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'Poverty is a crime'

Interview: Anke Rasper / lbhJuly 12, 2013

Philosopher Thomas Pogge has accused the wealthy in western democracies of actively harming the world's poor by propagating the wrong political and economic systems. During a recent visit to Germany, Pogge spoke to DW.

ARCHIV - Die zweijährige Tsclaha, die nur sechs Kilogramm wiegt, isst am 24.07.2005 in einem Ernährungszentrum im nigerianischen Maradi im Rahmen einer Therapie einen Mehlbrei. Nach der verheerenden Dürrekatastrophe in Somalia und Kenia im vergangenen Jahr bahnt sich in Afrika ein neues Hungerdrama an. Betroffen ist der Westen der Sahelzone. Allein in Niger und Mauretanien litten bereits sechs Millionen Menschen Hunger, und auch in Mali und im Tschad sei die Lage bedrohlich, sagte Ralf Südhoff, Leiter des Berliner Büros des Welternährungsprogramms (WFP), der Nachrichtenagentur dpa. EPA/STR (zu dpa 0260 am 27.01.2012) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Afrika Hungerkatastrophe Archivbild 2005Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: In 1973 the World Bank president said it would be possible to eradicate poverty within the 20th century, but that hasn't happened. The new goal is 2030. Why has progress been so slow?

Thomas Pogge: Inequality has increased. If poor people had participated proportionately in global economic growth, poverty would already be history. It's quite possible to eradicate poverty, but we have to rethink the fundamental rules of our economic system. Currently these rules are designed by the privileged and rich for the privileged and rich. We need to rethink these rules to consider the poor.

You're involved in several groups that address poverty's impact on health, including the Health Impact Fund, which you co-founded. What is the fund meant to achieve?

Portrait of Thomas Pogge, director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University delivered by: Anke Rasper copyright: Thomas Pogge
Pogge: We need to redesign our economic systemsImage: Thomas Pogge

The Health Impact Fund is meant to provide cheaper medicines to people and to encourage pharmaceutical companies to research diseases that affect the poor. These are often diseases completely foreign to rich countries. Companies have no reason to do this, and that's why we want to change the system. The idea is to create a fund of $6 billion (5 billion euros), which rewards pharmaceutical innovations based on the health impact their medicines have. The more health gains, the more money you get out of this pool. In exchange, companies agree to sell medications at cost, without marking up for a profit.

How likely is it that such a plan could be implemented?

I have had promising conversations with politicians in Germany, India and Brazil. Considering the high costs of healthcare, financially strapped governments would welcome a more efficient system of pharmaceutical innovation.

If we know that poverty makes people sick, and that poor health rates burden the state, why isn't it recognized that poor nations need to get healthy in order to facilitate development?

Many people in politics and business only think short-term to the next election or profit statement. It's difficult to get people to abandon a system they know. There are ways to make things better in the short-term, people just need to know how.

I try to share this knowledge. We are foolishly deteriorating the health of the human population, which will be much more expensive in the long run, than if we improved everyone's health now. It's ridiculous to provide medicine only to rich people who can pay the mark-up, and withhold it from the poor who can pay for the marginal cost of producing more product.

Is it a moral or economic problem?

A photoillustration of diverse pills Photo: (c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Pharmaceutical companies could be rewarded based on how many lives their medicines saveImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It's certainly both. It's not morally acceptable that the poorer half of the human population lives on 3 percent of global household income, and that they really suffer. They don't have enough food or shelter. They don't have clean water or adequate sanitation. Many children are doing wage labor outside the household. Many adults are illiterate This sort of poverty, when it is completely avoidable, is a massive crime against humanity.

The gap between rich and poor has increased. What makes you hopeful that things can improve?

Here and there, politicians and business leaders are listening. The global financial crisis, as tragic as it was, gave rich countries the opportunity to put dirty money on the agenda, to shine a spotlight on these big multi-national corporations that don't pay taxes. At the last G8 summit, David Cameron - who's not normally a friend of the poor - put it on the agenda. Now the struggle is to make sure the rich countries also stop the loopholes that allow rich people and multi-national corporations in poor countries to siphon off money.

That would be a philosopher's optimism paired with a politician's action to better humanity?

I will fight until my dying breath to protect the poor from the horrible institutions inflicted upon them. Poverty may have gotten a little better, but what matters morally is avoidable poverty, which has gotten much worse. Pretty much all the poverty that exists in the world today is avoidable, and it's our task together to work against it.

Thomas Pogge is the director of the Global Justice Program and Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University in the United States.