by Tomer Perry
Editor’s Note: This piece is part of “Occupy the Future,” a series of essays by Stanford professors and students on lessons to be learned from the Occupy movement.
The Occupy movement is not just an American phenomenon—it is global. On October 15 alone, citizens in more than 1,000 cities across 87 countries mobilized in public spaces to protest various forms of injustice. Naturally, protesters from different cities and countries don’t necessarily share the same opinions or face the same inequities. Yet there is a form of injustice that should concern all members of this worldwide democratic movement: global poverty.
Wealth inequality on a global level is starker than that within the United States alone. According to one recent study, the richest 1 percent of the world in 2000 owned 40 percent of global assets, while the bottom half owned around 1 percent. Members of the richest 1 percent are concentrated in a small number of countries in North America, Europe, and certain Pacific-rim Asian countries. Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report found that around 35 percent of total global wealth is held by 0.5 percent of the world’s population. Such inequality fixes the outcomes of countless people worldwide. As an economist from the World Bank notes, it is a striking fact that within our interdependent global economy "more than 80 percent of your likely income is determined at birth by your citizenship and the income class of your parents.” Anyone who believes in equality of opportunity should be concerned that a morally arbitrary fact such as country of birth has such influence on the prospects of one’s life. For those who are born unlucky, the prospects can be quite grim. The World Bank estimated that, in 2005, 1.4 billion people survived on less than $1.25 per day, falling below its international poverty line. In concrete terms, this can mean lack of such basics as clean water, sanitation, nutrition, essential drugs, and basic education. On a global scale, the dire condition of the least advantaged is severe and pressing.
Apart from protesting local and national injustices, should we also fight against global injustice? Global poverty, many agree, is unfortunate. But are we required to do something about it? Or should we, rather, focus first on injustices in our own country before we do anything about those occurring elsewhere? Everyone believes that the world would be a better place if there were no children starving, but few, it seems, believe that they have to do something about it.
On the contrary, here are three reasons we should take action to diminish global poverty:
(1) We can, therefore we ought to. One big reason to care about global poverty is that we can save lives and greatly improve people’s living conditions. Peter Singerhas argued that if we can help save children’s lives by forgoing luxuries, we are morally obligated to do so. The mere fact that many of the world’s poorest die from eminently preventable causes suggests that they die, in part, because we have decided not to help them, even though we have the means to do so.
(2) Countries are not independent islands. Many people believe that we have no strong duties beyond those to our compatriots. In particular, many believe that considerations of distributive justice are confined within the boundaries of national communities or sovereign states. Some think that states are unique schemes of cooperation and therefore give rise to special duties that do not exist outside of them, while others hold that the coercive nature of state power is the source of these special duties.
I disagree. First, the idea that states represent any unique scheme of cooperation is a decreasingly plausible idea. In this era of globalization, states and their citizens are more interrelated and interdependent than ever—economically, culturally, socially and in other ways. Extensive trade relations mean we use the natural resources of other countries and enjoy the labor of people in these countries, sometimes to their great disadvantage. It is therefore our responsibility to make sure that we do not, at the very least, harm our trade partners, impose unfair and abusive terms of trade on them, or become complicit in gross human rights violations.
Second, state coercion extends beyond its citizens, and is regularly applied to foreigners. The coercive power of the state is applied in a familiar place: the border. The current global system of states is a vast network of coercion that restricts individuals’ movement between countries Immigration policies, therefore, have a tremendous effect on the prospects of individual lives. Scores of people risk their lives to cross state borders simply because these borders stand between them and various opportunities: a job, an education, a different way of life. We cannot dismiss state coercion against foreigners as insignificant. If state coercion gives rise to special duties of justice, then these would bind us to foreigners as well as fellow citizens.
(3) Advocating for global justice does not come at the expense of fighting for local justice. Some people think we should first fix injustices in our country before discussing global problems. But I believe we can do both at the same time: we can and should care about domestic as well as global injustice.
As the Occupy movement and the October 15 demonstrations have taught us, we can learn from one another and be inspired by what happens in other parts of the world, though our immediate problems may be different. We are interconnected across state borders—personally, professionally, economically, culturally and now politically. We need to work together towards alleviating suffering and battling injustice everywhere in the world, near and far.
Tomer Perry is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Stanford University.