Ethics & International Affairs


Achieving Democracy

Thomas Pogge*


Overcoming corruption and authoritarian government in developing countries is hampered by global institutional arrangements. In particular, international borrowing and resource privileges, which entitle those exercising power in a country to borrow in its name and to effect legally valid transfers of ownership rights in its resources, can be obstacles to achieving democracy. These international conventions greatly increase the incentives toward attempts at coups d'état, especially in countries with a large resource sector. In exploring how this problem might be highlighted and addressed, it is essential to understand that affluent societies have a great interest in upholding the prevailing institutional arrangements: Their banks benefit from their international lending and, far more importantly, their firms and people benefit greatly from cheap resource supplies. Institutional reform is more likely, then, to come from the developing countries.

Thus, fledgling democracies may be able to improve their stability through constitutional amendments that bar future unconstitutional governments from borrowing in the country's name and from conferring ownership rights in its public property. Such amendments would render insecure the claims of those who lend to, or buy from, dictators, thus reducing the rewards of coups d'état. This strategy might be resisted by the more affluent societies, but such resistance could perhaps be overcome if many developing countries pursued the proposed strategy together, and if some moral support emerged among the citizenries of affluent societies.

Thomas Pogge teaches moral and political philosophy at Columbia University. His recent publications include: “What We Can Reasonably Reject” (NOÛS, 2001), “Eradicating Systemic Poverty” (Journal of Human Development, 2001), “Priorities of Global Justice” (Metaphilosophy, 2001), “An Egalitarian Law of Peoples” and “On the Site of Distributive Justice” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1994, 2000), “Human Flourishing and Universal Justice” (Social Philosophy and Policy, 1999), “The Bounds of Nationalism” (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 1997), and “Creating Supranational Institutions Democratically” (Journal of Political Philosophy, 1997).


* This essay is based on a lecture given in honor of my friend Otfried Höffe on the occasion of his honorary doctorate from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Porto Allegre, Brazil. For important comments, which I have tried to accommodate in this written version, I thank my respondent Wilson Mendonça as well as Alvaro de Vita, Sônia Filipe, Otfried Höffe, Thomas Kesselring, and Alessandro Pinzani. I also gratefully acknowledge support through a grant from the Research and Writing Initiative of the Program on Global Security and Sustainability of the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation.