Who’s Responsible for Helping the Poor?

Social protection is generally thought to be desirable, and governments have often attempted to provide it, If government is intended to provide for human wants, and people want social protection, governments will do it. This much is unsurprising, and unexceptional.

Spickler (2000:193) 

While there are certainly those who argue that, as a species, humans are not naturally responsible for anyone other than themselves, and/or that individuals should help themselves, there are a number of others who express ideas that detract from this broad generalization. The above quote from Spickler remains similar to an expression by Rawls, who passes comment that it is the duty of the States to assist one another. Such theories however, can be posited to remain negligent of the contribution and persistence of the global poverty problem by rich first world nations and multi-national actors. Such misconceptions Pogge claims are based on the perception that poverty is essentially nationally developed, and as such is independent of international factors which operate toward the problems perpetuation. He reinforces that all poverty as it exists in the world is the result of, in part or total, the actions of numerous actors, and that those who are the cause of poverty also hold the responsibility to end it.  Pogge states;

At present, each country is in charge of its own poverty eradication and most of the rich countries see no urgency in helping with this process …The existing global trading regime contributes to the perpetuation of poverty through the asymmetrical market opening that took place in the 1990s. Poor countries still do not enjoy unfettered access to our markets and are still hampered by anti-dumping duties, quotas and very high subsidies, for instance on agricultural products and textiles. Not only do these subsidies make poor countries’ products uncompetitive on rich countries’ markets. They also hamper poor countries’ products in other markets because they allow the rich countries to undersell these products everywhere. By upholding a global economic order that grandfathers the rich countries’ right to impose such protectionist measures into the global trading system, the rich countries greatly contribute to the persistence of the world poverty problem. (UNESCO 2003).

Pogge focuses intently, on the notion that global poverty provides strong attributions toward personal duty, such that the perception of any negative duty to amend personal adverse action becomes more powerful than the recognized positive duty to help, regardless any aspect of responsibility. This perception, that individuals should act to rectify self-implemented actions that resulted in detriment to others, appears to carry more significance than the ideal that assistance should be offered simply because it is possible to do so.

This opposing argument can also be used to frame the idea that there is a moral and social obligation to provide social protection. Peter Singer often champions this line of thought in arguing that, the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of poverty causation is unimportant, those who can end poverty have a responsibility to do so. To explain this mode of thought Singer provided, during his Moral Persuasion for Global Poverty, the example of the drowning child. Poverty, and the resulting responsibility to act, he remarks, remains consistent regardless of locale, and irrespective of whether instances of poverty remain far away, or in our own ‘backyard’. While this may hole some features in common with the attitudes proposed by Pogge, especially since multi-national corporations and state bodies are in the strongest position to act. Singer takes this a step further identifying that the responsibility lies with all individuals. He notes statistically, and with similar information provided from Pogge, that it is within the ability of the world’s wealthy minority to end poverty with relatively little personal expenditure. It is therefore, a shared responsibility to provide assistance, irrespective of why such assistance is required or who initiated the problem.

A third argument might lay in the tenants of religious belief, for which most state in some means or another that one should act (toward others) in such a manner that they would hope to see others act (toward them). So should the expectation be to help the poor simply under the understanding that this is what one might expect should they be in that same situation?

To outward appearances it would seem that there are three incongruous understandings pertaining to the responsibility of action toward assistance. Pogge’s understanding of events relate more directly to personalistic understandings that negative duties are more important toward determining action. Singer conversely removes any application of the personal sense of culpability. What strengthens Singers argument is its ability to remain consistent in the absence of human causation, such as in the case of poverty resulting from natural disaster

A more balanced argument falling somewhat toward the median of all these would contend that, people maintain some responsible for their own condition of poverty, in addition to notions which provide that governments, multi-national actors and natural conditions hold some culpability, and have the means to interrupt methods of effective action as a result of the need to assign responsibility. Frequently it is noted that ‘the poor’, under typical situations, don’t want or require handouts. What they strive for is a means to be able to better help themselves. It is with this understanding that individuals, corporations, and governmental bodies possess a duty or responsibility to create an infrastructure which supports the means for ‘the poor’ to begin being able to help themselves in improving their own situation. The following quote is one that perhaps provides an image through which to gain a generalized perception of poverty

… think of poverty as a tsunami in which not everyone can out run. Some will out run this wave, even thrive, while others are too slow and are consumed by the wave. All people have a personal responsibility for their economic standing, but collectively as a species we are all responsible for the elimination or augmentation of poverty, which goes beyond government responsibility (Hardy 2011)

So who is responsible for the poor?



Peter Singer: Moral Persuasion for Global Poverty

Thomas Pogge: Global Poverty – A Crime Against Humanity?

Thomas Pogge: Ending Poverty




Spicker, P. 2000. ‘The welfare states’, in The welfare state: a general theory, Sage Publications, London, p. 00.

 UNESCO Media Service, 2003. Interview with philosopher Thomas Pogge on the fight against poverty, viewed 12 May 2014. <http://www.unesco.org/new/en/media-services/single-view/news/interview_with_philosopher_thomas_pogge_on_the_fight_against_poverty/#.U3n7TN6_2Ul>.

Hardy, E. 2013. ‘Who is responsible for the Poverty? Hubpages, Weblog post, June 2013, viewed 16 May 2014, <http://hubpages.com/forum/topic/99311&gt;.


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