is not made right by keeping the losers of the system from falling below a certain minimum. Rawls downplays and obscures the causal role of the global economic order in perpetrating, aggravating and perpetuating poverty and inequality.

Against this criticism, it is often argued that it is not the economic order but the governments in poor countries that are to blame for they do not implement optimal policies. The success of the “Asian Tigers” and the state of Kerala in India are cited in defence.

However, what is true of the Asian Tigers or of Kerala cannot be true for all. If all poor countries took up manufacturing just as the Asian Tigers did, there would have been much less profit to go around. The Asian Tigers exploited a niche and once that niche was filled, it made no economic sense for many more to join in.

Also, there may be systemic reasons why poor countries are unable to implement ‘optimal’ policies. The incidence of endemic corruption in developing countries and the unwillingness of the elite in these countries may be consequences of the global economic order itself.

(The next section develops this second point.)


Bribery is an unavoidable menace in developing countries. The distribution of contracts is greatly influenced by bribes. Bribes not only generate non-competitive work but also weaken regulation and quality control. Enormous losses are incurred as a result.

While this might lead to the conclusion that it is the greed of officials in developing countries that is to blame, the conclusion is punctured by the fact the developed states have not merely permitted bribes but morally justified them (by deducting bribes from taxes). Fortunately, this practice is being phased out.[5]

One could also conclude that even if they were not bribed by foreigners, the ruling elites in developing countries would have enriched themselves anyway. Many of these countries are undemocratic and many are outright violent.

This conclusion is problematic for the crucial reason that any group or indeed person, regardless of its character, controlling a preponderance of the means of coercion within the country is recognised as the legitimate government of the country’s territory and its people. That group becomes the representative of the country with which international dealings takes place.

One pertinent example of such dealings is the international borrowing privilege which imposes valid legal obligations on the country at large. Given this feature, a democratic successor to an autocratic government has to uphold the borrowing burden incurred by the previous government.

This has important negative consequences for human rights fulfilment in developing countries: “First, this privilege facilitates borrowing by destructive governments … which helps them stay in power even against near-universal popular discontent and opposition. Second, the international borrowing privilege imposes upon democratic successor regimes the often huge debts of their corrupt predecessors which saps the capacity of such democratic governments to implement structural reforms and other political programs … Third, the international borrowing privilege provides incentives toward coup attempts.”

There is also the international resource privilege that grants the power to effect legally valid transfers of ownership rights of natural resources. Corporations that have purchased resources from ruling families in developing countries become legitimate owners and acquires all rights and liberties of ownership.

This has disastrous consequences for poor countries whose economies are dominated by the resource sector. It creates strong incentives for violent coup attempts and undemocratic exercise of political power and also motivates foreigners to corrupt local officials. The chain of poverty caused by corruption caused by natural-resource wealth brings us to the international resource privilege.


These brief remarks on bribery and on the international borrowing and resource privileges show at least in outline how the current global order we uphold shapes the national culture and policies of the poorer and weaker countries. It does so in four main ways: It crucially affects what sorts of persons exercise political power in these countries, what incentives these persons face, what options they have, and what impact the implementation of any of their options would have on their most-disadvantaged compatriots.

In this global order, the developing countries are too weak to exert any real influence on the way the global economy is organised. The governments in these countries comprised as they are of elites have little incentive to alleviate the suffering of their poor counterparts. Their (corrupt elitist governments in developing contries) and our survival and flourishing are dependent on the continuation of the global order which therefore appears proper.

“The conclusion is once again that the underfulfillment of human rights in the developing countries is not a homegrown problem, but one we greatly contribute to through the policies we pursue and the international order we impose. We have then not merely a positive responsibility with regard to global poverty … but a negative responsibility to stop imposing the existing global order and to prevent and mitigate the harms it continually causes for the world’s poorest populations. … The reduction of severe global poverty should be our foremost moral priority.”


[1] “is one 1985 US dollar per person per day at purchasing power parity (PPP).”

[2] “Even if the FAO’s proposed annual increase of $6 billion (from the World Food Summit 1996) were to reduce hunger faster than expected, this should be no cause of regret… an extra %6 billion is not much to ask from the high-income countries, whose combined GNP in 2998 was $22,599 bilion.”

[3] “From 1.2 billion in 1987 to 1.5 bilion today (1999) and if trends persist, will reach 1.9 billion by 2015.”

[4] “The income gap between the fifth of the world’s people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest was 74 to 1 in 1997, up from 60 to 1 in 1990 and 30 to 1 in 1960.” Earlier estimates are 11 to 1 for 1913, 7 to 1 for 1870, and 3 to 1 for 1820.”

[5] “The first major step was the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, enacted after the Lockheed Corporation was found to have paid a $2 million bribe not to a Third World potentate, but to Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. It took another twenty years until thirty-two affluent states, under OECD auspices and under public pressure generated by a new nongovernmental organization (Transparency International), signed a Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials in International Business Transactions, which requires them to criminalize the bribery of foreign


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