In pursuit of a better, fairer world

Tackling rampant inequality is not just a moral duty - it is a human rights obligation and an economic necessity


This op-ed article by CESR Researcher and Communications Coordinator Luke Holland appeared on the Al-Jazeera English website on 5 February 2014

Development negotiations taking place in this year will have a pivotal impact on the future wellbeing of ordinary people everywhere. Relatively unnoticed by the media, a broad spectrum of consultations and talks are currently unfolding as the community of nations endeavors to agree a new sustainable development agenda that can ensure equitable socio-economic development while also guaranteeing environmental sustainability in the post-2015 era. This week in the UN’s New York headquarters, the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals will address one of the most pressing issues of our time: inequality. This will be the OWG’s eighth and final session before drawing up a set of concrete proposals to be presented to the General Assembly, which is due to hammer out the parameters of a new global development framework in September.

As demonstrated in a devastating new report from Oxfam, global inequality has now reached historic and unacceptable levels. Tackling these increasingly pronounced disparities, both within and between countries, will be essential if future development efforts are to deliver a more just and sustainable world. A lack of attention to inequality in the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed back in 2000, left the door open to patterns of widening economic and social divergence, which further disempowered vulnerable people rather than strengthening their position.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which all-too-often feed into each other. Differentials in household wealth and income conspire with disparities between rural and urban areas, and inequalities along the lines of gender, disability, ethnicity, and migration status, in a dysfunctional synergy. The result is that many millions of people are shut out of development processes, their rights violated, their dreams and aspirations smothered and their potential to contribute to development wasted. Inequality, left unchecked, is a pervasive and devastating injustice, undermining human rights and development and destroying lives. Moreover, this is not just a question of North-South politics; the post-2015 agenda will apply to all countries, and as such its provisions on equality will have important implications for disparities within developed countries, too.

Policy-makers would do well to remember that inflated levels of income inequality were also a central factor in triggering the global financial crisis, and the ruinous human costs that came with it. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that political and religious leaders, ranging from President Obama to Pope Francis and the new mayors of New York and New Delhi, are joining progressive economists and social justice advocates in citing inequality as the critical social challenge of our time.

Above the law?

Ethical and instrumental considerations are not the only reasons growing disparity must be tackled head-on, however. It is also a legal obligation under international human rights law. The duty to address inequality and discrimination is contained in the principal human rights treaties which the vast majority of states have already signed and ratified, and it also lies at the core of a human rights-based approach to development, which is being demanded by civil society organizations all over the world.

Underpinning this drive is the understanding that future development efforts must be based on principles of justice, rather than charity, if they are to have a genuinely transformative impact. A human rights approach empowers citizens to influence and direct development processes themselves, and in this way addresses the structural underpinnings of inequality in a way that a traditional charity-based model cannot. Most importantly, it represents a paradigmatic and corrective shift away from the shortfalls of the current MDGs, which will expire in 2015 with few of the targets they contain being achieved.

The principles of universality and non-discrimination, as set out in the international human rights legal order, require that inequality be addressed both in law and in practice, wherever it may manifest. At the most basic level, this requires robust anti-discrimination legislation, rectifying unjustifiable wage differentials and providing for decent work. Such fundamental measures must go hand-in-hand with efforts to tackle the structural drivers of inequality, such as regressive fiscal policies and taxation regimes, egregious levels of tax abuse and evasion, weak labour market regulation and economic policies that promote “jobless growth”.

Moreover, the duty to meet minimum core standards of social and economic well-being, as confirmed by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, requires that states guarantee basic social protection floors to all people within their jurisdictions. Research by the International Labour Organization has demonstrated that this key tool in redressing inequality is affordable even in low-income countries. And in an age when the roll-back of social protection systems has exacerbated poverty and inequality in many countries, the necessity of fulfilling this duty is more pertinent than ever.  

All of these measures will be crucial to redress inequality in the post-2015 era. Policies implemented by the state and other powerful development actors only represent one side of the equality equation, however, as an empowered, well-informed and actively engaged society will likewise be necessary if the failures of the past are to be avoided this time around.

Democratizing development

Arguably the greatest failing of the current MDGs is that they were conceived in a top-down manner, with states promoting development for an ostensibly passive beneficiary populace. This approach, founded in a vision of development that is itself rooted in inequality, must be turned on its head. Effective systems of accountability, participation and transparency are the tools with which this about-face can and must be achieved.

Firstly, all development actors must be held accountable for commitments set out in the new agenda. The absence of effective systems of accountability in the original MDGs meant that governments faced no meaningful incentives to deliver on their promises. In order to remedy this fatal flaw, time-bound commitments must be subject to effective monitoring of both the goals themselves and the policy and budgetary efforts governments made to achieve them.

This question of accountability also speaks to the need for the meaningful participation of those facing poverty and discrimination in all development processes. Just as powerful development actors must be held accountable to the new goals, so those most affected by poverty and injustice must be enabled to shape the design, implementation and monitoring of development. People living in poverty generally see their deprivation in terms of voice and power, or the lack thereof, just as much as material wealth. Ensuring transparency by delivering timely, disaggregated data on the processes and outcomes of development efforts will be a crucial prerequisite to achieving the effective participation of vulnerable groups.

Taken together, the principles of accountability, participation, and transparency can serve to facilitate empowered citizen pressure, thereby ensuring more responsive governance and in turn confronting the structural underpinnings of inequality. Combined with other more direct measures, such as progressive fiscal policies and social protection floors, they have the potential to overcome these key obstacles to equitable and sustainable development.

In September this year the international community will meet again, when the General Assembly considers the OWG recommendations and negotiations on the post-2015 agenda move into the final strait. Between now and then, those who would prioritize even greater accumulation of wealth for an elite few, rather than a just and sustainable future for all, will no doubt seek to influence debates and consolidate their power. The international community faces an ethical and environmental imperative to make sure short-sighted economic demands do not take precedence over social and economic justice, however.

Indeed, the real test of progress must surely be the degree to which ordinary people can access their inherent human rights and enjoy freedom from both want and fear. This is the legitimate expectation of those campaigning for a new sustainable development agenda that reflects the lived experiences of women, indigenous people, persons with disabilities and others frequently left out of the development process. Should national governments fail to properly address equality and the human rights obligations that underpin it in the design and implementation of the post-2015 framework, they will not only be derelict in their legal duties; they also run a serious of risk of squandering the opportunity to create a better, fairer world for this and future generations. The stakes could not be higher.

* To learn more about CESR's work on the post-2015 development agenda, see here.