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The Singer Solution to World Poverty: Reducing Poverty

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The solution to reducing absolute poverty in developing countries has been an ongoing debate as it continues to be a pervasive problem. The United Nations placed the eradication of poverty as one of the Global Millenium goals, which has been now carried over to the Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to serve as a blueprint for a more environmentally conscious and prosperous future by 2030. Absolute Poverty is a prominent matter of discussion in the field of global justice, as it addresses the fact that citizens cannot even afford the basic necessities to live a minimal life. In addition, philosophers such as Thomas Pogge, Peter Singer and John Rawls states that absolute poverty is an injustice and diagnose that Intergovernmental Institutions (IGO’s) are a root part of the problem. This paper will argue that in spite of the counterarguments, institutions have a moral requirement to alleviate poverty.

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Firstly, according to Pogge’s backward analysis, the institutional order as a whole has caused poverty and the affluent world have violated our negative duty in participating in this order. Negative duty is defined as a duty to not cause injustice, and violation would include causing suffering to someone unnecessarily for your personal gain or removing pre-existing harm-preventive measures. Pogge believes it is morally required for IGO’s to help alleviate poverty by implementing new reforms that change the current global order. His view holds based on the Historical entitlement view of justice, Lockean Proviso and the Broadly Consequentialist view. The historical entitlement view of justice states that one does not have ownership over a good if it was acquired in an unjust way which was evident especially in the colonial period, indicating that rich countries are not entitled to resources over the global poor. The Lockean Proviso illustrates that the affluent have not left poor people enough amount of natural resources to live a decent life through institutional arrangements. To overcome this, it requires people to turn such natural resources acquired into private property, however this is only when there is more than enough resources for everyone to share. For example if water resources are abundant, people should encircle the water sources and collect their fair claim. However, if these people are living in a desert where there is only one source of water, no one can claim that source as their private property nor forbid other citizens from using it. This is relevant as in countries with citizens suffering from absolute poverty, such rights and regulations are not justly administered and it is not likely that these citizens can live a good life without these resources. The broadly consequentialist view states that if there is a feasible institutional alternative that can make the poor better off or minimise the outcome of poverty continuing to further persist, the institutional order currently in place is unjust. This is precisely what Pogge strongly believes. In Pogge’s eyes, the global institutional and economic order today only create benefits for the affluent. He condemns the current operations of international trading, resource production and distribution and consumption slows down the process of helping poor citizens out of slavery, unfair trade practices, sweatshop jobs and poor working conditions. One of his most prominent forward-looking solutions is the Great Resources Dividend (GRD), which he argues is feasible for IGO’s. It not only can help generate revenue for poverty reducing programs, but also discourage the use of resources in depletion or shortage. Moreover, IGOs will collect the dividends and distribute them to poor countries, aiming to eliminate corruption and political influence as if they don’t comply, the state in question would be sanctioned. He reiterates the injustice of existing IGOs as they are not implementing something like the GRD. Thus, IGO’s have a stringent negative duty to rethink their policies and assist the global poor, as the current policies only help to boost regulatory capture of the affluent.

Secondly, Singer’s stance states that IGOs have positive duties to protect such poor countries from poverty as citizens in those dire conditions are not capable of meeting basic necessities. Positive duty is defined as a duty to prevent or alleviate injustice harm that you have not caused but are capable of stopping. Singer explains this concept using the analogy of a child drowning in a shallow pond. If a child slips by himself to the pond, you should help them from his plight and not doing so indicates the violation of your positive duty. Despite the several differences between this shallow pond analogy and absolute poverty such as the difference in distance, Singer still urges for these institutions to uphold their positive duty. This is because IGO’s have spare resources that can help the poor improve their standards of living without incurring a heavy cost on themselves. More specifically, he says:

“If it is morally wrong to not save the drowning child, it is also morally wrong to not save children in poor countries who would potentially die right now due to poverty-related causes. This might ruin the expensive shoes I recently bought, but no matter what, the cost of saving is lower than its potential value.”

This can be exemplified by donations, active volunteer work, provision of vaccinations and clean water, education programs, lending schemes and microfinance projects to help stimulate Innovation and entrepreneurship. No matter the person needed to be rescued is right in front of you or on the other side of the globe, IGO’s have an obligation to help them. He regards helping a child in Africa of equal importance as caring about your family or local community, and objects the idea of the two competing with each other or focusing on one limits you from investing time on the other. On top of that, IGO’s have the power to help developing countries where law enforcement is weak and domestic issues like violence are being ignored, which also are vital in overcoming. Singer points out that the problem of poverty, from the global institutional view, is the arrangements and economic systems these IGO’s possess. Not only are individuals actions important, but it is also the duty of the collective. The countries part of these organisations collectively negotiate rules of the international system. If such rules were manipulated or intentionally not complied, the suffering and injustice continue in these poor countries. If these IGO’s were these poor countries’ only hope to improve socioeconomically, they are morally at fault. Hence, the states involved in these IGO’s should work together to create new systems and influence the rules enforced such that it does not impose harm to the poorer areas of humanity. So while saving the child is the just thing to do, after that you and others also have the duty to prevent future children from drowning. In other words, collective preventative action and overall contributes to the mitigation of poverty. Singer highlights the need for such collective duty and imposition of thoughtful and intelligent policies in IGO actions.The poverty cycle is a continuous cycle unless it is broken. If these IGO’s made up of affluent countries have the ability, power and resources to make institutional changes, they have a duty to be just and set course for human governance to achieve eradication of absolute poverty.  Thirdly, Rawls emphasises in the case of absolute poverty i.e. deficit in rights to subsistence, it is paramount that it be addressed in the international context. This is due to able countries having a 'duty of assistance' to help the burdened states to meet human rights. This is relevant as Poverty is a violation of article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A thing worth mentioning is that after being inspired by Rawls’ normative views, Pogge states that the minimal condition of a just institutional order is that it does not produce human rights deficits which can be avoided. 

Pogge and Rawls are also similar in the sense that they agree that the global institutional order works against the poor. Rawl argues there is a natural duty to further reform institutions into just establishments or assist the development of such institutions if it doesn’t exist already. This idea consists of two parts; first, we comply and do what is expected out of us to support existing just institutions, and second, if just institutions do not exist, we help establish them when this can be done without incurring a large cost. If we dig deeper, his view is a global original position, encompassing the Liberty Principle and the Difference Principle. Everyone has a right to equal liberty and socioeconomic inequalities are only justified if they benefit the worse off. Hence, the rich can only get richer if the poor were also having improvements in standards of living. After all, what is wrong with the poor becoming better off? We are all human beings with equal moral status who deserve to live a worthwhile life. Securing basic needs helps shape a “well-ordered and fair structure” for the poor, who have been born into an oppressed, corrupt and violent system that have not changed for years. The influential IGO’s are a fundamental skeleton of the social body, aiming to preserve international stability and sharing institutional responsibility if acting unjustly . To reduce the current disparity between rich and poor, it is imperative that they embody the duty of assistance and conduct redistributive measures that are equitable. Furthermore, the principles endorsed must be applied to everyone fairly without certain states dominating consensus or coercive political power. An example of a policy that could be changed is how the International Monetary Fund decides which countries to be members based on how much that country contributes financially. This is a policy very troublesome for poor countries. To put it simply, there should be an even playing field between all states. If not, poverty will continue to persist and institutions would have failed as a moral agent. Regardless of what caused it, they should assist the absolute poor to get on their feet and develop the capacity for self-determination. There is a duty to honor this right of subsistence.

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