In this article, we outline reasons why academics whose research or teaching focuses on poverty and related issues should want to join Academics Stand Against Poverty, and we discuss the kinds of impact gains that might be realized through collaboration in the ASAP network.
Despite some rosy reports about global poverty reduction, and despite highly publicized commitments such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the number of persons who simply can’t get enough food to eat remains staggeringly high. The United Nations recently reported that the achievement of MDG Goal 1, halving by 2015 the number of persons facing chronic hunger globally from a 1990 baseline, may be within reach. Yet, the same report notes that when chronic hunger is measured according to the food needed for ‘normal activity’, rather than a ‘sedentary lifestyle’, more than 1.5 billion fall below the threshold. A full 2.5 billion have too little food to fuel ‘intense activity’, and progress on hunger reduction has slowed dramatically since 2007-08.
The need to do better remains urgent. Yet, why should academics focused on poverty, as well as on related issues such as climate change, think that they have special responsibilities to contribute to public dialogue, outreach and impact efforts? Further, why should those who already have extensive experience in poverty policy and dialogue efforts feel compelled to help mentor others?
We would offer three main reasons. The first is that academics in the UK and similarly affluent countries hold a relatively privileged position within societies that themselves hold privileged positions globally. Thus, we are the beneficiaries of current supranational arrangements in trade, investment, finance, etc., which tend to be tilted in our favour. As such, we are likely to have special responsibilities to explore and highlight structural injustices that our governments design and uphold in our name. These could be negative responsibilities to avoid harming others through such institutional arrangements, or positive ones to use our favoured positions to aid and protect people much less advantaged than we are.
Second, and more narrowly, when there is an important public debate, for example, on levels of overseas development assistance amid continuing domestic economic hardship, academic silence can be interpreted as acceptance that the main views represented in the public debate are credible or widely accepted amongst researchers. If empirical evidence or robust normative arguments suggest otherwise, then those who can offer the counterpoint have some responsibility to do so.
Third, academics have more general duties based in the potential to use their subject expertise to make contributions that are significant, distinctive and complementary to existing efforts, such as those of some large development NGOs. Those economists, environmental scientists, development studies specialists, political scientists, philosophers, and others with expertise salient to the problems of global poverty, can and should feel compelled to put their skills to good use in the public arena. Those already deeply immersed in such activities can magnify their impact through closer coordination with like-minded others in academia, and through various forms of mentoring to help others enhance their own impact, especially those working in less-affluent countries.
What sorts of specific contributions, then, can and should academics seek to make? First, in terms of public outreach, we can share expertise through popular print, online and broadcast media, in public debates, official testimony, and through collaboration with civil society organizations and some types of firms. Such activities can be crucial for presenting new findings, challenging assumptions in public discourse, and for helping to frame the discourse around global poverty with appropriate academic input. And again, those with long experience of reaching public audiences can help others become more effective in doing so.
Further, we see an important and potentially much more expansive role for academics in contributing more directly to poverty alleviation. For example, an ASAP-sponsored project surveying leading researchers’ assessments of the Millennium Development Goals called the Global Poverty Consensus Report has made important contributions to the current dialogue on what should replace the MDGs when they expire in 2015. A separate effort, GiveWell, involving academics and civil society representatives, works to assess the effectiveness of poverty and development NGOs in order to help donors make more informed decisions. Another effort, the Health Impact Fund, is developing a complement to the way pharmaceutical innovations are currently incentivized and rewarded through patent-protected markups that predictably render new medicines unaffordable to the world’s poor. All offer examples of very concrete ways in which academic expertise can be put to work in interventions.
We close by inviting university researchers, teachers and graduate students interested in poverty reduction to join Academics Stand Against Poverty. The initiative was launched by academics in several countries who were seeking better ways to leverage scholarly expertise on global poverty and promote collaboration across disciplines. Initial organizing efforts have led to conferences involving hundreds of participants in 2011-12 at Yale University, the University of Birmingham, University of Oslo, University of Notre Dame London Centre, University of Delhi and Ryerson University in Toronto.
ASAP’s web site has numerous collaborative features, including open forums, a dedicated social network, and ongoing calls for articles on specific aspects of poverty policy, impact efforts and events. We invite all interested academics to join the organization and make their own contributions toward enhancing positive academic impact globally on public dialogue, policy and civil society efforts to reduce severe poverty.
Thomas Pogge and Luis Cabrera*
*Thomas Pogge is Leitner Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs at Yale University and the Chair of the Board of Academics Stand Against Poverty. Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory at the University of Birmingham and an ASAP Board member. A longer version of this article appears as Thomas Pogge and Luis Cabrera. 2012. “Outreach, Impact, Collaboration: Why Academics Should Join to Stand Against Poverty”. Ethics & International Affairs 26(2). Other articles in the issue also address the idea and promise of ASAP. A version of that article is available from the University of Birmingham.