Retrospectives on the twentieth century give ample space to its horrors. Natural catastrophes are overshadowed by wars and other human made disasters: six million murdered in the German Holocaust, thirty million starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward, eleven million wiped out by Josef Stalin, two million killed by the Khmer Rouge, half a million hacked to death in Rwanda, and so on. Missing from these retrospectives are the deaths from starvation and preventable diseases—world hunger for short—some two hundred million in just the few years since the end of the cold war. Why are these deaths not mentioned? Are they too humdrum, too ordinary, not shocking enough? Or are they perhaps too disturbing—deaths that, unlike the others, are not clearly someone else’s responsibility?
Let us consider the disturbing thought. Do we bear some responsibility for deaths due to extreme poverty abroad? Confronted with this question, most respond with a firm No. But this No comes very quickly and with a reluctance to delve more deeply into the reasons for it. This reluctance is shared by ethicists, whose job it is to think about moral issues and responsibilities. Most of them probably agree with the No of their compatriots, but very few have taken the trouble to examine the question carefully enough to provide good reasons for this answer.
How does one examine such a question? One may begin by recapitulating the basic facts about world hunger. Of a total of six billion human beings, one quarter live below the international poverty line (WDR, 25), “that income or expenditure level below which a minimum, nutritionally adequate diet plus essential non food requirements are not affordable” (HDR 1996, 222). This level is specified in terms of a daily income with the purchasing power that one dollar had in the United States in 1985. Because of inflation in the intervening years, this level now corresponds to an annual per capita income of $560 at purchasing power parity or to an annual per capita income of $140 at current exchange rates. This last figure takes account of the fact that, in the poor countries, only about twenty-five cents is needed, on average, to buy local currency that has as much purchasing power as one dollar has in the United States (cf. WDR, 230 1). So households in the poorest quartile of humankind cannot afford, per person per year, whatever basic necessities can be bought for $560 in the United States or for $140 in the average poor country. (As this article goes to press, I find that the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program have quietly redefined the international poverty line in terms of a daily income with the purchasing power that one dollar had in the United States in 1993 [HDR 2000, 4, 170f.]. Since the U.S. dollar lost more than a quarter of its value between 1985 and 1993, this revision lowers the internationa...
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