Human Rights And Poverty: A Question Pondered

Is poverty a violation of human rights?Well, obviously The Poverty And Human Rights Centre thinks so. As does Sylvie Kayitesi Zaïnabo, in this interview at UNESCO’s website.

William Easterly, however, writes:

The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves – leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy – someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary – it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a “human rights violation” does not point to any concrete actions that the “violator” must stop in order to restore rights to the “violated.”

Sameer Dossani from Amnesty replies:

It’s true that lack of income, in and of itself, isn’t a human rights violation. But poverty is about a lot more than just income. As Easterly knows, those who live on less than a dollar a day are poor not just because they lack income; the lack of income implies lack of access to services, clean drinking water, adequate education, housing, employment and so on. All of these are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. To give just one of many possible examples, estimates indicate that as many as 8,000 children die daily in Africa alone from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. It’s certainly true to say that these are diseases of poverty – the rich can ensure that their water is not contaminated and can seek treatment at private hospitals as opposed to understaffed government clinics – but they are more than that. They are violations of the right to health and the right to clean water.


I will not be a last word freak and answer Amnesty directly. But let’s talk about rights at the UN. The UN publicizes such positive rights as “right to water,” “right to housing,” “right to health”, etc. These rights sound wonderful, while not imposing any specific obligation whatsoever on any specific actor to do any specific thing for any specific poor person. It is impossible for the UN or any other body to allocate responsibilities for observing the “right to water,” and also decide who will be first in line among the 884 million people now without clean water. So even if the UN creates international pressure to observe these “rights,” the pressure is diffused across so many potential actors with unclear responsibility that it has no effect, accomplishing nothing for poor people.

Will Wilkinson on the question:

All rights have correlative obligations. If a person has a bona fide moral right, simply in virtue of being a person, who is it a right against? Who has an obligation not to violate the right? The answer is: everybody else does. So a right to a minimum level of material welfare implies that everybody else has an obligation to make a positive contribution, to chip in, to bring those below the line up to par.

What is interesting is that almost nobody really believes this, as I’ve just stated it. Most of those who argue for a positive right to a material minimum don’t think that everybody in the world already above the line is on the hook. They tend to say that fellow citizens of one’s own country already above the line are on the hook. My right not to be stabbed is a right against everybody in the world. Doesn’t matter who printed your passport. But a Freedonian’s right to a material minimum is a right against other Freedonians. That’s weird, and doesn’t have the structure of a bona fide moral right. So I suspect it isn’t one.

I’ve come to see most such “positive” rights as benefits of membership in one of the U.N.-recognized clubs. Positive rights so construed are then rights against the club and its dues-paying members. They are rights one has as a member of a state, not as a person. To say there is a right to healthcare is basically to say that this ought to be a benefit of membership in one’s national club. So it is an embarrassment to many left-leaning Americans that it is not yet an explicitly recognized benefit of official membership in the United States of America. Thus, to say that there is a right to a certain level of material welfare is to say that this is something one ought to get from one’s club, in virtue of being a member of it.

Will at The League:

My gut response is that while we have some  moral obligation to alleviate poverty, this obligation is too conditional (welfare programs are dependent on outside factors like cumulative wealth) to be considered on with par protecting freedom of speech or freedom of assembly.

Having said that, I find it surprisingly easy to imagine a world where freedom from poverty becomes a human right, at least in some countries. Wilkinson isn’t a big fan of nation states, and I’m not sure his universalist framework allows for codifying an individual right to basic material well-being. But if you think of rights as derived from the traditions of discrete political communities (nation states, for example), it becomes easier to imagine how freedom from poverty could gradually become something akin to freedom of speech.

UPDATE: Conor Friedersdorf:

After offering an even longer excerpt, Mr. Wilkinson notes that he is as yet unsatisfied with his own thoughts on the subject, but that the act of writing about them helped him flesh out his ideas. That tidbit alone is worthy of mention on this blog. A lengthy piece of writing does force its author to flesh out his thoughts, assess their validity, and organize them logically. Do Twitter, Facebook feeds and text messages decrease the incidence of such writing? Without taking a definite position, let me say how glad I am for a blog post length reckoning on this subject, especially by so talented a thinker.


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One response to “Human Rights And Poverty: A Question Pondered

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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