Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

10: Global Poverty and Wealth

  • Page ID
    11159
  • Poverty and wealth are often found side by side. They are two dimensions in our world that are interrelated because they affect each other and influence both the willingness and capacity of states to ensure a stable global system. Traditional approaches to IR are premised on the notion of state sovereignty. But, sovereignty as an absolute concept that reinforces separation between states has been tempered through the many processes of globalisation, including economic agreements and the establishment of international organisations, as well as with the emergence of human rights thinking as captured through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With respect to the emergence of human rights thinking, the premise goes that in the context of a common set of universal rights based on the individual, the sovereignty of the state can be challenged if a government does not respect or maintain these rights. Here, sovereignty means that a state does not only maintain rights, it also meets its responsibilities. In relation to poverty, globalisation raises the question of the obligation the wealthy owe to the poor and vulnerable. One of today’s most pressing international problems is what to do about poverty and the approximately one billion people living in such a condition. As we start our scan of key global issues, it is appropriate to open this second section of the book by addressing an issue of this magnitude.

    Poverty matters as a subject for reflection in IR on many levels, one of which is a prominent set of ideas around global justice that considers what states owe each other in the process of international cooperation. After all, it can be said that those with the power and ability to assist have a moral and ethical obligation to try and solve problems like poverty. This stems from what Peter Singer (1972) calls the ‘rescue case’, noting there is an obligation for someone to assist an infant drowning in a shallow pond if the child can be saved with minimal effort or inconvenience. In the context of global poverty, the logic flows that developed states have an obligation to help poor states because they can, with minimal effort. However, the obligation of developed states to help alleviate poverty is not just relevant because they can assist; it is also because they are very often implicated in creating the conditions for its existence. For example, Thomas Pogge (2008, 2010) argues that poverty exists due to a coercive global order – which includes international governmental organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – that disadvantages the poor and reinforces a context of poverty. This means that developed states and multilateral institutions contribute to the persistence of global poverty due to both the way they have structured the international system and how they operate in it. These perspectives indicate that a global problem like poverty requires a global solution that developed countries have both a moral, and strategic, responsibility to address.