There are various theories trying to explain world poverty and the global inequality which plagues the world. Some focus on the public political culture of developing countries and try to explain their socio-economic underperformance in terms of failed domestic institutions. They point to the home bred corruption which gnaws at the basic social structure of these countries and place the blame wholly upon it.
Others give detailed examples of how the global economic order is conducive to world poverty. International economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) were designed during the post-Cold war era by developed countries, the United States in primis, in such a way as to favour developed countries to the detriment of developing ones. It is not the case, then, that poor countries are poor because of home grown issues but because of unjust interference from the outside. Just think of the myriad cases where multinational corporations bribe domestic politicians in order to exploit the country’s natural resources.
These two positions, adopted by so-called social and cosmopolitan liberals respectively, disagree in how world poverty is to be tackled. Some social liberals go as far as to hold that developed countries do not owe anything to poor countries precisely because it is the latter’s fault if they are stuck in never ending poverty. The only thing we in rich countries can do is to continue to offer charity. Other social liberals with a more developed moral sense opt for the duty of assistance. In this case, rich countries pledge both humanitarian help and aid in the restructuring of a poor country’s social institutions.
Cosmopolitan liberals opt for a more radical solution. They argue that international institutions constituting the global economic order should adopt a just, global principle of distribution. Accordingly, such a principle would distribute natural resources in a fair way by giving each his due. Furthermore, this would stop rich countries interfering negatively in the domestic affairs of poor countries since they would have no reason to do so anymore.
Certainly, the cosmopolitan notion of a global principle of distribution strikes a profound ethical note within many people. It simply seems fair to give each individual in this world as much as anybody else gets and to stop foreign interference in the domestic economic issues of another country. But there are two issues with it. Firstly, what does it mean for an international institution to adopt such a principle? And secondly, why would international institutions ever adopt a principle from which they would gain nothing?
Both questions lead to a common answer. In relation to the first one, it would mean that the thousands of economic and financial treaties which constitute an international institution would be revised or replaced by other treaties expressing higher ethical values. This, though, would seem to indicate the need to enhance the moral character of those officials devising the treaties. Surely only people with a strong sense of justice would be able to devise just international treaties. This answers our second question, too. International institutions will revise or replace their treaties only once the officials with decision-making powers will recognise the fundamental righteousness of doing so. In both cases, then, the answer to a more just, global economic order revolves around fostering the moral character and sense of justice of decision-makers.
The most efficient manner for a person to achieve a sense of justice is to have been raised and educated accordingly. This is the job of domestic social institutions such as the family, school, universities and the media. If we understand world poverty as the outcome of the unjust global economic order and this simply as a conglomeration of economic and financial treaties expressing unjust values, then a change in the former necessitates a change in the latter. And in order to change the values being expressed in the treaties, we need to develop the moral character and sense of justice of those devising them by making sure that the domestic social institutions they grow up in instill them with just values.
This points to an interesting insight: in order to eradicate world poverty and global inequality, we need to ensure that our domestic institutions are themselves, just. The values being expressed in the unjust global economic order are the same ones being expressed in domestic economic decision making. We often speak of rich and poor countries. The truth is that the rich countries we have in mind are not rich at all. Most of its citizens linger in poverty. Think of the US. There is an obvious isomorphism in its domestic and global economic policy. In both cases people are exploited for the benefit of a few and this is done by devising economic and financial treaties expressing unjust values.
It is crucial to appreciate that global injustice is the outcome of domestic injustice. In order to change the former we need to start at the grassroots.