A new framework for action

Inclusive Economy02 Jan 2013Claudio Schuftan

‘It is not inequalities that kill people; it is those who are responsible for these inequalities that kill people.’

-V. Navarro, Johns Hopkins University

‘People that happen to be poor need jobs and a livelihood; to agonize about inequality is, for them, a luxury.’

-M. Klein, World Bank

Doing something about the numerous inequalities we face in this world, encompassing so many domains is on everybody’s lips these days. But what is the result? What place will the true addressing of inequalities bring us in the post 2015 era? Actually why do we have to wait till 2015? Does the compartmentalizing of development ‘eras’ make any sense? Here is some food for thought:

1. Both structural adjustment and the forces behind globalization have fostered a polarization in direct opposition to greater equality and thus people’s human rights.

2. Levels of income are lower today in more than 70 poor countries than in the 1960s. The chronic stress arising from the resulting social exclusion is as damaging as earning a meagre income or having poor access to social services. Today, around 1.3 billion people still survive on less than $1 a day. Inequalities in health manifest themselves primarily in decreased access and utilization of services by people who happen to be poor. In this respect, 1.6 billion people are worse off today than they were 30 years ago. But these indicators only tell part of the story of inequality: we do not routinely use other indicators.

3. Our inaction on equality issues is explained by pure procrastination. We simply cannot ignore the underlying power play of politics behind inequality since this would denote ‘evidential nihilism’. In other words: we have to deal with the underlying power issue.1

4. Globalization does not have a human face; power differentials are at its crux. It is a process we cannot wish away. Markets reward those with purchasing power or commodities or services to sell; people and nations that happen to be poor have neither.

5. At a time of shrinking government expenditures for services in poor countries, the World Bank pushes them to give market forces a greater role in the production and distribution of, for instance, health: the solution is to commercialize, commoditize and privatize health. But market forces alone (with people paying for their own care) have failed to deliver minimum acceptable health care anywhere. Because people are already paying for care, the World Bank assumes people are willing to pay. Willingness, however, does not mean ability.

6. In the fee-for-service system, equality is clearly being sacrificed in the name of a not-yet-proven greater efficiency. Providing health care on the basis of needs is being replaced by a system based on a never-really-achieved cost recovery, where exemptions targeted at poor people have not worked. Safety nets are nothing but a way to manage poverty and ‘ill-being’ (as opposed to well being) by attenuating social unrest.

7. Therefore, policy makers can no longer make decisions that conflict with the goal of equality. The choice is a moral one and cannot be made by technocrats only. The politics of it all overrides all other efforts to bring us an equitable post-2015 world, including respect for human rights.

8. We need to develop a framework for action. The costs of inaction are enormous. We also need to demystify technical knowledge – people themselves should be able to deal with development issues.

9. We have to counter the forces of globalization in the realm of human rights rather than looking for ways to accommodate greater equality into an inherently inequitable system. This means that our actions must be guided by a renewed commitment to human rights and the aspiration to foster community-based activities. What will count are not our words, but our deeds. Growth and equality need not be trade-offs, but progress does not come simply from liberalizing the economy. The current brand of liberalization is morally unacceptable and economically inefficient. We need to adopt new approaches that can break this unequal state of affairs. Claim holders have to stop thinking that combating inequality is a luxury.

10. Perhaps the most pressing issue for claim holders to work towards is to demand a system of universal coverage of public services (health, education, water, etc.) paid for by those who have more. This implies a progressive (as opposed to a regressive) tax-based system.

We note here something that has become one of those laws cast in iron, namely that maintaining things the way they are requires no good reasons whereas, when a better idea is presented, plenty of ‘reasons’ are given not to adopt it.

In human rights parlance, we identify claim holders and duty bearers. The latter have obligations according to international human rights law. Claim holders, also known as rights holders, have the right to actively claim their rights from duty bearers since these have legal obligations. Some say all human beings are rights holders, while claim holders are those who live in countries whose parliaments have actually ratified the UN covenants.