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Science 5

German philosopher/professor takes on global poverty

by Meghan Stratton

Professor, academic and human rights activist Thomas Pogge was introduced by Max Pensky, chair of the Philosophy Department, as "an exemplary model of what it looks like for an intellectual to 'walk the walk.'"

During Pogge's visit to campus on Oct. 23, Pensky hailed Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, as having bridged the gap between academic scholarship and political activism "probably more than any other working philosopher."

In his lecture to Harpur College students, the German philosopher certainly bridged this gap, blending data, personal experience, research, and philosophical evaluation to explain the causes of and possible solutions to global poverty.

Pogge started by explaining global poverty to a packed room of students.

"In a world population of somewhat over 7 billion people, there is still a very large number of people who suffer various kinds of deprivation," he said. This includes lack of access to medication, safe drinking water, adequate shelter, electricity and sanitation in addition to widespread malnutrition.

Ultimately, he said, "About a third of all human lives end in death from a poverty-related cause."

And this, he said, is an unethical violation of human rights.

"We all love the universal declaration of human rights," he said, "but here is one human right on that list, the right to a minimally adequate standard of living, that is not fulfilled for roughly the bottom half of the human population."

The root of this problem, Pogge said, is the unequal distribution of global wealth and power.

Pogge presented data showing that the top 5 percent of the global population controls almost half of global household income while the bottom 25 percent control about three quarters of one percent.

He argued that the current global system perpetuates this "dizzying inequality" by allowing the rich to convert their money into influence and even more money, a phenomenon he termed "regulatory capture."

In this system, which Pogge said is prevalent in every society, politicians and private agents benefit while common people are exploited "but the people who control the game don't care."

In the last 25 years, this system has shifted to a global scale, which Pogge said is the "ideal environment for regulatory capture."

"At the supranational level of rule-making," he said, "there isn't a lot of democracy; there isn't a lot of accountability; there isn't a lot of transparency."

This allows the wealthy to induce powerful governments to promote their interests at supranational meetings, ultimately resulting in advantages for them, but not always for the general population.

According to Pogge's theory, this has resulted in a global system of institutions, laws and practices that benefit the rich while degrading the poor. Pogge pointed specifically to the withholding of modern medicines and the sale of nations' natural resources by the powerful. In some cases, this has led to oppression of the people and the loss of their resources.

According to Pogge, these countries are often unstable and badly governed "because there's a lot of competition to get into power and it doesn't matter how you do it. You don't have to be elected; all you need to do is have armed people and take over the presidential palace."

While Pogge does not claim that his theory is absolute, he maintains that it is plausible. In reacting to a common argument that the success of individual countries varies in spite of uniform international rules and practices, Pogge drew on his experience as a professor at Yale University.

He explained that although some students succeed and some fail, this does not mean that common factors such as a professor do not affect their success. According to Pogge, varied performance "could still be possibly closely related to global phenomenon that affected all other different students or all of these developing countries."

Once the central pillars of his argument are accepted, he said, anyone who takes human rights seriously is ethically obligated to promote an international system in which human rights can be fulfilled. Doing otherwise, he said, would constitute a human rights violation.

"A minimal conception of justice would then mean that institutional governments must at least be human rights compliant," he said.

"In this crucial phase where global institutional architecture is being built," he said, "if we can make that architecture just a little bit more friendly towards poor people, that would make a deep and lasting difference long term."

According to Pogge, this can be achieved through widespread institutional reform, not through development aid, which is often ultimately self-serving.

A major component of this will be balancing power and wealth distribution and reducing the prevalence of regulatory capture, he said.

Admitting that reforms cannot guarantee the eradication of poverty, he said, "All we can do, what we are responsible for ... is to create an environment in which lousy governments, bad governments, do not find it very easy to prosper."

Referencing recent intergovernmental promises to reduce poverty, Pogge said the lack of felt responsibility and accountability, as well as misleading phrasing of goals has rendered such promises ineffective.

"We have to move from detached goals to agreed responsibilities," he said.

Additionally, Pogge said, there must be an effort to tax harmful elements of the global order and close the loopholes that allow them. This includes demanding minimal standards of governance and legitimate taking of power before allowing natural resource trades. Pogge hopes these measures would allow developing countries to prosper.

In arranging the lecture, which was sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and co-sponsored by the Harpur College Dean's Office, the departments of economics and sociology and the Philosophy, Politics and Law Program, Pensky said his hope was that students would see that "studying philosophy gives them the ability to think about the connection between very abstract thinking ... and very real types of things."

Pogge also encouraged students to bridge this gap, advising them to apply their personal talents to global problems. He suggested pursuing a political career to influence reforms, writing a blog to promote awareness, or somehow becoming wealthy and founding institutions focused on alleviating poverty.

Pogge attempted to convey his sense of personal responsibility to the students in attendance.

"I feel that as an individual I should do something to compensate for the harm that we collectively do," he said.

He compared the current state of global affairs to a rocket, saying that using just a little magnet, you can change that rocket's trajectory and ultimately make a difference.

"I hope that I'm right and I hope that I can achieve something with my little magnet," he said, "and I hope that you can help me with your little magnets to make a real difference."

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Last Updated: 12/10/14