Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Tens of thousands die, why? Who is responsible?

12,000 missing in Otsuchi, Japan
It seems that the death toll of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan is going to exceed 10,000. According to news reports, 12,000 out of a population of 15,000 have disappeared in the town of Otsuchi. The threat of meltdown of nuclear power stations is posing a possibly greater threat. This is a shocking and deeply troubling situation for the people of Japan which has grabbed the attention of the world. The media is rightly highlighting the plight of the people. However, in other parts of the world, there are tens of thousands of deaths taking place daily which go largely unnoticed and unreported in the world’s media.

Poverty kills 50,000 people every day, including 29,000 under age of five (Pogge, 2007). If these deaths occurred equally everywhere then that would mean that 3,200 Britons would have died last week, or 832,000 Americans would have died last year due to poverty. What is more, these deaths are preventable with little cost. However, in general I think we are not really that interested in world poverty or inequality, and perhaps are even irritated by being presented with it. We may also feel that we cannot do anything about it even if we want to.

In this blog, I take a look at what one philosopher, Thomas Pogge, has to say about the reality of world poverty and inequality, about responsibility, and about what we can do to change it. A philosopher, I hear you say, what good could philosophising about poverty be?

Although philosophy is generally not considered to be directly applicable to everyday life, I am drawn towards those philosophers who attempt to apply philosophy to contemporary problems. One such philosopher is Thomas Pogge who has written a book entitled ‘World Poverty and Human Rights’. I hope to complete my MA dissertation assessing his argument for a human right to be free from poverty. He begins his book with some shocking truths about poverty and inequality in our world. First some truths about world poverty…

The statistics presented below are taken from the 2nd edition of his book (2007, Polity Press).

Extent of world poverty

Poverty kills 50,000 people every day, including 29,000 under age of five.
15% of all human beings (950 million) live below the extreme poverty line. (World Bank – 2004).
40% of worlds population live in severe poverty (2,533 million) (World Bank – 2004)
31% lack access to essential drugs.
Their equivalent buying power in a year is about £350 in the UK. (p103)

Extent of global inequality

High Income Countries: 15.7% of world population. 79% of aggregate global income.

Collective consumption expenditure of bottom 15% of world population: 0.2% of aggregate global income.

Lifting the world population out of severe poverty would reduce high income countries share of the global income from 78.98% to 78.90%.

Afghan children living in extreme poverty
Trends in world poverty and inequality

Life expectancy has risen greatly in many countries and infant mortality has fallen substantially. However, since 1987 the number of people in poverty has barely declined.

1996: 186 governments (Rome declaration on world food security) committed to halving the number of undernourished people. Since then, this number has risen, even though real food prices have dropped. (p105).

Pogge illustrates how global inequality has increase significantly over the 20 year period from 1984 to 2004.

Inequality 1984 to 2004        Consumption expenditure changes over 20 year period
OECD Countries                             up 56.3%
Middle 50%                                    up 48.6%
Bottom 20%                                   up 36.2%
Bottom 10%                                   up 32.6%  
Bottom 1%                                     up 9.6%

This increase in inequality is a measure of the avoidability of poverty according to Pogge. (p105)


Overall, these statistics show the depressing truth of poverty and inequality in our world. However, people dying from poverty is nothing new. But does that mean that we should just ignore it?

Pogge maintains that it is the extent of global inequality that is new. It is not only a minority elite that have real wealth while everyone else lives in poverty. A high standard of living is enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people, and the global economy means that it would cost very little (less than 1% of the global product) to eliminate poverty, which would hardly affect the lifestyles of the affluent.

But we still are not really that interested. We are not causing it, right? It might be altruistic to do something to help, but that doesn’t really move us to action. I will explore these issues and how Pogge addresses them in subsequent blogs.

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