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An inconvenient moral truth

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forum 49

JimHolmes/Oxfam

Jonathan Glover argues that our duties to the poor may be much greater than we would like to think

In the rich countries, we are all vaguely aware that there is an appalling degree of poverty in the developing world. But, perhaps through wanting to avoid psychological discomfort, we usually manage to minimise the scale of its human devastation. In sub-Saharan Africa, the median age at death is less than fi ve years. Amartya Sen, who quotes this fi gure from the 1993 World Development Report of the World Bank, understandably feels it necessary to point out that this astounding fi gure

Jonathan Glover is director of the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College London and author of Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press)

is not a typographical error. He goes on to say the fi gure has got worse since the AIDS epidemic hit hard. We know that the poverty, the shortages of water, and the lack of available medical care are not just natural phenomena. They come about through the interaction of the natural and the social. They are, at least partly, remediable by human action. So what moral claims do babies born in Africa with such a horrifyingly but avoidably low life expectancy have on us? Start with people in one of the parts of Africa where the median age at death is less than fi ve years. Take a child born there and that child’s mother. Without help from outside, much of the child’s very short life will be taken up with dying from starvation or disease. The mother will have the experience of trying and

poverty&thedutyofassistance

TP M

4th quarter 2006

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