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Global social justice as a new focus for development policy?

Written by Simon Maxwell


When Douglas Alexander talked at the Foreign Policy Centre last week, he described climate change as an issue of ‘global social justice’. This has triggered me to pull together some thoughts on ‘global social justice’, to ask how the concept relates to other values espoused by ministers and by the international community, and to think about the implications for policy and programming. Take these as jottings. I’d very much welcome contributions and useful references. Can we use the blog as a discussion board?

Let me say first that this is not virgin territory. A Google search on ‘global social justice’ yields 17,800 references (as of 11 February). A search in Google Scholar yields 722 references. No, I haven’t read all this material. Sorry.

I have, however, read a few things on ‘social justice’, as opposed to ‘global social justice’. I particularly like the work of David Miller, from Nuffield College, Oxford. In a book pubished by IPPR in 2005, edited by Nick Pearce and Will Paxton, and called 'Social Justice: Building a Fairer Britain' he identified four ‘principles' of social justice: (1) Equal citizenship, (2) Entitlement to a social minimum, (3) Equality of Opportunity, and (4) Fair distribution. There are qualifications and subtleties in the text, but it is easy to see that this is quite a radical platform, rights-based and strongly linked to philosophical principles of distributive justice.

In development, our starting point would probably be the work of Amartya Sen and the human development paradigm his work inspired. An ODI Briefing Paper in 2001 on Economic Theory, Freedom and Human Rights observed that Sen’s ‘work has contributed to important paradigm shifts in economics and development – away from approaches that focus exclusively on income, growth and utility, with an increased emphasis on individual entitlements, capabilities, freedoms and rights.’ The centrality of freedom and of rights links individual entitlements to wider conceptions of justice, with individuals and collectivities sharing the obligation to deliver human rights.

This shift in thinking is reflected in the Millennium Declaration, agreed by the General Assembly in September 2000. The Declaration is generally remembered for the MDGs, but actually located these in a more general framework of rights and justice, viz

‘We consider certain fundamental values to be essential to international relations in the twenty-first century. These include:

  • Freedom. Men and women have the right to live their lives and raise their children in dignity, free from hunger and from the fear of violence, oppression or injustice. Democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people best assures these rights.

  • Equality. No individual and no nation must be denied the opportunity to benefit from development. The equal rights and opportunities of women and men must be assured.

  • Solidarity. Global challenges must be managed in a way that distributes the costs and burdens fairly in accordance with basic principles of equity and social justice. Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those who benefit most.

  • Tolerance. Human beings must respect one other, in all their diversity of belief, culture and language. Differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity. A culture of peace and dialogue among all civilizations should be actively promoted.

  • Respect for nature. Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.

  • Shared responsibility. Responsibility for managing worldwide economic and social development, as well as threats to international peace and security, must be shared among the nations of the world and should be exercised multilaterally. As the most universal and most representative organization in the world, the United Nations must play the central role.’

More recently, similar themes have been picked by by David Held and David Mepham, in their book Progressive Foreign Policy. They say that ‘progressives can be thought of as those committed to human rights, social justice, sustainability, democracy, the international rule of law and multilateralism.’

I don’t pretend that all this is consistent and that we can draw a perfect circle which encompasses Miller, Sen, the Millennium Declaration, Held and Mepham. Distributional issues, for example, are treated rather differently in the different formulations. Nevertheless, these contributions provide a platform for discussion.

Now, where do ministers stand? In a blog back in October, I explored the values being promoted by the new administration in the UK, and wrote this:

‘On the question of values, I had occasion to re-read a selection of recent ministerial speeches, and thought there were some strong statements which could usefully be linked together into a new narrative about social justice or social inclusion seen from a global perspective. Some key quotes are:

Gordon Brown, UN, 31 July: called for a ‘new age of empowerment’ and said ‘our task is to support and empower you in the open, transparent decision making and reforms you need to make’. He talked about being ‘committed to the rights of every child’.

Gordon Brown, Mansion House speech, 12 November: talked about ‘the timeless values that underpin our policies at home – our belief in the liberty of all, in security and justice for all, in economic opportunity and environmental protection shared by all’. He said ‘it is possible for the first time in human history, to contemplate and create a global society that empowers people’.

David Miliband – Bruges speech, 15 November: ‘across Europe, people are feeling a divergence between the freedom and control they have in their personal lives, and the sense of powerlessness they face against the great global challenges we face: from preventing conflict and terrorism, to addressing climate change, energy security, and religious extremism. They are confident about personal progress, but pessimistic about societal progress’.

Douglas Alexander, Washington Speech, 12 July: ‘we must now advance the case for change by better articulating the commonly held values around which we must rally the whole international community . . . we must be driven by core values, not special interests. Our place in the world depends on us making choices based on values – values like opportunity, responsibility, justice.’

For links to these speeches and for further thoughts, see my blog on 15 October: ‘Important messages from the UK Government on International Development. Are we listening?

To add to these, Gordon Brown made an important speech in India in January, in which he said: ‘My theme is how by working together and advancing a plan to reform our international institutions we can ensure that globalisation brings prosperity, justice and opportunity not just for some people but for all. A globalisation that is founded on open markets, free trade, flexibility and investment in the skills of people and in a new relationship between rich and poor countries working together.’

I conclude from all of this that concern for social justice is an important driver of progressive development policy - in the UK and also internationally. I also conclude, however, that we have some work to do in thinking through what global social justice might mean. It is challenging enough as a rallying-cry in domestic progressive politics, but much more so if tackled globally. Five points:

  • First, ‘global social justice’ surely has to mean more than simply ‘achieving income, health and education targets as defined by the MDGs’. The net is cast much wider in the Millennium Declaration (freedom, equality, solidarity etc . . .), and this is reflected in the current preoccupation with voice and the accountability of public institutions – not just for instrumental reasons, as a route to good government, but also, at least in the case of ‘voice’, as intrinsic goods.

  • Second, rights are central – especially economic, social and cultural rights. As the ODI programme on Rights in Action has demonstrated, there are many issues about legislative frameworks, the administration of justice and the responsibilities of national and international ‘duty-bearers’ to deliver progressive (i.e incremental) improvements in access. A key point for me has always been that having a right to, say, education or health, is about more than having access to schooling or treatment: having a ‘right’ to education means being able to go to school, that goes without saying, but also having recourse through the administration or the courts, if a school is not provided.

  • Third the guarantee of a ‘social minimum’, in Miller’s phrase, implies substantially greater investments in social protection than are currently managed – see ODI work on social protection, and also my Opinion of 2005, ‘Should we provide a guarantee that no child in Africa will be brain-damaged by malnutrition if money can prevent it?’. Internationally, this is a challenging agenda, especially if cast in a rights framework.

  • Fourth, and again following Miller, the international agenda is equally challenging if distribution issues are central to the social justice agenda. At national level, this is a fraught topic, as we see in the UK, and also in the international debate on income and assets in the development process: see the World Development Report of 2006 and a useful review of inequality issues by Ed Anderson and Tammie O’Neill. Global distribution is very little discussed, yet we know that the global gini-coefficient (for income) is around 0.65, higher than for any national gini, and at a level which, if seen in a single country, would pretty well guarantee social unrest. What, I wonder, would those who campaign for global social justice see as a reasonable global gini? And what measures would they recommend, and over what time scale, to achieve it?

  • Finally, mutual accountability needs to come to centre stage – in the sense that rich countries need to be accountable to poor ones, as well as the other way round. Again, ODI research on mutual accountability highlights the importance of the issue and offers a number of ways forward, ranging from the Cotonou Convention to the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. Within the Cotonou Convention, for example, there is provision for a joint Council of Ministers, a joint parliamentary assembly, and also an aribtration procedure in case of disagreement. This is very different to the usual partnership between rich and poor countries, which sometimes compared to the partnership that exists between the rider and the horse.

It is easy to see how a focus on ‘global social justice’ could provide a framework to think interesting and possibly dangerous thoughts about how to take the international development agenda beyond the relatively instrumental approach of the MDGs. For example, a group of us working on a possible European equivalent of the World Development report or the Human Development Report came up with the idea of ‘global social inclusion’ as a guide to international action, suggesting that a socially inclusive world is one in which:

  • Democracy and the rule of law are the norm;

  • Human rights are respected;

  • Individuals are able to maximise their capabilities and potential;

  • Excessive inequalities are addressed;

  • The environment is protected;

  • Governance is effective and transparent at all levels; and

  • There is a high degree of accountability.

We thought it might be possible to produce an index of global social inclusion and read off a set of policy actions. But, really, all this is work in progress.

It seems to me that we should thank Douglas Alexander for stimulating a debate. How can it be taken forward? There is to be a Progressive Governance summit at the beginning of April. Should global social justice be on the agenda?


Simon Maxwell