Human rights: Food for a not-by-chance thought

Human Rights Reader 415

-Bernie Sanders put it best: “We not only have massive wealth and income inequality, but a power structure that protects that inequality”.
-The main driver of inequality is corporate-driven globalization.
-Better machines, better technologies do not produce better wo/men. We cannot become a society in which a knowledge aristocracy will dominate an every-day-less-informed-social-mass. This will only deepen economic inequality. (Rosa Luxemburg)
-Difference Yes, Inequality No! Plurality is the essence of life. (Slogan of the recent 12th Congresso de la Redeunida, held in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brasil)

Equal relations between unequals reinforces inequality!

1. To illustrate this, think for a while that equity under globalization is a bit like The Fight of the Mongoose and the Snake: Both are of about the same strength, but invariably the mongoose wins –it is more resourceful and it organizes its strategy to strike. The First World is like the mongoose; the Third World is like the snake. The lesson of this fable is that an asymmetry in the use of market power aggravates inequality: The affluent always end up having more political clout (and more wealth). Therefore, promoting self-interest (embedded in the soul of the free market adherents) is simply not good enough. The human rights framework places altruism over self-interest adding solidarity and equality to the equation. (A measure of greed-denouncing-actions is to be found there as well…).

2. Hence, inequality is best understood as a proxy for how effectively an elite has set up institutions that extract value from the rest of society. (W. Hutton) It ultimately thus is the political capture of these institutions that produces the ill-gotten wealth that perpetuates economic inequality. Can this be combatted? Take an example: Latin America has significantly reduced inequality in the last decade through more progressive taxation and investments in public services, in social protection and in decent work opportunities. Central to this progress has been direct popular politics with leaders truly representing the majority, instead of being captured by a tiny minority. This has benefited all, both rich and poor. (Oxfam) [Unfortunately, latest regime changes in the region have been rolling much of this back…].

3. Beyond parts of Latin America, inequality is at historic highs. It is a global phenomenon. In OECD countries, inequality increased more in the three years up to 2010 than in the preceding 12 years. (P. Lougani) It is the process of economic liberalization that has lead to increased inequality, importantly including wage inequality. ‘Benefits’ may have been given to the population, but these must be weighed against their distributional impact, i.e., to what extent they shrink the myriad burdens and human rights (HR) violations and to what extent these ‘benefits’ better protect those rendered vulnerable. Cuts in social benefits, in wages and in employment overall have accompanied fiscal consolidation and merger processes and this has disproportionately affected lower income groups. Clear evidence exists that austerity measures are followed by increases of inequality. Greater resort to progressive taxing and the protection of the social benefits of the vulnerable groups is what is needed.* (F+D 50:4, December 2013)
*: Equity-tracking-measures that contrast development outcome results between the bottom two income quintiles against the higher quintiles ought to be considered across all the post 2015 development goals. Actions focused on the bottom two quintiles can then be more heavily weighted thus prioritizing the focus of development actions on those rendered marginal and being excluded. (But will this be done?) Indicators that track and address all forms of discrimination and marginalization must then be defined and applied. (Plan International)

4. In the same vein, when the proponents of giving priority to economic growth claim this growth reduces absolute poverty, they are being devious. An economic growth focus actually creates a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots and between urban and rural populations –and existing laws condone this.** Incomes of the bottom 20% have quite universally not risen nearly as much as those of the rest of the population. Policies followed leading to this situation have been to lower spending on social sector interventions together with regimes of less progressive taxes and indirect taxes disproportionately paid by those rendered poor. Furthermore, export-led policies are creating low employment gains and are concentrating the wealth in the hands of exporting corporations rather than of households. Workers also have weaker bargaining power that further depresses wages. It is more progressive tax systems that will boost the redistributive impact of fiscal policies especially when linked to increased expenditures aimed at vulnerable households. (R. Balakrishnan)
**: Justice of the bourgeois class is like a net that allows the sharks to escape and only catches the small sardines. (Rosa Luxemburg)

Key factors to decrease inequality are more equal distribution of earnings plus government transfers

5. Many development interventions, while often well intended, result in some sort of a ‘social bribery’ where those at the margins are provided with basic social services (vaccinations, primary education, etc.) plus modest increases in income. These modest improvements keep those rendered poor afloat without changing their fundamental lack of access to life-changing opportunities or access to the current power dynamics. They are given the impression that their lane is moving, while in fact it is advancing at a much slower pace than others, and the gap between them and the wealthy is widening.

6. An equity- and HR centered normative approach to tackling inequalities is one that rises above these disempowering interpretations and makes it possible to challenge existing power structures and development strategies. The search for equality inevitably involves profound changes in power relations that current power holders have limited, if any, interest in stewarding. Inequalities impose an analytical framework that exposes the close links between poverty and prosperity and highlights how the current pattern of growth thrives on marginalization and inequitable inclusion. We live under a Corporate Theory of Change. The new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda is far from being immune to this theory of change and may as well become another powerful instrument at its service. Indeed, the entire SDGs negotiation process was characterized by the pervasive influence of the corporate sector and the unjustified confidence in the role of the private sector. (Stefano Prato)

7. But there is a caveat here: Beware, many of the new equality agendas are based on a faulty non-egalitarian approach, namely prioritarianism. An important implication of this approach is the focus of these agendas on ‘poverty reduction’ rather than on ‘disparity reduction’. The first does not necessarily imply the second, while disparity reduction does imply poverty reduction especially for the most disadvantaged, including mothers and their children. Prioritarianism is favored by all those critical-of or skeptical-about any type of egalitarianism, because it is based on a humanitarian concerns, trying to help to improve the situation of people living in extreme poverty –but without any reference to the need to reduce disparity! According to prioritarianism, it is morally most important to help people who are worse off, independently of the degree of inequality. (If this rings like charity to you, you are not that far off). What is important from the HR point of view is not that everyone should have the same, but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others! (Urban Jonsson)

A strong ray of hope

8. There is something about inequalities –a sort of a deep, shared aversion to unfairness shared by growing numbers of activists and the general public –and it is powerful and seems to generate an even stronger visceral reaction than poverty per-se. The emerging inequality-driven perspective focuses on both the losers and the winners, forcing a political economy analysis that highlights how the status-quo has its owners and supporting power structures. The inequality and HR-based analyses being applied give people a gender perspective, a social affiliation, a location… It demystifies averages and gives everyone his/her human face and dignity. It forces a subjective analysis of fairness that cannot be reduced to a simple number, even if numbers help. It imposes a combination of objective and subjective measurements of progress and thus highlights the importance of people’s subjective judgment of their equitable or inequitable treatment. (S. Prato)

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

All 400+ Readers are available in http://www.claudioschuftan.com

Shortly before his death, Mahatma Gandhi offered a useful reflection that helps to cut through some of the complexity surrounding debates about equity. He said: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person you may have seen and ask yourself if your recalling her/him is going to be of any use to that person.” (cited by K. Watkins)

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