Reflection – Appadurai, Pogge, Singh

The ethical position taken by academics and intellectuals with respect to the objects of their attention – research, theory, intervention – arises from a combination of environmental, institutional, and personal (i.e. political) commitments. When those commitments come into conflict, the ethical positions taken or implied by knowledge producers face the possibility of transformation. And, where globally interconnected lives at both macro- and micro-scopic levels are concerned, the conditions of possibility of change are omnipresent and intense. Arjun Appadurai (2000) summarizes the root of these conditions as a “growing disjuncture between the knowledge of globalization and the globalization of knowledge.”

In his estimation, the “research imagination” of Western/Northern thinkers has largely entrenched itself in  an artificially narrow “architecture,” leading to pervasive misrecognition of the relative importance of various issues facing the global poor. He argues, “[t]o seriously build an architecture for area studies around the idea that all ‘areas’ conceive or produce their own ‘areas,’ we need to recognise the centrality of this sort of recursive refraction… One or two moves of this type would lead us a long way from the US Cold War architecture with which we substantially still operate.” In a progressive view like this, the questions of agency and capacity posed by those like Amartya Sen would resonate not just with the well-read economist of the World Bank but also with the emerging knowledge producer of the so-called developing region, whose daily interactions with other people, businesses, agencies, and so on might have more import in the determination of global financial and governmental decision-making. However, this possibility assumes a great deal of responsibility to be taken on by the large actors in question.

Thomas Pogge, for his part, lambastes those actors, the agents of global power in their most recognizable forms (such as the UN, the World Bank, or the OEDC nations), for their abandonment of stated principles of international aid. Moreover, in his review of international poverty statistics and the institutional roots of persistent, extreme poverty, he uncovers a more pressing critique than the failure of the privileged to live up to our promises to share wealth (or opportunity) with the global poor. Pogge pinpoints a pivot in the logic of humanitarianism away from the rhetoric of human rights. There, he argues that the abandonment not only of the poor as recipients of assistance but as those deserving of human rights, we locate not only our failure to keep promises, but the heart of our misleading rhetoric and statistics. Putting an ethical valence on otherwise cold questions of proportion and economy, Pogge reintroduces the questions of the powerful and the powerless. He demands of us that we ascertain precisely whose responsibility and obligation it is to care for and help the global poor — and why.

Separating moral or ethical imperatives from graciousness or charity, he levels a compelling argument: The wealthy of the world must choose between viewing our wealth as inherited exploitation, or inherited responsibility. In this way, Pogge’s argument severs the conceptual ties between deserving and having. This results in a problem for the inter-generational accumulation of wealth, at individual, firm, institutional, market, national, regional, and global levels. The vast inequity between those who have material wealth and those who do not, widening consistently like the knowledge/globalization schism marked by Appadurai, does not directly call for its redress, but rather reveals an opportunity for those who study these phenomena and their effects to forge refreshed positions on the subjects, and from there to take specific, concrete actions.

JP Singh’s study of telecommunications liberalization troubles these actions, as he draws away from the specifically outcome-oriented economics of markets for property rights in liberal traditions and focuses instead on the interaction between governance, institutions, and the subsequent efficacy of those programs in a broader context. To attribute change in telecommunications markets to reform requires attention to temporal and property-rights data in similarly situated countries countries – for example, degrees of political liberalization in other cognate or contrasting markets – but more importantly, it exhorts on researchers to move beyond quantitative measures alone, seeing them less as predictive mechanisms and more as dependencies on broader conditions of institutions and rights. The limitations on our ability to generalize controlling or predictive conclusions from isolated case studies, exemplified by the Asian models that Singh examines, raises the question of how best to conceive of the international institutions that are of fundamental interest to academics and economic actors alike. Where these institutions both structure and respond to market conditions, especially as they become increasingly inseparable from technological means of both production and distribution of goods and services, their connection to ethical concerns demands further attention. However, the approach of examining institutional history, property rights environments, and levels of autonomy to determine market efficiencies also frames several tangential issues in those ethical terms – responsibility, special interest, and inclusiveness among them.

This provides the rationale, then, for juxtaposing the arguments of these divergent thinkers against one another. Where Singh sees an opportunity for researchers to broaden their historical and institutional lenses in their considerations of property rights and economic outcomes, Pogge sees the failure of intervention on the part of researchers as directed towards those broader institutions or historical patterns. Where Pogge sees entrenched inequality, Appadurai sees the flows of knowledge and of people constricting, but still in flux. And where Appadurai sees a general fracture between the perspective of privileged researchers and the interest of the globally disenfranchised, Singh sees the missing link as one of analytical epistemology rather than of the ontological object of the research imagination. Taken as a group, however, these arguments illuminate an unmistakable need for the thought of specific activities in the context of globalized institutions – the need to critically reflect on the ways in which such thought is formed, regardless of the activity in question (technological, economic, political, military, creative work, and so on). Such reflection provides the instrument and the foundation for comprehensive, coherent thought regarding development and its myriad expressions.


Appadurai, Arjun. ” Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination.” Public Culture Volume 12:1(Winter 2000), pp. 1-19.

Pogge, Thomas. Freedom from Poverty As a Human Right: Who Owes What to the Very Poor? New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Singh, J.P. “The institutional environment and effects of telecommunication privatization and market liberalization in Asia”. Telecommunications Policy 24 (2000), pp 885-906

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