by Thomas Pogge (ed). New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 425pp. Hardback. $125.00. ISBN: 9780199226313. Paper. $27.95/£14.99. ISBN: 9780199226184.

Reviewed by Brian M. Harward, Department of Political Science, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Email: bharwar [at]


Thomas Pogge and his colleagues at the UNESCO project on severe global poverty have provided a very readable, insightful, well-reasoned, timely, and exceedingly important collection of essays on the human right to be free from poverty. When more than one billion persons worldwide live below the $1 per day international poverty line, unable to access adequate food and other essential items, we are faced with a disastrous deprivation of basic human need and are forced to confront our own complicity in sustaining such an arrangement. The best essays in this series do this quite well, not by journalistic finger-wagging, but by compelling argumentation. This book would be a wonderful centerpiece to an advanced undergraduate or graduate seminar in political theory, especially if distributive justice and its critiques figure prominently, or an international institutions course. It may also work nicely as an adjunct to a philosophy of law or law and society course. However, the book is much less satisfying in this particular area as the explicit discussion of legal context is fairly limited.

The essays draw from philosophy, economics, law and political science to address what a human right to be free from poverty demands. The moral, human right to be free from severe poverty is not disputed among these authors. A number of compelling themes do emerge, however, as points of departure among the contributors. These include: the origin and nature of the right itself, the consequent duties and obligations such a right imposes, the scope and limits of a human right, mechanisms for achieving the right, the moral and legal effects of the non-attainment of the right.

While most of the essays in the collection can stand on their own as important contributions, reading them together is gratifying, as the authors provide welcome extensions and critiques of others’ works within the volume. In particular, the Pogge and Campbell essays become useful touchstones for many of the subsequent contributors.

In the opening essay, Thomas Pogge considers when and if severe poverty violates human rights. He argues that human rights are understood to grant individuals a moral claim to protective action from not just their own governments, but also from foreign governments and citizens (p.23). His analysis here focuses on negative duties – that actors must not actively cause another’s harm. That is, the moral right of a citizen imposes a negative duty upon those whose actions affect that [*699] citizen. Specifically, citizens in poverty stricken areas have moral claims against those who participate in arranging and imposing social and economic institutions that have pernicious effects on the welfare of the poor. This is the case because, as Pogge notes, “rules governing economic transactions are the most important casual determinant of the incidence and depth of poverty in the modern world” (p.26). As a consequence, an institutional arrangement that “foreseeably produces a reasonably avoidable excess of severe poverty . . . manifests a human rights violation on the part of those who participate in imposing the order” (p.30). The wealthy, then, have imposed an order that perpetuates and indeed may deepen world poverty. This constitutes a human rights violation insofar as the effects of the global order have been foreseeable. The wealthy then have the negative obligation to eliminate severe poverty.

Pogge calls for global institutional reform to address the discrete effects of any individual, state or corporate actors. The modifications he seeks are designed to bring about a more “evenhanded institutional design” (p.41) by limiting the asymmetries in privileges between rich countries and poor countries. It seems the principal mechanism for doing so would be the Global Resources Dividend (GRD) which he does not discuss in this essay, but develops elsewhere (e.g. Pogge 2001; 2002).

Alternatively, Tom Campbell argues that emphasizing violations of negative duties, for example, has the “unfortunate implication that the only poverty that we should privilege is that which results from official action or failures of unjust social and economic systems, rather than, for instance, the product of natural disasters or in themselves innocent individual acts whose unforeseeable cumulative effects result in economic harms” (p.62). His thesis is that emphasizing humanitarian bases for eradicating poverty has important advantages over approaches from justice. He notes that “if poverty is a violation of human rights it is primarily because of the stringency of the moral demands arising from the existence of suffering (humanitarianism), irrespective of the special characteristics or merits of those involved (justice)” [parentheses added (p. 66)]. The universal obligation to relieve extreme global poverty, then, is grounded in a humanitarian impulse and requirement backed by coercive international tax and transfer mechanisms like his Global Humanitarian Levy (GHL). While the coercive nature of such a system may seem to run counter to his thesis, Campbell insists that once we have made the moral progress necessary to recognize the universal humanitarian obligation, failure to live up to it may raise issues of justice such as those discussed by Pogge in the previous essay.

John Tasioulas develops a different thesis in the third chapter. He argues, contra Pogge, that a human rights claim in any particular case need not be linked to a particular institutional arrangement that failed to protect the claimant. Rather, a right of freedom from poverty is founded upon “the rights-generating notion that some universal human interests of individuals have the right kind of significance to justify the imposition of duties” (p.101). [*700]

In the next essay, Alvaro de Vita builds upon Pogge’s analysis and offers a counterpoint to Campbell by exploring the global institutional arrangements and their effect on severe poverty. Specifically, de Vita distinguishes between humanitarian aid and justice. In his view, a moral basis for the responsibility to provide humanitarian aid is only sufficient to cover some of what is morally significant in terms of international inequality. By his view, justice demands a consideration of how to rectify the dramatic inequalities generated by global institutional arrangements (p.107). The unfair distributive effects of international arrangements, he argues, make a focus on distributive justice (as opposed to simply humanitarian aid) compelling.

In a particularly insightful essay, Marc Fleurbaey proposes that any inequality in wealth carries with it oppressive qualities. When the parties to trade include one who is severely poor, the effect is all the more pernicious. His thesis is that inequality (especially severe poverty) forces participants to accept options (work, for example) they would otherwise refuse. That is, “a society in which the poor are legally constrained to ‘accept’ degrading living and working conditions thus allows an oppression to be brought to bear on them which is close enough to physical violence for one to regard it as a violation of their personal integrity” (p.144). Such an analysis is interestingly connected to familiar objections to redistributive programs (e.g. Nozick 1974), as this perspective involves the consideration of the fairness in acquisition and transfer of holdings among unequal participants to trade.

Regina Kreide addresses the question of whether severe poverty is a violation of human rights by distinguishing between two interests human beings have – a strong interest in achieving basic capacities (including health, shelter, food, and the like) and a weak interest in achieving advanced capacities (pursuing one’s view of the good life). The strong moral claim on the fulfillment of basic capacities, she argues, is “not up for political discussion” (p.166) and includes a universal moral claim to comprehensive health care. The weaker moral claim on the fulfillment of advanced capacities is contingent on the political will and economic capabilities of local and national institutions. These two claims constitute a right to social autonomy which carries with it obligations that extend to the relevant duty-bearers, namely the nation state (and other nation states) as well as transnational corporations.

The Elizabeth Ashford essay accepts that there are negative duties that attend agents in relationship to the severely poor. But, she argues, there are also positive duties deriving from both utilitarian and Kantian deontological bases. The implementation of both negative and positive duties is a responsibility to be borne by global institutions and the citizens who participate in those institutions. That is, the severe poverty that is maintained by unjust institutional arrangements presents a claim on the duty-bearer to accept their responsibility to take action to reform the institutions.

Alan Gerwith argues for an agency-empowering approach to alleviating severe poverty. Rather than pursuing remedies that force the poor to rely upon [*701] the effectiveness of their own governments, or the efficacy of international aid, an agency-empowering approach –buttressed by democratic institutions – aims to enable individuals in the poor countries to develop “their own human capital, their own abilities of productive agency so that they can provide for their own needs” (p.233).

Marcelo Alegre suggests that severe poverty violates a basic human right, which draws from the principle of humanity and also from justice. The means to secure freedom from severe poverty are best achieved through the constitutionalization of the right in democratic systems, as an independent judiciary may be uniquely situated to address violations of the right.

Leif Wernar proposes that the responsibility for eradicating severe poverty rests with the agent who can most easily avert the threat at the least cost. The chain of responsibility is traced from the individual in severe poverty, to her co-nationals, to the international community, and ultimately to individuals in the developed world. That is, if all prior responsibility holders are unwilling or unable to be responsible for the basic needs of those in severe poverty, ultimate responsibility may rest with individuals vary far removed from the suffering.

Simon Caney argues that Pogge’s institutional approach and the attending duties of justice are necessary, but not sufficient to eradicate severe poverty. A scheme of negative as well as positive duties of justice, he argues, is needed if severe poverty is to be eliminated.

Stephane Chauvier establishes three empirical conditions for poverty to be considered a violation of a right: it must be possible to remedy poverty; the poverty must be involuntary; and it ought to be regarded as a result of negative externalities (since intentional acts of poverty inducement are rare and the obligations of its perpetrators are immediately apparent). The concept of the social contract obligates the state to live up to its promise of securing subsistence for its citizens. In addition, conceiving of freedom from poverty as a human (natural) rights violation implicates each property owner worldwide to compensate those who are vitally insecure through a system of taxes, transfers and market adjustments.

Arjun Sengupta views freedom from poverty as an important element of a composite right to development. The right to development involves a process by which all human rights and fundamental freedoms are secured (p.338). The principal duty-bearer, in this context, is the state, though international organizations and other states have an obligation to provide assistance as individual states develop appropriate methods to address poverty.

Osvaldo Guariglia, like Sengupta, sees the state as the primary duty-bearer in the eradication of poverty. His essay explores the notion of positive and negative rights and duties with special attention to libertarian objections to the notion of positive obligations.

The final essay, by Roberto Gargarella, is quite distinct from the preceding contributions. Gargarella’s principal interest is in the limits to citizens’ obligation to obey the law when the state [*702] has legally alienated a class of citizens. Drawing from Locke and Jefferson, he argues that when the primary duty-bearer (the state) affords disadvantaged groups no protection from severe deprivation, the law is “causally and morally implicated in their suffering” (p.369). As a consequence, those groups have no general duty to obey the law.

Few topics are as important, and few texts are as nourishing in addressing the issues involved. If one is inclined to incorporate this text into a course, selection of several thematically linked essays would work nicely – whether the topic is negative or positive rights and duties; justice versus humanitarian aid; legal as opposed to moral rights and duties; distributive justice and its libertarian critique; or liberalism and communitarianism. The compiled essays are clear, accessible, and forward-thinking, with plenty to offer the seminarians in terms of contemporary context. As a whole, the chapters challenge the reader’s consumptive way of living – and in particular his or her relationship with local, national and international institutions, as well as his or her understanding of the complexities of rights and obligations, justice and humanitarianism. Most significantly, the book will demand a reconsideration of the relationship between transnational corporations, international institutions, governments, and individuals of the developed world and those suffering severe deprivation worldwide.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA. New York: Basic Books.

Pogge, Thomas. 2001. “Eradicating Systemic Poverty: Brief for a Global Resources Dividend.” JOURNAL OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, 2(1): 59-77.


© Copyright 2008 by the author, Brian M. Harward.