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An Analysis of Duties to Fulfill the Human Rights of the Poor

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Alan Gewirth justifies the existence of human rights in his “Duties to Fulfill the Human Rights of the Poor” by claiming that human action is the grounding to possessing rights. Essentially, Gewirth explains that what makes one human is the ability of “action.” And therefore, in order to “act” one must have certain essential rightsвЂ"rights of well-being and freedom (Gewirth 222). Gewirth then attempts to claim that the humans themselves have a duty to make sure other humans are entitled to the same rights that they themselves hold to be true. Simply, with the privilege of rights comes the responsibility of duty. He moves from this justification of human rights and one’s duty to help another, to suggest that current positions on solving global poverty are flawed and therefore unfeasible. Gewirth presents his own agency-empowering solution. I will show that Gewirth’s solution is subject to at least two of the same objections that Gewirth uses to discount the prevailing positions of today.

Gewirth identifies two schools of thought concerning the process by which global poverty can be resolved. One maintains that a poverty-stricken country should care for its own citizens; this is called the internalist position. The other position, externalist, claims that rich countries should assist poverty-stricken countries in solving this global problem.

Supporters of the internalist position believe that the root causes of a country’s poverty are internalвЂ"that the policies of the respective governments allow for poverty to persist. Thus, the internalist position holds that in order to eliminate poverty, these internal causes must be eliminated (229). Furthermore, the internalist position holds that, in many cases, governments do have the availability of food and other essentials to provide to its citizens; however, these governments, for whatever reason, fail to distribute these goods to the poor masses. Thus, in order to “galvanize these governments into action,” political pressure must be applied by the outside world (230). Gewirth proposes various objections to the internalist position. First, Gewirth explains that if a government is not democratic, it cannot be expected to properly distribute the necessary goods for the survival of its citizens. Undemocratic governments characteristically do not to uphold or even recognize the existence of equal human rights. Furthermore, even if a government is democratic, problems still arise because the internalist position does not account for the “vulnerability of developing societies to global markets” and other foreign influences (231). Developing countries with young democratic governments are in general more susceptible to the influences of foreign powers and therefore tend to be weak and unstable. As a result, these fledging democracies mismanage their resources, which only hurt the poor more.

The externalist position holds that the richer nations of the world must provide long-term assistance to the poorer nations. Furthermore, the aid must be unconditional. However, as Gewirth explains, one main problem arises from this point of view: poorer nations will become dependent on this aid and forever be stuck in a state of poverty.

Gewirth proposes his own position on solving the problem of global poverty, which he names agency-empowering. His position differs from the internalist position in that richer countries do provide aid to the poverty-stricken countries. Still, it differs from the externalist position in that the aid given is not unconditional (233). In this agency-empowering position, aid would be given not only to feed the poor, but also in ways to make sure that impoverished individuals lift themselves from poverty. This position aims to empower the poor so that they can provide for themselves. As Gewirth explains:

“It has involved a learning process whereby persons come to have greater control over their fortunes; they recognize much more fully how they can use self help to develop their abilities of agency. So instead of being passive recipients of the actions of other persons, they are active agents in their own behalf” (233).

He also points out that there is a necessity for a political democracy in order for the policies of the agency-empowering position to be effective. The agency-empowering position allows for what Gewirth believes to be a feasible integration of the internalist and externalist positions, combining the positive aspects of both views. However, this position is subject to at least two of the very same objections that caused him to offer his own position in the first place.

First, Gewirth claims, against internalism, that undemocratic governments cannot be held responsible for the persistence of poverty in their respective countries because their policies do not reflect the needs of their people. Gewirth’s agency-empowering position



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