Department of Philosophy

Poverty: the truth behind the numbers

Professor Thomas Pogge opened this year’s Bergen Summer Research School with a keynote lecture, where he put the fight against hunger into perspective.

Thomas Pogge
THE ANTI-POVERTY WARRIOR: Thomas Pogge opened BSRS 2013 with a speech about how the poverty numbers presented by the United Nations and other supranational institutions do not add up.
Sverre Ole Drønen

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In front of an audience of PhD students and distinguished scholars from all around the world, Thomas Pogge used the first lecture of the Bergen Summer Research School 2013 (BSRS) to talk about how the international community has responded to the problem of hunger with cosmetic measures. He started his talk by putting the fight against hunger into perspective.

“It’s much easier to fight hunger than it was fighting World War II. Whereas that war cost roughly half of GDP at the time, eradicating hunger will only take two per cent of current GDP," said the keynote speaker."

Thomas Pogge is professor of philosophy at Yale University and is also the chair of scientific committee of the Bergen based Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP), which just celebrated its first 20 years.


Poverty situation getting worse

Despite the feasibility of such an endeavour progress remains elusive, and Pogge showed that the situation is worse than international institutions want us to believe.

Since 1996, the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) have had the goal of reducing hunger by 50 per cent by 2015. However, since then they have made slight changes to these goals, and altered both the baseline year for reduction targets and the international poverty line.

For example, Pogge pointed out, the initial goal was to reduce the number of starving people by half. Later the aim was to reduce the proportion of hunger in the world population by half. This means that an increase in starving people would still be counted as a decrease, if this group represented a smaller percentage of the world population than at the outset.


The definition of hunger

Pogge also took issue with the definition of hunger, which is based on the intake of calories and not on nutritional deficiencies. He went on to show that there are serious problems with the poverty line.

From 1990 to 2000, the poverty line was at USD 1.02 per day (1985 value), which is the equivalent of USD 2.20 at the present value. Now however, the poverty line is at USD 1.25 (2005 value), which corresponds to only USD 1.48 today.

“Had they kept the international poverty line stable, we would find that we’re not making progress, but actually falling behind,” said Pogge.


From words to action

The poverty scholar presented four main lessons from the international efforts to fight hunger.

“Goals, targets and methods must be defined in advance, and precisely. Monitoring of results should be left to impartial experts,” said Pogge before urging the world’s leaders to act decisively. “We need to move on from a detached wish list, and attach specific responsibilities of named competent actors. Lastly, development assistance is insufficient to compensate for the powerful centrifugal tendencies of the world economy.”