Amartya Sen at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University: Global Solidarity, Human Rights, and the End of Poverty

This is a one day conference to commemorate Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” in his 1967 speech at Stanford, and heed that speech’s call to create a more just world.

Mark Gonnerman, director of the Aurora Forum introduces the event by noting that economic justice is the main theme of King’s legacy. He references King’s 1948 paper where he lays out his mission as a minister, in which his goal is to deal with unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. He doesn’t mention civil rights. So the effect of Rosa Parks was to turn him in a difference direction from his original mission, to which he returned, which is the gulf between rich and poor. Gonnerman reminds us of the interdependence of global trade and how, even before we leave the house for work, we have used products from all parts of the globe, rich and poor. He quotes King that the agony of the poor enriches the rest.

Thomas Nazario, founding director of The Forgotten International, outlines the face of poverty. He lists the 5 problems in the UN Millennium Report as the charge for the coming generation:

1. global warming
2. world health, including basic health and pandemic avoidance
3. war and nuclear proliferation
4. protection of human rights
5. world poverty

He describes world poverty in two ways: the first is by focusing on the gap between rich and poor. He says there are about 1000 billionaires and claims their money could provide services to half the people on Earth. The second way is to focus on the suffering associated with poverty. Nazario shows us some compelling images of poverty and busts some myths: children do go through garbage and fight rats and other vermin (usually dying before age 5); impoverished people tend to live around rivers since the riverbank is common land since it floods regularly; images of Ethiopia in the 1980’s war, conflict and famine (he notes that when there is extreme poverty, there is extreme fragility of life – any perturbation in the environment will cause death). He says 6 million children die before the age of 5 of hunger and lack of medical care. He also busts the myth that most of the poverty in the world is in Africa – it is in Asia, especially in India. There are 39 million street children in the world, often living in sewers. Of course, poverty is a cause of illiteracy not only because of the cost of education but because the impoverished children usually work to survive.

Amartya Sen is Lamont Professor and Professor of Economics and HIstory, Harvard University. He is a 1998 nobel prize winner in economics and I wrote a book review here of his book _Development as Freedom_. His talk has two components: he speaks first about global poverty and next about human rights. He begins by noting that hope for humanity, as Martin Luther King emphasized, is essential for these topics. Sen hopes the easily preventable deaths of millions of children is not an inescapable human condition and the fatalism about this in the developed world recedes. He also takes on the anti-globalization viewpoint by noting that globalization can be seen as a great contributor to world wealth. He insists globalization is a key component to reform, as there is an enormous positive impact to bringing people together, but the sharing of the spoils needs to be more equitable. Sen advocates a better understanding of economics to help us reform world development institutions, but with a caveat: “a market is as good as the company it keeps.” By this he means that circumstances such as the current conditions governing the distribution of resources or the ability of people to enter market transactions for example, depend on things such as the availability of healthcare and the existence of patents and contract laws conducive to trade.

Sen distinguishes short run and long run policies. In the long run the goal is to keep unemployment low in all countries (so for example he advocated government help in training and job location for Americans whose jobs have become obsolete due to technological progress). In the short run it is essential to have an adequate system of social safety nets that provide a minimum income, healthcare, and children’s schooling (which has long run effects of people’s adaptability in the workforce). Sen eschews economic stagnation and the rejection of economic reform.

Sen is very concerned that the fruits of globalization are not being justly shared and, even though globalization does bring economic benefit for all, he sees this inequality as the root of poverty. He also warns people not to rely on “the market outcome” as a way of washing your hands of the problem since the outcome of the market relies on a number of factors, such as resource ownership patterns, various rules of operation (like antitrust and patent laws), that will give different prices and different income equality.

Sen, consistent with his hopeful theme, notes important things subject to reform and change:

1. an adequately strong global effort to combat lack of education and healthcare
2. improving existing patent laws and reduction of arms supply

For the first point, there is a need for further worldwide cooperation to combat illiteracy and provide other social services. Sen suggests immediate remedies such as halting the repression of exports from poor countries, and other longer term remedies like reconsidering the 1940’s legacy of global institutions such as the UN, and reforming patent systems that prevent getting drugs to poor countries. After all, understanding and modifying incentive structures is “what economics is supposed to be about.” Continuing the second point, Sen believes the globalized trade in arms causes regional tension and global tension from the trade. This isn’t a problem confined to poor countries, on the contrary, the G8 consistently sell more than 80% of arms exports (with about 2/3rd of American arms exports going to developing countries). The Security Council of the G8 were also responsible for more than 80% of the global arms trade (witness this issue has never been discussed in the Security Council). There is a cascade effect here – warlords can rely on American or Russian support for their subversion of economic order and peace (Sen mentions Mobutu as a case in point and the example of Somalia I have blogged about is another one with the American support for Ethiopia). To change this we need to reform the role of ethics, which Sen generalizes into a discussion of human rights.

The contraposition of opulence and agony makes us question the ethicality of the status quo, and regardless it is hard to change since with the status quo the power goes with the wealth. Jeremy Bentham in 1792 called natural rights “nonsense on stilts” and Sen notes this line of dismissal is still alive today when people question how a right can exist in the absence of legislation. Bentham says a right requires the existence of punitive treatment for those who abrogate them. Sen says the correct way of thinking about this is utility based ethics, not examining the foundational grounds. For him, this means an ethics that makes room for the significance of human rights and human freedom.

If human rights are a legitimate idea, how is it useful for poverty eradication? Moral rights are often the basis of legislation, such as the inalienable rights basis of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (its 60th anniversary is in 2008) inspired many countries to bring about this legislative change. Quoting Herbert Hart, Sen notes that the concept of a right belongs to morality and is concerned when one person’s action is limited by another – this is what can appropriately be made “the subject of coercive human rules.” So using this Sen provides a motivation for legislation. Sen also points out a motivation for the ethics of human rights through monitoring the behavior of the powerful and governments, like Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, and many others do.

Sen relates King and Gandhi in their call for peaceful protest, and thus enacting social reform that way. Sen believes religion plays a large part in social reform (Sen is an atheist but King invoked God frequently), but he says the argument does not rest on the religious components. Following King, Sen discusses the story of Jesus and the Good Samaritan and boils it down to the question of how a neighbor is defined. In the story Jesus argues with a lawyer’s limited conception of duty to one’s neighbor using strictly secular reasoning. Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a wounded man in need who was helped eventually by the Good Samaritan: Jesus asks the lawyer, when this is over and the wounded man reflects on it, who was the wounded man’s neighbor? The lawyer answers that the man who helped him is the neighbor, which is Jesus’s point. Using this understanding of the story Sen concludes the motivation to treat others as equals is not what matters – what matters is that in the process a new neighborhood has been created. Sen says this is a common understanding of justice and pervasive since we are linked to each other in myriad (growing) ways. “The boundaries of justice grow ever larger in proportion to the largeness of men’s views.” Shared problems can unit rather than divide.

Sen concludes that no theory of human rights can ignore a broad understanding of human presence and nearness. We are connected through work, trade, science, literature, sympathy, and commitment. This is an inescapably central engagement in the theory of justice. Poverty is a global challenge and there are few non neighbors left in the world today.

To whom to these human rights apply? Obviously everyone. Quoting Martin Luther King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Sen decries “the fierce urgency of now” to “make good on the promises of democracy” and to make “justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Crossposted on I&D Blog

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