Measuring Human Rights (20): What is More Important, the Number or Percentage of People Suffering Human Rights Violations?

Take just one human right, the right not to suffer poverty: if we want to measure progress for this human right, we get something like the following fact:

[N]ever in the world have there been so many paupers as in the present times. But the reason of this is that there have never been so many people around. Indeed never in the history of the world has been the percentage of poor people been so low. (source)

So, is this good news or bad news? If it’s more important to reduce the share of the world population suffering a particular type of rights violation, then this is good news. On the other hand, there are now more people – in absolute, not in relative numbers – suffering from poverty. If we take individuals and the distinctions between persons seriously, we should conclude that this is bad news and we’re doing worse than before.

Thomas Pogge has argued for the latter view. Take another example: killing a given number of people doesn’t become less troubling if the world’s population increases. If we would discover that the real number of the world’s population at the time of the Holocaust was twice as large as previously assumed, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of the Holocaust. What matters is the absolute number of people suffering.

On the other hand, if we see that policies and interventions lead to a significant lowering of the proportion of people in poverty – or suffering from any other type of rights violation – between times t and t+n, then we would welcome that, and we would certainly want to know it. The fact that the denominator – total world population – has increased in the mean time, is probably something that has happened independently of those policies. In the specific case of poverty, a growing population can even make a decrease in relative numbers of people suffering from poverty all the more admirable. After all, many still believe (erroneously) in the Malthusian trap theory, which states that population growth necessarily leads to increases in poverty in absolute numbers.

More posts in this series are here.


5 thoughts on “Measuring Human Rights (20): What is More Important, the Number or Percentage of People Suffering Human Rights Violations?”

  1. Following the tsunami in Indonesia, if I remember correctly, vast numbers of people were simply never accounted for because there had never been an accounting of them in the first place, no significant census, until their bodies were found etc. Entire towns and tribes were lost that the government and world had never knew existed. So however positive my initial reaction is to the news about a fall in the percentages of the “extrememly impoverished,” my guess is that whoever is conducting these studies is doing so more with statistical modeling than with real-world analysis. So as it happens I would like to pick that person’s brain who can figure out how money is distributed within a given population, as money distribution must change hourly and in many unforeseen ways as occurs in most markets.

    I’m just highly skeptical about the methodology, despite how good the results sound.

    But as for the philosophical side of the issue presented in the article, I think, intuitively, we want to say yes we’re doing better than before, because ‘before’ would have resulted in a greater absolute number of people in poverty. But at the same time any increase in poverty is bad by the very definition of bad (according to various forms of ethical hedonism, such as utilitarianism, that is) as suffering individuals and, in the case of the UN, violations of human rights. Of course there’s nothing inconsistent in saying that we’re better off with regards to extreme poverty than we would have been had things stayed the same, but at the same time we’re worse off with regards to the absolute number in extreme poverty than we were x years ago. But measuring progress on poverty must take into consideration, in my opinion, percentages over time that adjust for poplution growth and not merely the absolute numbers.

    (If I were conducting research on the topic, I would want to understand how access to economic mobility has improved over time, which would take into consideration a broader spectrum of social forces than merely capital–I mean, we may give a country aid and in a flash bring thousands up above the extreme poverty line, but who are we kidding here? Let’s see what social constructs are in place to provide avenues of advancement.)


    1. Point taken about the census. And there are other problems with poverty measurement, including income (black economy), purchasing power parity calculation etc. (seen an overview here). However, even if the downward trend is overstated because of these problems (or perhaps sometimes also understated), the trend is so strong that there must be some improvement (in relative numbers).


  2. Thanks for the link. Will look into them.

    It’s just viscerally hard to absorb that such a trend exists, though I probably didn’t need to project that uneasiness by reacting against the methods used in profiling poverty in general, though my reservations are there.

    Truth is, once I can accept that Brazil, India, and subsections of China have risen (or are now rising) into the sort of middle class enjoyed traditionally by the US, Western Europe, I should then be able to accept the trend on the global diminution of extreme poverty. Maybe I need a vacation to Brazil or India to see the developments going on there, b/c I’m sadly not seeing much of it in the media…


  3. Did I just read that right? The RIGHT not to suffer poverty? Where is this one written down? What nation is so rich that they hand you a million dollars when you go there? Cause I want to go there! Poverty is in the eye of the beholder. Measure wealth with you heart not your wallet. If you can live on eating monkey brains and that’s what your use to then where is it written that that qualifies as poverty. I’m three house payments behind, does that qualify me?


    1. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states:

      “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”


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