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Distributive and political justice: How can we meet the challenges of global justice? (completed)

This project studied how moral concerns arise at the level of political and legal institutions. We approach this issue by considering the way that many people are deprived of agency in the substantive sense of being able to flourish as human agents.


We developed normatively based and empirically informed accounts of such deprivation of agency, traced some of its most important causes in current international political and legal institutions, and developed concrete political and legal proposals for how to remedy the situation and limit such injustice. We had special focus on:

  • Effectiveness of international development assistance
  • Refining the health impact assessment of newly introduced pharmaceuticals
  • Controlling illicit financial flows
  • Effectiveness of international development assistance


OECD countries spend about $120 billion annually on what they call development assistance. With the number of chronically undernourished recently reaching a new all-time record, many ask whether development assistance is working.

This skeptical challenge cannot be met by recounting a few local success stories. The reason is that each such project is only a tiny fraction of the overall development effort, and also that local successes may be neutralized by their negative externalities beyond their locale and/or may bring no lasting effects once the project has ended.

Account of development

To examine the question thoroughly, we built a normatively and empirically based account of what development is. This account focused attention on the importance of individual and collective agency. The goal and yardstick of development must be the capacity of the citizens of less developed countries to set their own goals and to pursue them effectively.

We analyzed the available evidence from the burgeoning development literature in order to ascertain whether and to what extent development assistance has actually advanced valid development indicators. Here comparative analyses of reasonably similar cases was especially important.

This work benefited especially from our collaboration with CAPPE, which is administering a large grant from Oxfam UK and the Australian Research Council, and was engaged in field work in six countries: Mozambique, Angola, Malawi, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Refining the health impact assessment of newly introduced pharmaceuticals

CSMN has played a leading role in pioneering the idea of the Health Impact Fund, which was being debated at the highest levels of intergovernmental organizations (WHO, WIPO, EU, G-20) and national governments in nearly a dozen countries.

Complementing the existing patent system, the proposed HIF would allow pharmaceutical innovators to be paid according to the health impact of a newly introduced medicine if they sell it everywhere at average cost of manufacture (see homepage). Crucial to the HIF's success is a health impact assessment methodology that is morally plausible across cultures and usable at a manageable cost across a wide range of diverse medicines and local circumstances. We developed such a methodology through a process involving both international consultation and one or more pilots in the developing world.

A carefully prepared pilot involved a pharmaceutical innovator willing to introduce one medicine in one country at a very low price in exchange for payments based on this product's health impact in that country. Pilots allowed us to validate and refine our health impact measurement methodology and to observe how innovators promote products differently if they are differently rewarded. In May 2011, we held a Rockefeller-funded workshop in Bellagio to prepare these pilots, the first of which commenced in 2012.

Controlling illicit financial flows

With subsidiaries in many countries, multinational corporations are essentially free to choose where to pay taxes on their profits. When an MNC manufactures some product in India and sells it in South Africa, for instance, it can legally sell at a low price from the Indian subsidiary to that in the Cayman Islands and then from there, at a high price, to the South African subsidiary.

As a result, the MNC realizes profits neither in India, where it produces, nor in South Africa, where it sells, but only in the Cayman Islands, where it has only a single employee and where the goods are never seen. Through such trade mispricing, developing countries lose several hundred billion dollars annually. The even larger losses of developed countries are mitigated by the fact that MNC are largely owned by their citizens, who pay taxes on dividends and capital gains from such holdings.

Our project developed a morally-based account of international tax justice along with proposals for realistic reforms that would ensure that MNCs pay reasonable amounts of tax in the countries on whose workers and customers their profits depend. The work on this project was proceed in close collaboration with the Global Justice Program at Yale University’s MacMillan Center and the Washington-based NGO Global Financial Integrity.


The project was hosted by the completed Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN). 

Published Oct. 9, 2020 10:44 AM - Last modified Nov. 27, 2020 9:33 AM


Thomas Pogge

Yale University
PO Box 208306,
New Haven, CT 06520-8306