Archive for ‘Global Ethics’

February, 2014

World Government: Not Quite an Idea Whose Time has Come, but No Longer So Far from the Academic Mainstream

Dr Luis Cabrera

I can say without much reservation that I am one of the most avid students of world government alive today. Of course, I’m careful when and where I say that…

Actually, even in my relatively brief academic career (12 years, if you count from the PhD award date), there has been, if not a sea change, certainly a surprisingly strong trend toward serious academics taking the world government ideal seriously again.

Consider this: when my lead PhD supervisor and I were trying to put together a doctoral supervisory committee in the mid-1990s, we approached a staff member at the same US institution who had a solid global reputation as an international relations theorist. He was known for his cutting edge theorization of relations between nation-states. Yet, when approached about helping to supervise a thesis exploring the contemporary case for world government, he came back with a very rapid ‘no.’ It just wasn’t a topic he saw as meriting serious scholarly consideration, he said.

Now, such a response would likely be much harder to give. The past two authors to win the International Studies Association’s prestigious ‘Book of the Decade’ award, Alexander Wendt (2000) and Daniel Deudney (2010), have made world government enquiry a clear part of their work. Wendt, who is enormously influential for his work on how ideas and ideology can shape nation-states’ behaviour, has argued for the ‘inevitability’ of a world state – in 200 years or so. Deudney argues that the continuing threat from nuclear weapons remains so great that world-government creation is a necessity, though a weakly empowered one narrowly focused on weapons control.

Wendt and Deudney are only two of a range of IR scholars, economists, international sociologists and moral theorists who have recently explored the feasibility and desirability of full global political integration. Many others have taken up international institution building on a smaller scale, but still one that would require states to cede significant powers upward.

This might, in fact, be thought of as a second ‘heyday’ in world government thought. The first can be dated roughly from 1945-50. It was spurred by the US nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. What had been unimaginable in war was suddenly cold reality. This prompted many to think that political realities must be reconceived as well.

This wasn’t  just a fringe few, either. Leading academics – including Albert Einstein – authors, jurists, political figures and civil society leaders around the world called for, or at least expressed openness to, a world government capable of meeting the awful new threat.

The following quotation from Birmingham-area MP Henry Usborne gives a sense of the urgent rhetoric of the time. In his maiden speech to Parliament in 1946, Usborne outlined a plan for Britain to lead the way to a security and political union with like-minded democratic countries that could evolve into full world government:

‘I imagine that this proposal would meet with a great deal of opposition. That I do not mind. I am quite certain that if we doubled the opposition we should get 10 times the enthusiasm from the common people all over the world in support of a proposal such as that. Is the proposal fantastic? Is it Utopian? Yes, it is both fantastic and Utopian. It is just as fantastic as the atomic age in which we now live; it is just as Utopian as the hope of world peace.’

They ‘heyday’ period ended almost as quickly as it had begun, with the advent of the Cold War and fears of Soviet global domination.  Though some academics and others continued to make the case for world government, they remained mostly on the fringes for about the next 50 years.

Today’s resurgence of academic literature on world government, spurred in part by globalization, is distinguished by the range of disciplines involved and the prominence of some of those involved. Their arguments tend to fall into three camps. In the first, authors such as Deudney highlight continuing threats from world government, as well as terrorism and other security issues, as reason to pursue comprehensive forms of integration between nation-states.

The second camp is concerned with democratic rule. Here, ‘cosmopolitan democrats’ argue that, in an age of intensifying globalization and global economic integration, domestic democracies are losing their powers to live under laws of their own making. Thus, democratic decision making should be shifted upward, generally to include all of those who are affected by specific processes of globalization, or by the decisions of global bodies such as the World Trade Organization. Few of these authors would claim the world government title for their work, but several do advocate the creation of powerful, binding global institutions with broad powers to tax and spend for the common good.

A final camp is concerned with the promotion of justice and human rights globally. Here, authors argue that state sovereignty throws up predictable barriers to actually realizing justice or securing the rights of all persons, so forms of integration should be pursued between states. My own work would be situated here. I have argued in a couple of books and several articles that the current global system will routinely underfulfill individual rights: That’s because it leaves states as the final judges in their own cases about obligations. Imagine if we were all left to judge which rules or laws we would prefer to follow, or especially how much tax we’d like to pay. We’d mean well, but chances are we would see other priorities repeatedly getting in the way of ‘donating’ the tax voluntarily that would be needed to maintain social institutions.

Like most students of world government, I take a very long term view. If it ever will be possible to create global institutions capable of routinely protecting the rights of all persons, I have suggested, we shouldn’t expect to see them develop for many hundreds of years. My recent work has been concerned with the kinds of integration and related changes that might be possible in the near term, and yet would conceivably contribute to the long-term aim. I have considered in particular some potentially rights-enhancing forms of regional integration.

I have enjoyed being able, as this week’s Saving Humans ‘guest blogger’ to share some thoughts on recent developments in democracy and human rights. To recap: on Monday, I discussed a new organization, Academics Stand Against poverty, that is dedicated to strengthening the academic voice and direct positive impact on poverty issues globally. On Tuesday, I discussed my own work on global citizenship and immigration, with emphasis on field research among unauthorized immigrants, and with anti-immigration and migrant-rights activists.

On Wednesday, I talked about current work on human rights and prospects for, or possible reasons to purse, trans-state democracy. I looked there at how India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights had sought to reach out to the global human rights community to bring pressure on its own government to do more against caste-discrimination. Thursday’s entry drew connections between the theoretical concerns there and in the struggle by opposition leaders and activists in Turkey to maintain a free, open democracy, against the backdrop of possible accession to the European Union. Today’s entry took the much longer view on rights and integration.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Democracy, Rights and European Hopes in Turkey

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of individuals being able to both chasten and challenge political leaders. Constitutionalized liberal democracy, I suggested, is valuable primarily – though not solely – as a means of doing this. The right to vote in regular elections, along with rights to assembly, speech, protest, and closely related rights to bring formal challenges in courts, all are means of holding those who govern us to account.

Today I want to shift the focus from India and the Dalit (former untouchables) human rights struggle to Turkey. The two may not be obvious cases to treat in the same book or blog series, but in fact, some important issues intersect in both. In the Dalit human rights case, activists struggling on behalf of a category of persons within a country assert that those persons’ rights are being systematically violated. They believe that India’s democratic institutions and courts remain stacked against Dalits, despite anti-discrimination laws on the books. At the same time, the Indian government strongly resists ‘outside interference,’ or outreach by such activists to global human rights actors. It reserves the right to interpret rights standards and rights fulfilment to itself.


Protestor, Turkey, July 2013

In the Turkish case, similar claims are heard about democratic institutions and leaders who are increasingly unresponsive to opposition voices. Turkey has long been noted as a secular country, observing strict separation between state and Islam, the religion ascribed to an overwhelming majority of its population. One of the consistent complaints from opposition and activist leaders has been that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced ER-doh-WAN) has been incrementally introducing religious values and behavioural restrictions into law. Activists also complain of a creeping authoritarianism, on which more below.

The Turkish case, like the Indian one, has a significant international, or supranational, angle. Where the Dalit human rights activists have sought to reach out to the global human rights community in the absence of anything like a Global Court of Human Rights, Turkey has long held hopes of joining the still-expanding regional governance project just beyond its own borders.

For me, the Turkish case has been of great interest for the ethical questions it raises about obligations across borders. My basic presumption has been that Turkey stands to receive the same human rights benefits as other less-rich countries had on joining the European Union in the last several decades. These would include particularly Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece. Spain and Portugal were not only relatively poor countries at the time of accession, but they also faced steep challenges to democratization and democratic consolidation. Many observers see European Community membership as an important factor helping them develop stable, rights-respecting democratic institutions.

Of course, few would suggest that membership in the now-European Union is a cure for all political ills, or that the EU itself has developed into a fully defensible set of democratic institutions. EU leaders are still dealing with the fallout from the global economic crisis, which revealed some cracks in institutional design that may need more than a quick plaster-over. Yet, longtime EU observers will note that this is far from the first crisis, and that in fact the EU’s demise has been predicted many times.


Istanbul Police lined up, July 2013

In relation to Turkish accession, my presumption remains that it would deliver significant additional rights benefits to Turks. It would further integrate the country into the EU common market, give it a much stronger political voice in helping to shape and set the direction for that market, while enhancing economic opportunities for individual Turks, not least free movement across borders. It also should help to better ensure robust democratic rights.

I went to Istanbul for the first time last summer, to interview government officials, activists and think-tank representatives about prospects for Turkish accession. Full accession for Turkey has long been a controversial issue in some EU states, of course. This is because first, important issues remain unresolved around EU member state Cyprus. Turkey holds half of Cyprus’ territory in circumstances that continue to draw protest from several quarters. Turkey also would become the second largest EU country, behind Germany, giving it instant political clout in the union. And, a factor which is generally whispered about except by far-right factions, which tend to shout about it, Turkey would be the first Muslim-majority country in the EU. Even so, there is significant support for Turkish accession within the EU, along with opposition, notably within Germany and France.

When I arrived in Istanbul, after an earlier trip to Brussels to interview Turkish and EU officials, I found that few had EU accession foremost in their mind. Rather, they were focused on the flashpoint of Gezi Park. That park – an urban oasis in a city notably lacking in greenery – had become the focal point for demonstrations against the Erdogan regime, stemming from plans to let developers raze it for a shopping plaza.

I took a hotel near the park, which had been cleared of activists not long before in a police crackdown which saw three protesters and one police officer killed. The government response brought harsh criticism from the European Parliament. That was rejected by Erdogan, who questioned the Parliament’s legitimacy and blamed the protests on outside influences.

I spent several days interviewing leaders of activist groups that were focused on democratic governance, with emphasis on those which also interacted with EU institutions, as well as some political party and policy officials. On two nights, I joined the protesters who still filled the streets of the posh shopping district near Gezi Park. In interviews, they expressed their anger at what they saw as authoritarianism and religiosity gradually but relentlessly taking over their political institutions. Few mentioned the EU without prompting. Support for accession in polls of Turks has steadily dropped in recent years, as frustration has grown over the slow pace of accession talks – even while Croatia, which was given permission to move toward full membership at the same time as Turkey, was admitted. Yet, when asked, most saw EU membership as providing additional resources to challenge the government.

After a few dozen interviews, and being water cannoned and tear gassed by police, I decided I had collected enough from the protesters themselves (!) I did, however, join them another night, after they had quietly walked back into Gezi Park, police standing by, and turned it again into a site for singing, chanting, and expression of views.


Protestors filling Istiklal St., July 2013


Woman in goggles, July 2013

Now, six months later, EU leaders are again laying charges of authoritarianism, this time in response to a stringent law pressed by the Erdogan government on internet usage. Critics charge that the law amounts to bald censorship. At the same time, there were hopes for progress on EU accession talks, after years of virtual standstill. The struggle to shape the country’s democracy undoubtedly will continue, though it remains to be seen whether it will be conducted more firmly in the EU context.

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Police and billboards, Turkey, July 2013

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Applying Global Pressure to Domestic Justice Issues: India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about field research I had conducted among unauthorized immigrants in the US and Europe, as well as with immigration authorities and activists. I thought it could be appropriate to follow that up with a brief discussion of some current field research which intersects in some significant ways with the concerns of the Saving Humans initiative.

This work has involved interviews and site visits with Dalit-rights activists throughout India and in the UK. Dalits (former untouchables) make up about 16 percent of the Indian population and are among the most historically oppressed groups in that society, and perhaps worldwide. Dalits traditionally have been barred from all but the dirtiest and most dangerous trades – disposing of human waste by hand, collecting animal carcasses from roads, cleaning, doing outside manual labor. Though situated within Hindu culture, they have customarily been barred from worshipping inside Hindu temples, and even now are most often forced to live on fringes of most villages, working for higher-caste Hindus but rarely mixing in communal life.


IMAGE: Fish seller in a slum neighbourhood of Chennai whose residents are mostly Dalit persons.

The Indian constitution of 1950 formally bars caste discrimination, and further anti-discrimination measures have been passed since, including some mandating affirmative action in education and the public sector for Dalits and ‘other backward castes’, in the official parlance. Still, discrimination remains widespread, and Dalit activists say that actual protections are all too often weakly implemented.

I became interested in researching the Dalit struggle for an ongoing book project focused on individual rights, diversity and democracy. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. This campaign joined Dalit activist groups around India in an effort to reach out to the global community through the United Nations human rights regime. They sought to bring global pressure on the Indian government to do more toward eradicating caste discrimination.


IMAGE: NCDHR staff member Sanjeev Kumar in the Baljeet Nagar neighbourhood of Delhi. The area is home to Dalit families who do not hold title to their land and have been forcibly removed by the city and subsequently rebuilt. Kumar is part of a legal campaign seeking to help them stay.

The struggle is of keen interest to me as a student of cosmopolitan or trans-state democracy. In the account I have been developing, I adopt a primarily instrumental approach to democracy. This means that the basic justification for a system where the majority’s representatives set the rules, as opposed to the dictator, the wise few, etc., is that it promotes important individual rights protections.  Democracy, meaning not only voting rights but also rights to speech, assembly, protest, provides important tools for chastening leaders. After all, they have to get elected to lead, and re-elected to keep leading.

Such an approach naturally also places a good deal of emphasis on constitutionalized rights – corresponding to those human interests that are so vital that they simply do deserve protection, whatever a given majority might think. This corresponds to individuals being able to challenge leaders and democratic majorities in courts and court-like bodies. It provides a crucial complement to the chastening function of electoral processes and transparent governing processes.

The argument is naturally sympathetic to cosmopolitan democracy, or the expansion of democratic rule across state borders. If protection of rights is the key, that is, then the primary aim is to ensure that the rights of as many individuals as possible are protected. There is no natural presumption that democratic rule should be limited to a pre-existing ‘democratic people’. In fact, it turns out to be very difficult to show that there is some strong reason in democratic theory or rights-based approaches to limit shared rule to existing borders.

Enter the National Campaign. Here was a coalition whose members had concluded, from long struggle, that they could not achieve the equal rights protections they sought at the domestic level. India is often held up as a democratic exemplar – a country with extensive poverty that still has managed to maintain liberal-democratic institutions and robust participation. Yet, Dalit leaders with whom I have spoken around the country tell much the same difficult story: the rights are on the books, but when it comes to a Dalit person seeking police aid after a caste-motivated attack, or seeking justice in the courts, or responsive and fair governance from elected leaders, actual rights fulfilment remains out of reach.


IMAGE: Two tutors who help Dalit children with their homework each afternoon discuss their work at a community center in the city of Madurai in southern India.

So, National Campaign members sought to reach beyond India. After being rebuffed by some prominent rights NGOs, they were able to ally with Human Rights Watch. That group allied with Dalit groups to conduct a major study of ongoing caste discrimination in India, published as Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables,” in 1999. The book generated a great deal of attention globally, and it set the stage for National Campaign representatives to reach out more personally.

In 2001, the National Campaign took some 200 Dalit activists to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, sponsored by the United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Durban, South Africa. In interviews, numerous NCDHR leaders have cited the Durban conference as a key moment for raising international awareness of caste discrimination in India. By 2005, the then-UN Human Commission on Human Rights (from 2006 the UN Human Rights Council) had appointed two special rapporteurs on caste-based discrimination. The National Campaign’s efforts also were central in the European Parliament’s resolutions criticizing the treatment of Dalits in 2007 and 2012.

Yet, all such efforts to see caste discrimination formally recognized in international law have been vigorously resisted by the Indian government.  Consider that, as early as 1996, the government rejected a UN committee’s decision to include caste discrimination in the category of ‘descent based’ discrimination covered by the UN’s major discrimination treaty. In interviews, numerous NCDHR activists have noted that at the Durban conference a number of countries’ delegates were at first willing to support them openly. After being taken aside individually by India’s representatives, however, all withdrew their support. Trade access, activists believe, trumps a human rights stand every time.

The Indian government’s position has been that it is taking all needed steps to address caste discrimination, and generally that outsiders shouldn’t interfere. At present, the struggle could be described as at an impasse, where a few other countries and some UN representatives are willing to offer criticism, but the Indian government has given little indication that its position could change.

In the National Campaign, there is ongoing discussion about emphases moving ahead. Some, such as NCDHR Convenor Paul Divakar, who regularly travels to Geneva and other international sites to press the Dalit rights case, are firm that international outreach should continue. Some others believe more can be accomplished through intensifying the local and national struggles.

Whatever the ultimate shape of the resistance, the National Campaign’s efforts stand as a crucial case for the study of democracy, including democracy beyond the state. As one NCDHR leader told me, if they had been able to take their grievances to a Global Court of Human Rights, that’s precisely what they would have done. Proposals to create such a court date at least to the development of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a court to interpret and implement the rights proclaimed for all persons. There is little momentum for such a court today, but the NCDHR case should give us strong reason to think that any advocacy of extending democratic rule beyond the state should include advocacy of extending human rights courts as well.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

February, 2014

Studying Global Ethics in its Lived Contexts: Unauthorized Migration and Global Citizenship

Dr Luis Cabrera


IMAGE: Migrant rights activists calling attention to the deaths of migrants on the border crossing by bearing signs that say ‘presente’, signifying that those whose lives have been lost are not forgotten.

I started my professional (post-university) career as a journalist in Seattle for The Associated Press, the global newswire service.  Wire service work has a reputation in the trade as a bit of grind, and there were indeed plenty of overnight shifts spent rewriting local newspaper copy for the wire. There were also many exciting assignments, though. The best part of the job was always getting out into the field, interviewing people from all walks, covering forest fires, earthquakes, floods, massive demonstrations and, my favourite, the occasional NBA Seattle SuperSonics game…

I never went on assignment without feeling like I was getting a window into another world. And I missed that once I had taken my first academic job. I had trained as a political theorist, meaning my tasks now mostly involved hours of trying to get to the bottom of often very complex moral argumentation. It was satisfying work, and exactly the kind of intellectual engagement I wanted after being limited to the often very brief wire service journalistic form. But something was definitely missing.

My first academic post was at one of the four Phoenix-area campuses of Arizona State University. Arizona was then, in the early-mid 2000s, at the epicentre of US tensions around unauthorized migration. US Border Patrol strategy had dramatically shifted migrant routes from California to Arizona, and enforcement and civil society efforts – pro and con migrant – had become intense. I was keen to go when colleagues began inviting me along on experiential education trips to the border with their classes. We learned about migration and border politics from those who lived them daily.

I began to see how it might be possible to incorporate some of what I was learning in the desert into the moral arguments I was developing around global justice and human rights. Ultimately, the project became an exploration of global citizenship, with extensive field work along the border and at related sites. Once more, I felt like I was getting that window into others’ worlds.

It was thrilling, and inspiring at times. I spent a great deal of time interviewing members of two groups in particular: No More Deaths and the Minutemen. No More Deaths members were my exemplars of global citizenship. They fit well into a Saving Humans blog entry, since that was the express mission they had taken on. They conducted patrols of many miles through the southern Arizona desert, seeking out migrants who had become lost or left behind by their human smugglers, to bring them food, water and first aid. The group had arisen in the early 2000s, in response to increasing numbers of migrant deaths as the Border Patrol clamped down on the relatively easy urban crossings and sought to use the desert itself as a deterrent to crossing. The death toll is now in the thousands.


IMAGE: A booth operated by No More Deaths in Nogales, Mexico, on the Mexico-US Border. Volunteers offered first aid and related assistance to migrants who had been apprehended and returned by the US Border Patrol.

On the other side, often literally, were members of the Minuteman Project. They sought to deter crossing themselves by physically standing vigil – often with sidearms holstered — at the border or farther north, on heavily traveled routes, and reporting any suspected unauthorized migrants to the Border Patrol. They were my exemplar enactors of national citizenship, trying, as they would put it, to protect their country from people who had no right to be there.

Migrants themselves, I came to understand, were also acting as global citizens, and perhaps in the most concrete and most important ways. They crossed borders in search of better life opportunities for themselves and their families in much the same way that people within countries move between cities – or as citizens of the European Union often move between member states. They acted as though we already lived in a world where that was broadly possible, though of course where their lack of citizenship entitlements often meant a life in virtual hiding in the host state.

Interviewing and living side by side with unauthorized migrants – very much the norm in Arizona – for several years eventually persuaded me that they were acting as global citizens in a more proactive way. They were, I thought, engaged in something like a ‘global civil disobedience’ movement.  They were crossing borders without permission in order to better secure broad economic rights for themselves and their families. Most nation-state have formally committed to recognizing and working to ensure such rights for all in the binding UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Most rich countries, of course, would reject the idea that they have a responsibility to feed the world, provide employment, etc. But here migrants were, claiming such rights through actions that, though covert, could easily be viewed in a frame of principled resistance.


IMAGE: Migrant men walking to board a train in Coatzacoalcos, Mexico. Like many Central American migrants, they will ride the top of the trains to near the US-Mexico border, where they will try to walk across.

That particular argument has been controversial, and I recently had a chance to revisit it in a critical exchange (they critique, you defend) for an academic journal.  I do think there’s something to it. And, I believe the insight never would have come if I hadn’t been able to get back into the field, speaking to people about their daily struggles, getting that window into their world and, most of all, hearing moral arguments in their lived contexts. The method is still a tough sell with grant funding agencies, but I find it invaluable for enriching the ethical arguments I seek to make.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about more recent field work involving Dalit (former untouchable) human rights activists in India, and democracy activists staging street protests in Istanbul.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

February, 2014

Academics Stand Against Poverty: Professional Association Helps Researchers Enhance their Impact on Poverty Alleviation

Dr Luis Cabrera


For my first entry on the project blog, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about a newish academic association that shares many of the same interests as those affiliated with Saving Humans.

This association is Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP). It’s a non-profit, voluntary initiative designed to enhance academics’ impact on poverty alleviation. The driving idea is not so much to get academics out of the ivory tower, but to get those who’d never think of locking themselves up in such a place to share their ideas and experiences, collaborate where it makes sense, and generally just join forces to do a more effective job influencing poverty alleviation policy and practice.

ASAP was the brainchild of some relatively junior academics – political philosophers, in fact – working in Australia in 2009. They wanted to be able to play a more active role in some of the issues of global justice they were researching, and to help the global academic sector worldwide play as strong a direct role as possible on poverty and related issues. Their organizing efforts got a big boost from Thomas Pogge, the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University, who was intrigued by the idea and ultimately agreed to serve as president of a formal organization.

Pogge is known as anything but an ivory tower philosopher. He has helped lead a team to investigate the most sound methods for actually measuring poverty. He also has a major project underway to develop the kinds of monetary incentives that would entice big pharmaceutical firms to develop treatments for diseases that mainly afflict the world’s poor – and to be paid by how many of those treated actually get better.

Under Pogge’s leadership, and with a great deal of behind-the-scenes work from the nine members of the ASAP Board, a 19-member advisory board comprised of very prominent poverty-focused academics and a single paid staff member (the indefatigable Rachel Payne), the organization has greatly expanded its presence. It has staged conferences at Yale, Birmingham and the University of Delhi, as well as at universities in Mexico, Spain, Germany, Australia, Norway and elsewhere.

ASAP also has launched or sponsored a number of projects aimed at enhancing academic impact on severe poverty. These include one focused on ensuring that the best research insights inform the global poverty alleviation goals which will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. They also include projects concerned with economic rights and global climate change, the ways in which insights from psychology might inform poverty alleviation efforts, and a project aimed at helping poor persons in India become better informed and able to claim their government-backed entitlements.

I serve as vice president of the ASAP Board and head of a project called Impact: Global Poverty. It features profile articles on academics seeking to go beyond their straightforward research work to have a direct positive impact on poverty alleviation policy or practice. I have been amazed by the kinds of impact projects people have taken on in addition to their day-to-day responsibilities at their universities or as doctoral students.

Profiles have included one on Sukhadeo Thorat, longtime Professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, who has had enormous influence on Indian government and private sector policies on integrating dalit persons (former untouchables). We have profiled Prof. Alan Fenwick at Imperial College London, who heads a project that has treated millions suffering from neglected tropical diseases. We also have profiled Bijayalaxmi Nanda of the University of Delhi. She works with groups in the city focused on the worth of girl children and  ending sex-selective abortion. Other profile subjects have included Birmingham’s own Paul Jackson, for his work advising the Nepalese government on re-integration of former rebels into society; and Nicolas Lemay-Hébert, who has worked with Haitian academics and students suffering in the aftermath of that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.

I have found all of these academics’ stories inspiring, and we have many more similar profiles in the works. If you know of an academic who is engaging closely with NGOs, policy makers, or is generally seeking to make an impact in addition to standard research work, we would love to know about her/him. Please send a note to me at 

Many things are planned for the future with ASAP overall. The organization is growing rapidly, with a number of country chapters forming globally. We are now in the midst of a developing a long-term plan aimed at fully incorporating the chapters and opening more volunteer and related opportunities for ASAP’s 800-plus members worldwide. I am happy to answer any questions about the organization, and I would encourage all academics with an interest in issues of poverty to join.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. 

February, 2014

Saving Humans by Numbers: Part 5 – Attractions

Dr Jussi Suikkanen

File:Vintgar-Gorge people-on-bridge (8139628676).jpg

So far, in this series, I have considered cases in which you have to decide whether to save one individual person from death or a larger group of people from the same faith. Through critically thinking about John Taurek’s work, we have reached an appealing way of thinking about these situations. I should say that this way of moral thinking is also very much inspired by an ethical theory called contractualism which was recently made popular by T.M. Scanlon in his book What We Owe to Each Other.

If you are in a tricky situation like the case where you have to save either one person or five people, you first consider what kind of general policies could be adopted for that situation. We could adopt a principle that requires to save the greater number, or to flip a coin, or to always save the single person, or to always save whoever you fancy, or … We then think what consequences these principles would have for individuals. If a principle would cause serious and unnecessary burdens to some individuals, then the use of that principle can’t be justified to those people. If it doesn’t, then it’s fine to act on the principle in the situation you are in.

If we think of the principles for the life-saving case in this way, in the basic case the saving the greater number principle seems to be the only justifiable principle. All other principles would cause each one of us a higher risk of death in the live-saving incidents we might have to face during our lives. For that reason, you are not allowed to do anything else except to save the greater number, other things being equal.

This way of comparing the moral principles has attractive consequences also in other kind of cases that are problematic for utilitarian thinking. Consider a case in which you can either save one person from getting a broken bone or million people from a mild headache. When utilitarians think about this type of cases, they’ll have to sum up all the headaches and thus for them it seems like saving a lot people from mild headaches is the better outcome which you should bring about. This to me seems like the wrong to say.

But let’s consider this case with the previous method of moral reasoning. We could all either adopt a principle that requires us to save an individual from breaking a bone in this type of cases or a principle that requires saving the million people from mild headaches instead. When you compare these principles, you don’t know how you will end up being affected by them. You might be end up being the one person whose bone can get broken or you might end up being one of the million people who’ll get a mild headache. Thus, one of the principles will generally protect you from mild headaches in these cases whereas the other principle protects you from breaking a bone in similar situations. It seems to me that it is far more important to be protected from broken arms than mild headaches even if it is likelier that you will occasionally be in the group of million who’ll get a mild headache.

The previous case shows why adopting a principle that requires us to save a huge number of people from trivial harms instead of fewer people from significantly more serious harms can’t be justified to us as individuals. This case too has important implications for distributing healthcare resources. It offers us a way of thinking about the seriousness of harms when we make policy.

Of course this way of thinking about saving lives also has its problems. For example, it will be difficult to deal with cases in which the sizes of the groups and the seriousness of harms are very close. Given a choice between saving one person from death or three people from complete paralysis, what should you do? Adopting the save the one person policy would give us all slightly lower chance of death but a somewhat higher chance of paralysis. Adopting the save the group policy for this type of cases would give us a somewhat lower chance of paralysis but a slightly higher chance of death. Which one of these patterns of risk is a more serious burden to bear that couldn’t be justified to us? This question then seems here just as difficult as the question of what you should do in the original situation.

Image source:

October, 2013

Professor Heather Widdows

Professor Heather Widdows is the Director of Centre for the Study of Global Ethics

In my post on Monday I argued that the threats to health, environment and security, cannot be addressed locally, but have to be addressed globally. My claim was that these threats were all interconnected and could not be addressed in isolation. This does not mean – of course – that people, groups, organisations, states and the international community should not adopt specific projects, policies and practices to tackle particular issues, but that there should be awareness of how these link into the wider solutions.

But, as I discussed on Monday finding such solutions is the problem. For instance, as noted in climate change there is broad scientific consensus (as shown in last week’s intergovernmental panel on climate change report. Scientific scepticism of a radical kind is extreme – it is not a balanced view. This is not to say there is no debate about the extent of what is happening or how it is to be addressed – but there is little doubt in the mainstream scientific community that climate change is happening and that it is man-made. The controversy in ethics then is not about whether climate change is happening – but rather what should we do to address it. There five solutions which are commonly suggested:

  • Equal burdens: That all should share the burden of climate change equally. This is the approach roughly of the Kyoto protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which takes a historical baseline of 1990 and then requires differential reductions in accordance with this. Some ethicists reject this as it falls more heavily on underdeveloped countries.
  • Equal shares: That all are assigned ‘per capita’ quotas. The advantage of this over the equal burden model is that it does allow some space for growth for the poorest – who are yet to use their whole quota of emissions – while requiring large reductions for the richest.
  • Polluter pays: That those who created climate change are responsible for addressing its ill effects. It is a backward-looking model and a view which ethically is intuitively strong. It seems fair and puts financial responsibly in the same place as moral responsibility. Again part of this principle is built into the Kyoto model in that a 1990 baseline is set.  But, although this appears fair there some problems. First (and true to some extent all responses to climate change) there is the problem of uncertainty. Estimating the ill effects of climate change is notoriously difficult and therefore estimating causes even more uncertain. Second, is it fair that polluters are responsible for the ill effects before it was known that such actions contributed to climate change (say around the 1990s when scientific consensus began to emerge)?
  • Beneficiary pays: That those who have benefited from development pay. This escapes the problem of uncertainty. It doesn’t matter if you caused climate change what matters is whether you benefited or not.
  • Ability to pay: That those who can pay should – irrespective. Quite simply the challenge is so great and the need of solving it so pressing – anyone (and perhaps everyone) who can pay should. This is pragmatic response. Rather than attempt to track difficult networks of causal injustices we just focus on what we can do now and as quickly as possible.

The problem though is not which of these to choose – any of them would be better than the current inaction and (as noted) at least two of them are evident in Kyoto and the international attempts to address the issue to date. So the problem is perhaps not ‘who pays?’ but ‘why does no-one pay?’. How can we get people, institutions and governments to act? How do we get collective action? How can any of these be put into practice? How do you get individual people and individual countries to conform?

My answer is that we need to move to a different understanding of what is valuable and of what we protect. At the moment theories of justice tend to protect individual rights and choice, and these are allowed to ‘trump’ all other concerns. By trumping I just mean that these are valued more than anything else. This is a principle of ethics or justice which applies almost across the board – if you choose something, if you consent to it, then it is deemed to be ethical. There are some instances where this is clearly right – and where no-one else is affected by your decision. But when it comes to climate change, or to protecting antibiotic efficacy (see Monday’s blog – 30 September), to allow individuals to choose not to engage in shared and collective action is devastating. Primary public goods of a sustainable environment and health are simply destroyed. In global theories of justice these goods need respecting too – and ethics and governance structures must be able to do this. To make this happen individual choice cannot always trump. Such a theory would revolutionise global justice and ethics thinking, but is, I think essential, if the current global challenges are to be met. As mentioned on Monday the costs of not protecting such global public goods are almost unthinkable: devastating to others now and overwhelmingly destructive to future generations. The prospect of returning to a pre-antibiotic era, or surviving global warming, is just too horrible to contemplate.

If you would like to read this argument in full please see my recent paper ‘Revising Global Theories of Justice to Include Public Goods’ co-authored with one of my Phd Students in Global Ethics, Peter West-Oram.

September, 2013

Professor Heather Widdows

Welcome to the first post of the Saving Humans blog. What Saving Humans aims to do is exactly what it says on the tin – save real human beings and improve the wellbeing and flourishing of actual humans. Clearly as academics we are not going to do this by practical intervention (or at least not in our day jobs), but this does not mean that the work we do does not have practical impact and effect in the real world. The Saving Humans theme is concerned to address the most important global threats to human survival and flourishing, we have identified these as:

  • Health threats, from infectious disease to technological development;
  • Environmental threats, from climate change to natural disasters;
  • Security threats, including, war, conflict and terrorism and its methods and means and consequences.

Lots of people and groups are good at identifying these threats – but solutions are harder. For instance, the World Health Organisation has highlighted the global threat of drug-resistant strains of disease. []. WHO states that, “Modern healthcare depends substantially on antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines to treat conditions that would previously have proved fatal. Today, there is more resistance – and there are fewer new antimicrobial medicines in the pipeline – than ever before.” [] This is not an idle threat but a very real risk and one which is affecting us already. Again to quote WHO:

“We must do everything in our power to preserve these drugs for future generations. Some of the greatest achievements of global health — treating tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, pneumonia, diarrhoea and other killer infectious diseases — are at risk as drug resistance rises. Without effective drugs, we cannot prevent death and disease,” []. A world where these diseases were once again killer diseases is almost too terrible to imagine.

The threats of climate change are no less pressing – as shown clearly by the report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change which came out last week and described the evidence for global warming as unequivocal. [].

Saving Humans comes from the conviction that these problems are not separate but connected, and solutions must also be connected if they are to have any chance of success. For instance, conflict breeds poverty, by destroying land, homes and income sources and creating refugees and migrants, who are not only poor themselves, but also who drain the resources of neighbouring countries. Professor Jackson’s blog this week will highlight the spread of violence from Somalia to Nigeria, demonstrated so gruesomely in Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi last week. Conflict also adds to environmental degradation as the land is ransacked and in turn environmental degradation leads to conflict as migrants look for fertile land and resources become so scarce that people begin to fight over them. Likewise Climate change is not only likely to lead to sea level rises and lack of inhabitable land, but to increased health threats as infectious diseases spread as temperatures rise. Similarly health threats are exacerbated by poverty, as poor people – typically but by no means exclusively in the developing world – lack access to affordable courses of antibiotics, leading to the misuse of antibiotics, and contributing (along with other misuses) to the growth of drug-resistant strains of disease.

The interconnectedness of the global challenges is often ignored, as organisations focus on one threat at the exclusion of others. This of course is inevitable and understandable – a person or an organisation can’t do everything at one – and the size of the challenge can seem overwhelming. By emphasising interconnection we do not mean that separate interventions shouldn’t happen. They should and they must. Interventions on the ground must be targeted and one step at a time. But these separate interventions must always and also consider the combined challenges and the wider implications of their intervention. Most importantly, if we really want to address the threats of health, environment and security, we have to take seriously the globe as the scope within which we act. This is where Saving Humans comes in. While there are Birmingham academics who are already the established experts in their fields – fields contribute to Saving Humans – too often academics work separately in disciplinary silos. If we are really serious about addressing health threats – such as infectious disease, pandemics and the growth of anti-biotic resistance – or security threats – nuclear war and WMDs, terrorism and cyber attacks – or environmental threats – climate chaos and lack of access of scarce resources –  we have to have global and multidisciplinary approaches. Approaches which are single disciplinary or don’t engage with policy and practice just won’t cut it. My own discipline of Global Ethics is perfect for this.

Global ethics is a new and emerging field, but at its heart it is still doing what moral and political philosophy has always done:  attempting to answer Plato’s original philosophical question of ‘how ought we to live?’.  What global ethics does is it tries to answer this question in the context of globalisation – the increasing interdependence of global society economically, socially, culturally and politically. It recognises that there are global dilemmas which require global solutions. Global ethics has three key features:

1. It is multidisciplinary;

2. It links theory to practice;

3. It is global in scope.

All of these characteristics are core to the Saving Humans theme. It is the global scope requirement which recognises the interconnected nature of the challenges and also the need for direct action on specific issues. The global scope of global ethics requires that when any ethical dilemma is considered the needs of all must be recognised even if they cannot all be addressed in this particular action. Much ethics does not do this. For instance, many forms of professional ethics (say medical ethics) are primarily concerned with one a subset of ethics, and much ethics is ‘bounded’. In other words it concerns the relationships of individuals within one community (nation state, region or locality).

In global ethics, this is not good enough. The needs and perspectives of all global actors must count. This doesn’t mean that partial solutions and projects are not part of global ethics – they very much are – but the consequences for all must be considered.   In this way the global frame remains and the aim is that partial and piecemeal measures will gradually contribute to establishing truly global solutions. The global methodology, then, is practical and accepts that impartial and imperfect solutions as steps on the way. Yet, no matter what theory, policy or practice is ultimately recommended the global needs of all are factored into the analysis: the frame for ethical analysis is the globe. Because of this commitment, global ethics is also concerned with all global actors – with the rights, interests and duties of individuals, nations, institutions and associations.  It is only together that the challenges can be addressed.

April, 2013

Thomas Pogge at the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics

Thomas Pogge

Click image for source

Professor Thomas Pogge will be giving a talk at the University of Birmingham on Friday 10 May. Professor Pogge is one of the leading experts on global ethics. He is the Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University and also the director of the Global Justice Programme at Yale’s MacMillan Centre. His recent books include John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice (OUP 2007), World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (2nd ed., Polity 2008), and Politics as Usual: What Lies Behind the Pro-Poor Rhetoric (Polity 2010).

This event has been organized by Academics Stand against Poverty‘s Birmingham group and the Birmingham branch of the Giving What We Can project. The talk will be followed by an interview of Professor Pogge by the students and wine will be served after the Q&A. The location of the talk will be announced later.

You can get more up to date information at the Centre’s events page, or contact Simon Jenkins for details.

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