The recent Panama Papers leak, which brought to the attention of the public crimes such as tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and other immoral instruments used by privileged individuals or companies throughout the world, has shaken one country after another, leading to resounding resignations. But it also has much more profound implications. These revelations, which also mention the names of Romanian businessmen and politicians who apparently have hidden their assets and businesses behind the screen of offshore companies, represent nevertheless just the tip of the iceberg and point to a more profound problem. Thomas Pogge, Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Harvard, Professor and Founding Director of the Global Justice Programme at Yale University, explained in a presentation given at the end of May in Bucharest, that global discrepancy in wealth, income and influence between the poor and the rich, the situation in which the rich do not want and the poor can no longer take part in the creation of public goods, represents a threat to societies.
Pogge started his conference held in Bucharest with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says, in Article 1, that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, and in Article 2 that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms (…) without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.
‘One minimum condition for the justice of the institutional scheme, and for the global order in particular, is that it should be structured and designed so that human rights are fulfilled as much it is reasonable possible’, said Pogge at the event organised by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Romania, in the series called Sustainable Romania.
He added that we have a tremendous human rights deficit in the world today and this deficit is largely traceable to the way our global order it is structured „and therefore our global order falls far short of being a just order”.
‘We are 7,4 billion people in the world today and of these people very large numbers – about half – suffer severe deprivation of one form or another; they are either malnourished, they lack access to certain medicines, drinking water, shelter, electricity, many are illiterate and many children do chores outside their households’.
Pogge also said that one-third of all human deaths are from poverty-related causes – 18 million annually, including 12 million children under five – and the poorest 44 percent of humankind have 1.3 percent of global income and 826 million of them do not have enough to eat. On the other hand, the 15 percent of humankind in the developed countries have 80 percent of global income.
Disconnected from mass poverty abroad
Pogge, who is a member of the Norwegian Science Academy and Chairman of Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP), an international network that plans to raise the impact that researchers, professors and students have in the process of combating global poverty, argues that shifting 1 or 2 percent of the wealthy states’ share toward poverty eradication is morally compelling. This data, the expert mentioned, can be found in his book – “World Poverty and Human Rights.”
„If you add that 18 million over 25 years since the Cold War you will see that we have had about 450 million deaths due to poverty-related causes during that period and that overshadows all the Government-sponsored violent deaths over the entire century”, says Pogge. So it is clear, according to him, that „world poverty has overtaken war as the greatest source of avoidable human misery”.
Thomas Pogge also underlined the reality that our “moral and economic theorizing and our global economic order” have adapted to make us appear disconnected from mass poverty abroad. And the big problem is that „global inequality is increasing as the global poor are not participating proportionately in global economic growth”.
„We have a very large human rights deficit in the world today. Many people don’t have their human rights fulfilled”, says Pogge.
„It’s foreseeable that most of this human rights deficit could be reasonably avoidable with an alternative design of our global rules. The first step is to look at the global income distribution which is very uneven – you have 43% of all global income going to the top 5% of the world’s population, about the same amount goes to the next 20% so the top quarter has about 85% and the bottom half has only about 4% of the global income, the bottom quarter only 1.22%”, Thomas Pogge explained. So, the specialist is saying that given the total income and wealth available in the world today we could easily overcome poverty which would require raising the share of the bottom half. But, he explained that we should not think of poverty eradication as a matter of collecting money and giving it to the poor, but by reforming the global rules.
„Unfortunately, the trend is going in the opposite direction”, he added.
Ordinary citizens must come to an adequate understanding of their moral responsibilities
Regarding wealth, Pogge underlined that „for the first time, the top 1% of people in the world now have more than half of all global wealth – 50.4% of global wealth”.
„How much wealth do you think more than half of the human population has? They have 0.6% of global wealth. 0.6% of global wealth is held by the bottom half of the human population. What percent of the human population do you need to take from the top in order to balance those 0,6%? The answer is 0.0000008%. So, you need only 62 people from the top to match the wealth of the bottom half of human population. 62 billionaires”, said the expert.
Referring to two countries that were at one point at approximately the same level in what concerns poverty but went on to evolve differently, Pogge compared them to two students. He gave South Korea and Senegal as examples. While the former has almost completely eradicated poverty, the latter continues to struggle with this problem. In the case of the two students who are evolving differently, it can be said that the teacher is at fault. That is wrong, the specialist says.
„The teacher can improve the whole class and can also affect the differences among the students by choosing certain teaching materials or teaching styles, and can also motivate or demotivate students. Of course the global factors are also relevant, of course there is a difference between Korea and Senegal that explains the difference in performance, but that doesn’t mean that the global factors do not also play a role in the explanation. So it is possible that with a different global order, Senegal would have done better, and Korea would have done worse”, Pogge says.
Pogge thinks that the global institutional order contributes to severe poverty by some international privileges. First, by giving potential oppressors privileges to try to take power by force and facilitating and fostering oppressive and corrupt governments in less developed countries. Secondly, the rules of the global institutional order which may affect people more directly, for example by protecting their markets against cheap imports. Thirdly, the globalization of intellectual property rights that excludes the global poor from the benefits of pharmaceutical innovation and which causes the absence of generic competition and multiplies the prices of advanced medicines, for example.
What can be done? In Pogge’s view, it is extremely important to enable ordinary citizens – in the developed countries especially – to come to an adequate understanding of their moral situation and responsibilities. One man cannot change a lot, it is true, but millions of citizens saying and doing the same thing in unison can change government’s policies. Also, the specialist says that it would be very helpful for scientists to overcome their tendency to explain poverty and hunger exclusively in terms of causal factors and to do so through substantial inquiries into the effects of unfulfilled human rights.