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The Global Poor as Agents of Justice

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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“Agent-centered” approaches to global poverty insist that effective arguments for poverty reduction must specify the concrete duties of particular duty-bearers. This article takes up a recent, influential, version of this view, Thomas Pogge’s human rights-based argument for global economic reforms to reduce chronic deprivation. While signaling a welcome shift from the diffuse allocation of responsibilities common to much philosophical writing on poverty, I argue that Pogge’s approach too readily assigns to powerful institutions in the global North the role of devising and directing anti-poverty initiatives. In so doing, he overlooks the agency—actual and potential—of the poor themselves, as evidenced by poor-led political movements and poor-centered, participatory models of poverty reduction in development theory and practice. While agent-oriented approaches are right to focus our attention on structures that cause poverty, they ought not to assume that the powerful agents responsible for these are the only—or most appropriate—agents to lead the way to poverty reduction. Just as development organizations working in the global South have come to recognize that the participation of poor communities is critical to the success of development strategies, so should normative theorists writing about global injustice acknowledge the importance of the poor as active agents in poverty reduction efforts.

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