High Time to be Analytical, aware of History – and Angry Gabriele Köhler

We  are  reading  enlightening  economic  literature  such  as  Thomas  PikketyJoseph  StiglitzBranko Milanovic,  or Deepak Nayyar .  Or,  if  that’s  too  strenuous:  we  stroll  past  shops  selling  1euro/dollar T-shirts. Or if we’re not shoppers, the daily news carries reports on income and wealth inequality. On Youtube, we can watch a video from the Asia Pacific Forum on  Women, Law and Development,  showing  how  the  Wal-mart owners earn in one second  what  a  garment  worker  earns  in  a  year ;  and another  one  from  the  IDS Sussex  showing  how  the  global  care  value  chain  works .  Or  if  we’re  internet weary or wary: our friends or relatives will tell us of  lost  jobs,  lost  incomes,  or  unmanageable  health or  education  bills,  while  we  hear on the same day about art auctions selling a simple painting for millions of dollars.

In  other  words,  it  is  almost  impossible  not  to  be  aware  of  the  immense,  multi-faceted poverty and income  insecurity  facing  half  the  world’s  population,  juxtaposed  with enormous  100,000-fold income  and  wealth  inequalities.

So, what is being done about it?

One of many processes is the MDG post 2015 debate.  The  Open  Working  Group  under the  “Rio  plus  20”  agenda  just  submitted  their  proposal  on  17  Sustainable  Development Goals  (SDGs)  to  the  UN  Secretary  General .  The  next  round  of  UN-based  discussions  will  take up the  MDGs;  it  begins  in a  month,  and  is  expected  to  use  the  SDG  text  as  one  point  of departure.

The  SDG  discussions  between  30  governments  and  nine  CSO  groups  were  extremely tough, and the proposal they negotiated is the best achievable at this point in time, given that  many  government  representatives  are  politically  conservative, socially indifferent, or  environmentally  in  denial,  or  if  they  are  progressive  and  sensitised,  get  locked  into bargaining  stances  around  special  group  or  country  interests,  resulting  in  smallest common  denominator  politics.  The progressive community in governments and civil society fought hard and well.

So,  what  is  the  vision  for  the  new  international  political,  social  and  environmental agenda?

There are several good points in the SDG text. For instance: it moves away from anachronistic  and  patronising  North-South  thinking  and  sees  the  world  and  the  planet as one; it understands that environmental sustainability as well as peace and democracy are integral to “development”; it accepts the need to fundamentally change consumption and production patterns, especially in the resource-gobbling higher income countries; it recognises the  inequities in  and  between  countries.  Decent work and social protection are part of the agenda.  Gender empowerment is a goal of its own. It recognizes that climate change and the loss of biodiversity has to be combated. The issue recognised as most pressing of all – extreme poverty – is cast as Goal One.

So, is all ok?

No, not at all.  Firstly, the eradication of poverty and hunger is postponed to 2030.  That  means that another entire generation of children – those born between 2015 and 2030 – would  be  destined  to  grow up  in  absolute  and  relative  poverty;  another  generation  of working  age  persons  would  remain  without  reliable,  properly remunerated incomes, work  and  social  security;  and  the  current  generation  of  seniors  living  in  poverty  would not  have a dignified, restful old age. Persistent hunger, malnutrition and food  insecurity remain.  Even  the  stunting  and  wasting  of  children  under  5  is  not  to  be  overcome  until 2025.

And then  – how is poverty  defined?  Extreme poverty – the type of poverty to be eradicated – is defined as $1.25 per person per day. The second component of goal 1 is to reduce “at least by half” the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions. Currently over 2.4 billion people live in poverty – 1 billion with less than $1.25 and 2.4 billion people on less than US  $2  (2010  data,  World  Bank).  Halving poverty by 2030 would mean that at least 500 million people would continue to face dire income poverty.  That is a slap in the face of humanity.

What to do?

A belligerent development debate committed to a just global society is needed. This debate needs to be analytical, history-aware, and angry.

Analytical: to come up with a more meaningful income poverty line. $10 is currently the world  median  income,  and that  could  be  a  starting  point  of  the  discussion;  that  would not  be  revolutionary,  but  it  would  start  to  shift  the  goalposts.  Moreover, one  needs  to use  the  broader  definitions  of  poverty  that  are  available  such  as  the  multi-dimensional poverty  index . We need  to  be  analytical  also  in  remembering,  and  tackling,  the  reasons  for  poverty: landlessness,  lack  of  decent  employment,  social  exclusion,  resource  exploitation, destruction  of  the  commons,  inequitable  structures  in  international  trade,  investment and finance.

History­aware: there are a set of social rights enshrined in the universal human rights, which have been agreed by virtually all countries: the right to a life in dignity, a right to food,  to  income  security,  to  social  security,  and  more  recently  a  right  to  water  and sanitation and some form of right to land. There are the agreed human rights of women, of  children,  of  migrants,  of  people  with  disabilities,  of  minorities  and  indigenous peoples.  There  are  core  labour  standards  and  the  rights  of  homeworkers  and  domestic workers.  So  far,  this  rights-principled  thinking  has  percolated  into  the  current development  agenda  only  at  the  fringe  – it is referenced in preambles to outcome documents, but does not shape the argument.

And  angry:  so  as  to  break  the  barriers  of  complacency,  show  that  radical  change  is possible,  and  bring  back  a  sense  of  urgency.  Angry in the sense of outraged.  In  light of  the  enormous  level  – and opportunity –  of  global  wealth  and  productivity on  the  one hand,  and  the  immeasurable  social  and  economic  injustices  on  the  other,  the  poverty line  needs  to  be  set much higher,  and  reached  much  earlier,  say  by  2020,  not  2030. Income poverty needs to be measured differently.  The development  agenda  needs  to revolutionise global value chains so that T-shirts – and all other products-  are produced and  sold  at  a  fair  wage  and  price.  It needs to ensure that care work is appropriately valorised.  Income and wealth inequalities must  melt-down.  The next development agenda should be fighting for employment and decent work and a globally universalised and fully funded social protection  floor.  It needs to claim and fulfil a fundamental turn-around in international agreements, be they bi-, pluri- or multilateral, to fulfill the rights of the majority of the world’s populations.

So,  it  needs  to  get  back  to  the  spirit  of  the  Universal  Declaration  of  Human  Rights. Perhaps one could build on the Declaration of Santa Cruz put forward by the G77 in June 2014, and work towards  “a  new  world  order and  an  agenda  owned  by  the  countries of the  South  for  the  establishment  of  a  more  just,  democratic  and  equal  system  that benefits our peoples.” .

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