Do developed countries have a duty to assist the global poor?

Essays | | 13-09-2018, 11:45

Today we cannot reject the situation that is happening in poorer countries. We are rich countries and our population is relatively affluent. We could also use some of our resources to assist people who live in measurable conditions and cannot meet their basic needs. Moreover, today people are also worried about sustainability of environment, migration, security issues. So, if we live in a world of increasing inequality then we cannot project to be moving towards a more secure and stable world. Therefore, developed countries have a duty to assist the global poor. The essay, first, will discuss the term of ‘developed countries’ and how developed countries are classified. Developed countries and their development level are measured by per capita gross national income. It will then move on to define what is poor. Low-income countries are those with average gross national incomes of less than $1,005 per person per year (World Bank, 2017). Having analyzed the developed world and global poor, the essay will discuss a number of perspectives around the issue. The essay will argue that while developed countries have a duty to help the global poor, poor countries should also attempt to ameliorate their situation.


Literature Review

I will begin by explaining the developed countries and their classification. International Monetary Fund (IMF) classified the countries into the three main groups, such as advanced economies, developing countries and countries in transition. IMF states that classification has evolved over time with objective of facilitating analysis by providing a reasonably meaningful of data (IMF, 2003). The World Bank classified the countries by geographic region, by income group, and by the operational lending categories of the World Bank Group, however these groupings change from time to time (World Bank, 2016). Moreover, in 2016 the World Bank announced a new country classification by income level and high-income economies are considered with a gross national income per capita of $12,476 or more (World Bank, 2016). It seems that countries’ ‘development index’ is mainly defined in terms of economy. We should also be wary of what makes economy strong. I will provide three main indicators, such as geography, integration and institutions. It is obvious that growth is mainly determined by factors such as location, climate, natural resources and quality of human resources. Integration towards the world market, country’s willingness to open and competitive economy are important factors to taken into account. Moreover, quality of institutions leads to prosperity regarding rule of law, freedom of speech, legislative system, quality of civil society and social cooperation. Risse (2005) also argues that countries with stable institutions can more easily integrate their economies globally, and successful integration facilitates their maintenance. I think along with developed economy, democratic regimes and rules and the best services providing for people should be considered main factors for developed country. 

Regarding the definition of poor countries, the World Bank uses an international poverty line of 1.90 US dollar a day. This determines the number of people living in extreme poverty (Martinez-Soliman, 2017). Moreover, one of the targets of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is ‘by 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day’ (UN, 2017). Furthermore, another fact is that people can be poor in a developed country. The situation has deteriorated after the refugee crisis in the past few years. According to the International Labour Organization, more than three million people in developed countries were living in poverty (ILO, 2015) which is direct linked to the high number of refugees that have arrived in Europe. It is obvious that children and women are among the most vulnerable group and are most affected by poverty. In developed countries, 36 percent of all children live below the relative poverty line (Hartogs, 2016). This also shows that developed countries have a duty to the global poor which could include their own.

Here, I will discuss the arguments regarding distributive justice. Movements against racism, poverty, unfair distribution of wealth criticized the injustice policies of governments and they want to change those practices. Therefore, the issue of distributive justice has always been a topic of debate and considered one of the complex issues. According to Cohen (1987) ‘justice, whether social or not, seems to involve at its center the notion of an allotment of something to persons-duties, goods, offices, opportunities, penalties, punishments, privileges, roles, status, and so on’. It seems that distributive justice entails things that allocated (which can be material or social goods, opportunities and roles), persons, rules and standards. Caney (2001) determines weak and strong claims of distributive justice and how this will judge the developed countries to help others. The strong version of this claim is that individuals have obligations of distributive justice to everyone while the weak one claims that distributive justice is between the global and domestic.

Following this, I will discuss the theory of distributive justice in Rawls’ perspective. Rawls argues that theory of distributive justice should provide a set of standards by which distributive system of goods within a society can be judged (Hill, Peterson and Dhanda, 2001). The idea is that an acceptable existence for any particular individual is determined by close relations of all members of society. From this perspective, it should be noted that distribution of economic benefits should be suitable to everyone, regardless of status or position. According to Hill, Peterson and Dhanda (2001), no one should feel that ‘they or any of the others are taken advantage of, or forced to give in to claims which they do not regard legitimate’. Moreover, Rawls determined distributive justice as ‘justice as fairness’ (Rawls, 1993). If we look at this perspective, we can see that its guiding principles stem from the original position, a situation in which a person does not know his or her relative status among peers. Therefore, principles of justice should be selected by people who are free, equal, rational, and knowledgeable about human nature and society in this environment- and not by those concerned about advancing their own wellbeing, mutually disinterested, and ignorant of their own identity and place in society.

Hill, Peterson and Dhanda (2001) also argue that no individual has a relative advantage in the establishment of principles of justice. I agree with the idea that as not everyone has deep knowledge and understanding of their true position, therefore they are not able to improve principles that favor their particular circumstances. Therefore, an individual would make sure that conditions are sensible even in the worst possible conditions.



Today people in developed countries benefit from globalization. However, we should also think about the state of the people living in poorer countries in our increasingly globalised and interconnected world. According to Hulme (2016), despite recent progress, three million people are deprived on at least one of basic needs, such as food, drinkable water, sanitation, primary education, shelter from the elements and others. 800 million people suffer from hunger and 19,000 children will die today of easily preventable causes. It is understandable that suffering and death from lack of food, clean water, shelter and medical care are morally not right.  Therefore, we should think of others and their situation.

Governments of developed countries should have a duty to the global poor, but this is a matter of debate. I believe that governments should be responsible for the wellbeing of their citizens. If they do not prioritize their citizens, this will lead some problems. First, developed countries may face challenges in choosing the country and regions that they are going to help. Second, some countries may use self-interest while helping people, for example, influencing people and governments in order to gain advantages, such as attempt to organize activities and disseminating their ideas among people. Here I do not mean conditionality. Money may be given to the poor countries under certain conditions in order to achieve an effective result. For example, assistance is given to other countries to support development efforts and  provide humanitarian relief. However, this may be spent for individual purposes by those countries. Third, the poor countries may become dependent on foreign aid. If they become dependent then this is the concern for the developed countries and they are being selfish.

Linklater (2007) argues that globalization has extended the boundaries of the community by bringing suffering directly into our view. He rests his claim for cosmopolitan distributive justice on commitments to empathy, sympathy, and an understanding of human vulnerability ‘which are among the universal pre-requisites of social life’. This attempts to justify obligations to the poor and can also be satisfied on an individual basis as part of a general moral philosophy. Wealthy societies have been more aware of distant suffering than ever before due to globalization (Linklater, 2007). However, we do not know how this makes a difference to the relationship between obligations to fellow citizens and duties to the rest of humankind. In this case, human capacity for compassion could be considered key to global solidarity.

Caney (2001) argues that people’s basic needs and fundamental interests should be met and according to him current global system is deeply unfair for some reasons as it allows poverty, infant mortality, oppression and militarization and permits environmental degradation. While I agree with the points that Caney made, I also believe that we should not only blame the global system in unfairness. Wade (2004) also explains globalization as a key for poverty reduction. I think that considering one factor is not enough for clear and explicit results. National government’s policy and regulations on relevant issues should be taken into account. For example, Azerbaijan is a developing country and has adopted State Program on Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development in order to tackle poverty and improve the people’s welfare (Government of Azerbaijan, 2008).


Assisting the poor

Hulme (2016) provides two main reasons why rich nations should help the poor. He argues that first, it is a moral issue and it is the right thing to do. Moreover, Gostin (2007) does also share the same standpoint and argues that helping the most disadvantaged is ethically the right thing to do. However, assisting the global poor should be merely a moral duty, because it will be dependent on whether countries are willing to act or not. Some countries such as US and UK want to restrict foreign aid; for example, U.S. President Trump attempts to unearth outdated US aid restrictions (Igoe, 2018).

Today, people living in developed countries suffer from obesity as they consume too much calories while in other parts of the world people need food. Another point is that wealthy nations benefit from the poor through postcolonial exploitation of resources, unfair trade, exploiting cheap labor forces etc. Reallocating just 1% of global wealth would eradicate extreme income poverty at a stroke (Hulme, 2016).  Second, David Hulme argues that ‘those of us who are ‘better-off’ would be stupid not to help the poor’. If we want a prosperous, politically stable and environmentally sustainable world for ourselves and for our nations then we need to assist poor people in faraway lands. For example, some issues such as international migration, infectious diseases (bird flu, swine flu (H1N1) and Ebola viruses) which have emerged during the last decade, organized crime, terrorism and climate change are having an increasingly global impact, which we need to engage with through the global action. Therefore, the world’s communities are interdependent and reliant on one another for health security (Gostin, 2007). Global health has already become an important issue like global climate change which is essential for the future of the world (Gostin, 2007). Therefore we need more international attention to those issues and in this situation no state can escape the responsibility to act. It seems that global society is coming to a tipping point where remaining in the current situation is no longer acceptable.

Charity and duty are also important. Singer (1971) argues that giving money can be seen as an act of charity, not giving anything does not seem wrong. For example, if you donate you will be praised, however you will not be condemned if you do not do. When we buy new clothes to look ‘well-dressed’ (as opposed to keeping ourselves warm) we are not providing for any important need (Singer, 1972). We need not sacrifice anything significant if we were to continue to wear to our old clothes and give money to famine relief. However, as it has been mentioned before, we cannot judge anyone in their daily life actions we may deem wasting money or living a glamorous life. However, we need to increase our responsibility in this issue and should consider it as a duty.

We should also think about the effectiveness and failure of the aid, therefore, it is important to know how aid should be given in order to be beneficial. Hulme (2016) argues that if rich nations are serious about helping the poor, they need to go beyond aid. For example, they reform international trade policies and poor countries should benefit from that trade, international migration should be recognized as an effective means in reducing poverty and achieving the growth, an action should be taken against climate change. As Singer (1972) argues, if we have the power to prevent something bad from happening we ought to do it from the moral standpoint. However, this raises another concern: we should not only focus on the prevention of bad things, we also need to promote what is good. This will increase our responsibility and awareness. Moreover, according to Singer (1972), proximity and distance does not matter in helping others. I agree with this point of view that it should make no moral difference whether the person who can be helped is your neighbor or someone in a distant poor country whose name we will never know. However, to some countries it does matter though.


Rights and Obligations

O’Neill (1986:97) separates rights and acts regarding the poor into two different categories, such as rights and obligations. It is obvious that rights are assigned to an individual, such as freedom of speech, right to food whereas an obligation implies an ethical relationship, a duty to act. O’Neill (1986:102) argues that the only difference between these two principles is that obligation looks from a perspective of agency, a right looks at the same relationship from the perspective of recipience. It shows the importance of determining what kinds of actions can be taken to further global principles of distributive justice.  Moreover, O’Neill (1991:277) argues that to make notions of global principles of distributive justice more precise we ‘would have to establish who is (or not) obliged to take which sorts of action to whom. Here the messiness begins’. The actors capable of pursuing global distributive justice have many different aspects and features, comprising a range of actors from states, international organizations, such as UN, World Bank, non-governmental organizations or transnational corporations, such as BP. From this point of view, it should be noted that each of these actors possess what O’Neill describes earlier as agency or recipience (state action). This means that the duty of global distributive justice can be satisfied through the rights which can be invoked and moral obligations which others feel a duty to comply with. This links back to Linklater’s grounding of cosmopolitanism in empathy and sympathy for others.

Although I believe we all have a responsibility to help others, our actions as individuals, especially on a global scale, can be limited. We can attempt to ameliorate global poverty through consumer choices or voting for political parties which make commitments to international development. However, as global poverty is an international moral issue, the duty to further global principles of distributive justice must be met at a global level which can be built up from the ground-up.

Beitz (1999) argues that we need guidance in making a range of choices whose consequences relate to the well-being of individuals located in societies other than our own. I agree with this point of view. For example, individuals have their own choices, such as whether to donate to Oxfam; governments have their own policies on specific issues, such as immigration, foreign aid. Moreover, international organizations also have their rules and principles, such as rules on trade, environmental control, international monetary policy, labour standards. However, distributive justice is not at all about policies. Distributive justice is also concerned with the basic structure of society. Therefore, the theory of international justice would concern the basic structure of international society which institutions determine the international distribution of advantages (Beitz, 1999).

There are no common agreements on the principles of global distributive justice. Society-of-states theorists argue that principles of global distributive justice breach the independence of states, while realists claim that global justice is utopian and the states should boost their own national interests (Caney, 2001). However, Caney (2001) argues that distributive principles should operate globally and according to him ‘state boundaries can have derivative, but they cannot have fundamental, moral importance’. I argue that if we recognize international economic interdependence, there is a global basic structure and therefore there are global principles of distributive justice. Furthermore, the resources should be distributed to increase the condition of the less well-off humans (Beitz, 1999) and everyone is given an equal proportion to the resources of the Earth.


Human Rights

Kokaz (2007) argues that human rights and assistance to burdened societies could be considered major arguments for poverty eradication. I agree that if we discuss the issues of human rights and agree that the basic human rights are the right to life, then we need to accept this point of view. We also know that basic needs are not effectively met in burdened societies. However, ‘this does not result from the direct actions of their governments, rather from prevalence of unfavorable historical, social, and economic circumstances that make the achievement of a well-ordered regime that could secure subsistence rights difficult, if possible’ (Kokaz, 2007). Kokaz (2007) also notes that if the government of a country takes an active part in perpetuating poverty, that country is to be treated as an outlaw state and that such a state cannot partake in the society of peoples as member in good standing.


States have no duty

Here I will discuss some arguments against helping the poor. World Food Bank put forward an idea of an international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs (Hardin, 1974). Poor countries’ populations increase by 2.5% every year, that of rich countries’ increase by 0.8% and only rich countries have food reserves- the poor ones do not. Hardin (1974) argues that if poor countries received no food from outside, their population growth would be checked by crop failures and famine. But if they can draw on a World Food Bank, their population will grow unchecked and so will their need for aid. It seems that this would reduce their needs in short time, however in the long time it will increase the need without limit. Moreover, Hardin (1974) argues that if we satisfy a growing population’s need for food, we necessarily decrease its supply of the other resources needed by people. For example, India has a population of 600 million (over 1 billion for 2017) which increases by 15 million in each year. So, this population puts a huge load and additional burden on environment.

The ‘Society of states’ approach claims that international justice requires that sovereign states respect other states’ independence (Caney, 2001). Accordingly, they should not attempt to find to implement cosmopolitan ideals of distributive justice which some states would ignore (Nardin, 1983). Moreover, realists make an ethical claim that the state should further its national interest and should not seek to improve the standard of living of those living abroad. However, it contrasts with the claim that we have duties to distribute resources to the impoverished abroad. I think we can claim that while there has been a huge amount of descriptive and explanatory work by realists, there has not been as much work explicitly directed towards ethical issues. Unlike nationalist and cosmopolitan positions, there is no recent sustained defense of a realist ethical perspective. However, realist value-judgments should not be widely rejected or dismissed.

There is an argument that luck is a pervasive feature of human life and it negates responsibility. Kasper (2018) argues that luck that does have an effect on person’s interests is irrelevant from the point of view of justice. However, luck that does-whether the interests are defined in terms of welfare, resources, opportunities, capabilities to achieve functioning, or in some other way-certainly seems relevant. For example, affluent people may think that to have been born in poor countries is related to bad luck and assume that it is their own good luck to have been born in rich countries. Caney (2005:122) also argues it is unfair and unjust that some people’s prospects are worse than others’ simply in virtue of birthplace. If we support the idea, then we disregard those poor countries and put those countries at risk without understanding its bad consequences in future. As we discussed above, the issue is that we need to help poor countries, as it has direct affect to the rich countries. For example, migration, environmental issues, infectious diseases, terrorism problems may arise significantly if we did not pay attention to assisting poor countries.

Moreover, Tan (2011) argues that inequalities within a society are acceptable when they are due to people’s choices and effort, but not when they are due to people’s good or bad luck. Moreover, Tan (2011) makes two objections against “luck egalitarianism” describing it as morally implausible and wrong from the social standpoint. First, he points out that luck/choice principle has morally absurd consequences. Secondly, luck egalitarianism is a mistakenly asocial account of distributive equality. I agree that luck egalitarians do relate people according to their own good or bad luck. However, they miss the social dimension of distributive equality. Social dimension can regulate the social relation among people.



This essay discusses whether developed countries have a duty to assist the global poor. Furthermore, it has been argued that developed countries are mainly defined in terms of economy and three main indicators such as geography, integration and institutions make economy strong. The essay argued that we should think about the state of the people living in poorer countries in our increasingly globalised and interconnected world. It is understandable that developed countries should give a priority to their citizens and their living standards, however they also should help the global poor and it is a moral issue. If we want a prosperous, politically stable and environmentally sustainable world for our future, then we need to assist poor people in faraway lands. Because situations and worse conditions in poor countries have direct relations to the whole world as international migration, infectious diseases, organized crimes, terrorism and climate change are having an increasingly global impact.

The essay also discussed that charity and duty is important and giving money can be seen as an act of charity, not giving anything does not seem wrong. Moreover, due to globalization wealthy societies have grown more aware of distant suffering than ever before. Moreover, there is no single agreement on the principles of global distributive justice as some claims that principles of global distributive justice breach the independence of states and realists think that global justice is utopian and the states should boost the national interest. Moreover, the essay also discussed the theory of distributive justice in Rawls’ perspective. It points out that division of economic benefits should be suitable to everyone, regardless of status or position. The essay also provided that bad and good luck should not be the main arguments for deciding not helping the poor since it can be unfair.




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