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Sharing to secure human rights

Adam Parsons
04 November 2008

The following talk was given at a seminar hosted by World Goodwill on the theme "Human Rights, Spiritual Responsibilities - A Crisis for Democracy?", held in London on the 1st November 2008. A transcript and audio of the talk is presented below.

Thank you for inviting me here today on behalf of Share The World's Resources, and what I hope to offer is a complementary but perhaps a different perspective on this crucial subject of human rights and democracy. Although I may not talk in spiritual terms, the theme of this talk is a simple one that is encapsulated in the name of our organisation, and that indeed goes to the heart of all spiritual teachings and world religions. The case I'd like to make is this: that the interlinked crises facing the world today are focused in our political and economic structures, and it requires a transformation in our global governance framework if the world is ever to secure human rights universally, or if we are ever to achieve any measure of true democracy. In short, we have reached an impasse in world affairs that necessitates a complete re-ordering of global priorities and a fairer sharing of the world's resources.

When it comes to human rights, no-one can escape the disparity between those rights enjoyed in the rich countries, and the lack of even the most basic human rights in the so-called Global South. There is a vast difference between those rights enjoyed here in the UK, for example - such as the right to life, the right to food, or the right to an education - and the daily infringement of these basic rights for billions of men, women and children in the less developed countries. Of the Four Freedoms articulated by Roosevelt in 1941, Freedom from Want is still a dream for at least half of the world population. 

One of the strengths of the "rights" framework is that it carries the presumption of an eventual mechanism for enforcement - but there is still no concerted international plan to achieve this. As an organisation, STWR takes this as the starting point: what international mechanism is required to secure basic human needs as a universal right - and not at any predetermined time in the future, but immediately. 

When you ponder the problems of humanity in this way, I think it helps to look at the issues in a very basic context. So if I may spell out the fundamental questions: firstly, is it possible in today's world to secure universal human rights immediately? Secondly, what do we mean when we talk about democracy, and is it possible in today's world to secure democratic freedoms universally - and again, not in the future, but immediately. And thirdly, if this is possible, then why has the world community not achieved this essential goal since universal human rights were first enshrined in 1948, and how do we begin to achieve it?

In a world of democratic global governance, the human rights we are talking about were most concisely expressed in that landmark document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 25 of which states that:

"Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services..."

But when the Universal Declaration marks its 60th Anniversary on the 10th December, there will be little to celebrate. We live in a time defined by the most dissolute world records: there are more billionaires today than ever before, a number crossing into four figures for the first time - 1,125.[1] There are more millionaires today than ever before, passing 10 million for the first time last year and adding an extra zero to the tally - 10.1 million millionaires.[2] We also have a larger urban population today than ever, with the number of slum-dwellers worldwide now breaking the one billion mark.[3] At the same time, we had record harvests this summer in all of the emerging BRIC economies - Brazil, Russia, India and China - as well as a record cereal crop in the United States,[4] while the number of hungry people increased by 100 million to reach close to a billion people.[5]

So this is an age of the most crude paradoxes: unbelievable wealth amidst unbelievable penury; record levels of food amidst increasing levels of hunger; and the paradox of rising economic growth alongside rising levels of poverty. 

To simplify, what this indicates is that there is more than enough wealth to go around, there is enough food being produced to feed everyone sufficiently, and there is enough resources for everyone to enjoy at least a minimal standard of living. The problem in its simplest form is one of equity and distribution: we do not use the world's resources wisely, and we do not share the world's resources with those who need them most. The world problem in its essence is so simple that even a child could both understand it and comprehend its absurdity.

This distorted bias in global priorities became palpably clear during the recent global financial crash. People everywhere began to ask: why is it that the governments of the world can summon several trillion dollars to bail out millionaire bankers, and yet no government can afford the money - just 30 billion dollars a year - that would be enough to bail out the world's hungry?[6]

A cursory answer to that question is straightforward: we can say that the market responds only to money, it does not respond to hunger or basic needs. To understand why we have structured the economy in this way, however, requires an appreciation of the ideology that has governed economic thinking over the past few decades. You could probably fill the walls of this hall with all the critiques of this economic philosophy, and the names given to it are legion: it's been called laissez faire economics, market fundamentalism, corporatism, or most commonly neoliberalism or simply globalisation, but what it comes down to is a belief in the total liberation of corporations, the elimination of the public sphere, the prioritising of profit above all other values, and the fixed notion that markets are self-correcting, allocate resources efficiently, and serve the public interest well. One of the chief ideologues of this belief-system was, of course, the late Milton Friedman, who was the economics guru for world leaders from Thatcher and Reagan to the current Bush regime. According to Friedman, the market is like an infallible force of nature, one in which individuals, acting on their own self-interested desires, create the greatest benefits for all. Just as eco-systems self-regulate, Friedman believed that the market, left to its own devices and without interference from big government or policymakers, would lead to a perfectly balanced society.

At their most eloquent, proponents of this belief system have argued that everyone will benefit from policies enacted in the name of business and wealthy investors - that wealth will eventually trickle down to the poor, inequality will equilibrate through widespread economic growth, and climate change will be tackled through technical innovations. Since the 1980s, this ideology has become the dominant trend of the global economy, adopted by political parties of the traditional left as much as the centre and the right. Another term for it is ‘capitalism with the gloves off' - an era in which business forces are stronger and more aggressive, and have faced less opposition than ever before. The loudest message of this dogmatic devotion to markets was that there is ‘no alternative', or that we have reached the ‘end of history' - the end of mankind's ideological evolution.

It is in this context that we can talk about democracy and human rights. As Milton Friedman put it in his book ‘Capitalism and Freedom', profit-making is seen as the essence of democracy. From the neoliberal point of view, any government that interferes with the workings of the market - through redistributing wealth, for example - is being anti-democratic, no matter how much popular support they might enjoy. For this reason, the role of government is deemed best restricted to the job of protecting private property, and should not be concerned with public welfare which must be left in the hands of the private sector. The official history of the past few decades, as told by the business press and the world's major powers, is that the triumph of deregulated capitalism has been born of freedom, and that unfettered free markets go hand in hand with democracy.[7] We have seen the acme of this belief system in the so-called ‘War on Terror' fought this century: almost every action made by US troops in Iraq from 2003 was accompanied by President Bush's standard boilerplate about ‘freedom' and ‘democracy'.

The reality as seen today is somewhat different from the dominant narrative of modern history. Under a free market system that glorifies wealth and prioritises profit over the basic needs of the majority world, governments have actually become bigger than ever, but only to work primarily on behalf of corporate interests. Far from the market being freed from the state as in Milton Friedman's utopian vision, the corporate and political spheres have merged together in the cause of appropriating the world's resources previously held in the public domain. A necessary by-product of a political leadership that fails to sincerely represent the public or fight for public issues is seen in very low turnouts to major elections. Far from encouraging a democratic involvement in national affairs, we have instead witnessed a more cynical, apathetic and depoliticized citizenry.

This is a very perverse understanding of democracy, one that is historically linked to human rights abuses more than the spread of freedom and human rights - as notoriously represented by the overthrowing of Chile's democratically elected Allende government in place of Pinochet's brutal regime, or during Argentina's military dictatorship, or the transition to capitalism in Poland and Russia, or the ongoing example of Iraq - all in the name of the democratic free market.[8] As the political writer Noam Chomsky has often stated: democracy is supported by the world's major powers if, and only if, it conforms to strategic and economic objectives.[9]

The most outstanding result of this political-economic arrangement is a huge transfer of wealth into private hands, and an ever-widening chasm between the inconceivably rich and the disposable poor. In December 2006, a month after Milton Friedman died, a UN study found that the richest two percent of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth.[10] In most countries for which we have data, the top 1% of income earners have received a rapidly growing and hugely disproportionate share of national income. Figures show that income distribution has become considerably more unequal since about 1980 when neoliberal ideology began to infiltrate world economic affairs. Today, there is barely a week that goes by without another high-level report being released about growing inequality, increasing destabilisation and insecurity, or dramatically rising poverty and hunger - and these problems are by no means confined to the poorest countries.

To quote a few examples from just the last couple of weeks: the United States, that country which pioneered free market orthodoxy throughout the world, now has the largest gap between its wealthiest and poorest households out of all the 30 OECD countries after Mexico and Turkey.[11] According to another study, the lives of millions of working poor families in the US has gotten worse since 2002, with 350,000 more working families slipping into poverty, and 42 million working adults and their children rendered too poor to meet their basic needs of food and shelter.[12] Another study of the world's major cities concluded that growing inequality could lead to widespread social unrest and increased mortality - and the most unequal cities, which again includes the US, are becoming more unequal as a direct result of trade liberalisation and globalisation. Here's what the head of that report by UN-Habitat concluded: "It is clear that social tension comes from inequality. The trickle-down theory (meaning that wealth always starts with the already rich) has not delivered. Inequality is not good for anybody."[13] The economic freedom promised through the liberalisation of market forces has, in reality, resulted in a freedom for the very few and a contradiction of the core free-market promise - that increased wealth will be shared.

If we ask if economic globalisation has been successful, the actual answer is: it depends on your perspective. If your only measure of progress and success is financial wealth and economic growth, then the world has done very well over the past 30 years. In the 1990s, the business press ran out of adjectives to describe how magnificently the booming economy was performing in the advanced and emerging economies. Even today, a small number of transnational corporations are continuing to benefit from spectacular financial dividends. For example, large agribusinesses have reaped record gains in profit over the past year despite millions of people falling into hunger and destitution; many defence contractors and international security firms have never had so much business in today's political climate of terror and war; and the oil giant BP just smashed all its records with a 148% rise in profits over the last quarter[14] despite the grave threats of global warming and pollution.

But if you measure success by indicators of human well-being, the health of the environment and the lives of those most in need, then the world is in the middle of a crisis of catastrophic extent. It's as if we can divide humanity into two broad camps, or two polarised perspectives. Citizen's movements in this second camp perceive that the power to govern has shifted towards global corporations who dominate government through lobbying activities, who constitute the most important segment of society that is excluded from public control, and who work in conjunction with global governance institutions that deny the democratic rights of the majority world. The leadership of civilisation "through the prism of economics",[15] as one writer puts it, is an experiment that has never before been tried, but from the civil society perspective it is a project driven by paradox from the outset. The narrow and short-sighted financial imperatives that drive corporate institutions - including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation that set the agenda for global governance - are incompatible with the immediate needs of the world's impoverished, the welfare of future generations, and the long-term sustainability of the earth.

Not all of this is bad news. Just as men and women of goodwill have long recognised the blindness, injustice and unsustainability of the current economic system, they have simultaneously held the vision of a better world in which a true form of democracy is secured universally alongside basic human rights. Just as the names for the prevailing corporate ideology are legion, the names for this better world are numerous too; it's been variously called economic democracy, living democracy, earth democracy, democratic mundialization, or simply alter-globalization - with component off-shoots such as water democracy, food democracy or food sovereignty. Common to all these proposals is generally two basic themes, which can be summarised as economic self-reliance and local self-determination. It involves not merely the institutions and multiple parties of political democracy, but a world in which everyone has a say in their own future, in which the right to life's essentials are universally protected. 

The necessary self-determination and self-expression in determining how one's life will be lived, which is the basis of true democracy and liberty, does not exist in any real sense anywhere in the world. This simple vision, which would enable everyone to have an equitable participation in the ownership and the productive assets on which their livelihoods depend, demands a reorientation of the current world direction.[16] Today, more and more people are being cut out of the decision-making process over life's basic essentials, while the corporate monopolisation of the world's resources continues to accelerate. The persistence of hunger and extreme poverty in a world of excess and plenty is all the evidence that a true form of democracy has yet to be realised.

Another sign of hope and change is the sudden shift of intellectual opinion this year following the convergence of food, fuel and financial crises. Even a few months ago, the phrases ‘nationalisation' or ‘government intervention' would have been anathema to world leaders. Now, as the world economic system continues to crumble, there is widespread talk amongst Presidents and Prime Ministers of enacting a new world order, a "new form of capitalism" or a "new global economic and financial architecture". Multilateral institutions like the IMF and WTO are standing accused, along with the G-7 nations, of having misgoverned the world economy. Some have likened the global banking crisis to an economic equivalent of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with much talk of replacing the existing institutions with new forms of global governance - leading to the prospect of a ‘Bretton Woods II' summit being held later this month. 

The two most important questions that remain are nothing new for the burgeoning ranks of the world's disenfranchised poor. Firstly, will any changes made to the financial system continue to be in favour of the 20 percent of the world population who, since the 1960s, have consistently forged ahead of the majority world - the fortunate 20 percent in the richest countries who consume at least 86 percent of the world's goods.[17] Or will the rich nations finally deliver some measure of socio-economic justice to the more than three billion people, almost half of the world, who continue to survive on less than $2.50 a day?[18] Secondly, will intergovernmental policy remain in the hands of the major industrial powers and the international institutions they control - or will their rule-making, instead of prioritising a secure environment for open markets, finally make the necessary countervailing rules to protect human rights and human development?

Many commentators, including the likes of President Sarkozy in France, say that we are witnessing the end of "laissez faire economics", or the end of neoliberal ideology and the so-called Washington Consensus. But perhaps what we are really beginning to see is the end of humanities dependency on ideologies and narrow, fixed, theoretical belief systems. The ideologies and the ‘isms' haven't worked. Socialism, communism and capitalism all centralised the power of ownership in institutions that could not be held accountable; the state in the case of socialism, the corporation in the case of capitalism. And both systems have been characterised by the attempt to impose an ideology from a top-down approach, rather than allowing people and communities to organise themselves to respond to local needs within a framework of democratically determined rules.[19]

We've also seen the ineffectiveness in recent years of taking a position against global injustice in terms of being ‘anti' - anti-globalization, anti-capitalism, anti-neoliberalism, anti-war or even anti-poverty. Rather than taking a stance of attack or counter-attack, what the world lacks is a single, united cause that articulates people's aspirations for a true form of democracy and freedom - which is one reason why everyone could benefit from focusing attention on the principle of sharing. The concept of international economic sharing has broadly two purposes; on one level to guide the process of economic reform that requires governments to prioritise adequate food, shelter, healthcare and education as a human right. On another level, sharing is a way of linking all the various global issues together, and of unifying people on the same platform in their demands for change. Sharing is a concept that everyone can understand, but you can't make an ‘ism' or an ideology out of sharing - it is simply a transitive verb, a natural law of economy that is being fatefully neglected at the international level. The few examples of sharing that we have in society, such as the welfare state, are being gradually eroded through an over-reliance on market forces and commercialisation.

This is why, as an organisation, we advocate the removal of essential goods and services from financial markets, and the sharing of these resources according to need. It doesn't mean that we have to abolish a market-based approach to commerce altogether, but the primary objective of the global economy must shift away from economic growth and trade liberalisation, towards the production and distribution of those resources which are essential to life. This must become the number one priority of governments around the world. If all essential resources are shared, commercial interests will no longer have a direct influence or control over basic human needs. Strictly regulated corporations would instead operate within a new global framework to serve the remaining economic, industrial and technological needs of society.

The principle of sharing clearly has important implications for global governance. The United Nations, as the only multilateral governmental agency with the necessary international jurisdiction for universal human rights legislation, is also the only international body with the experience, humanitarian charter, and the necessary resources to address global economic reform. Although the UN system has been rendered undemocratic owing to its subservience to the world's richest countries and multinational corporate interests, it still embodies the noble ideals and mechanisms required to secure human rights universally.

A political and economic transformation of this scale is not going to happen by itself. The top 1% who control most of the world's resources are not going to give up their power and privileges without resistance. Together as civil society, however, we are not asking for much. We ask only, first and foremost, that the 25,000 men, women and children who continue to die each day from hunger-related causes are given the chance to live a life of dignity and peace.[20] Organised political activism is responsible for the degree of democracy we have today - from universal adult suffrage and women's rights, to trade unions and civil liberties - but calls are now ringing out for a new alliance of the global justice movement, a united voice that can connect together all the human rights activists, environmentalists, global justice campaigners, NGOs and concerned citizens worldwide.

This voice has already begun to emerge, as evidenced in the almost constant demonstrations taking place throughout the world, characterised most often by peaceful protest and an informal consensus against rife injustice. Here's one more world record that I'd like to mention, but this time one that is worth remembering; two weeks ago, the global call to action against poverty saw the "biggest mobilisation ever on a single issue", 116 million people taking part in demonstrations around the world.[21] It's another sign of hope and change, an indication of the basin of goodwill and the unified consciousness that is already present in the world. 

The energy of this international phenomenon is still in its infancy, however, and unaware of its concerted power to affect policy changes at the international level. The most common name for this new force is simply world public opinion, dubbed a ‘new superpower' in world affairs that cannot be directed by any imposed authority, that includes all ages and walks of life, and that is altogether beyond the ‘people power' political protests of the past 20 years.[22] It's in this way that the principle of sharing has the potential to become a rallying call that can unite people under a single banner, to provide a truly democratic platform with a select petition of demands that can pressure governments and world leaders to completely reorder their priorities. Another name for it is ‘democracy in action', and it is here that we all hold an urgent responsibility.


[1] Luisa Kroll, 'The World's Richest People: World's Billionaires', Forbes, 3rd March 08.

[2] 'Merrill Lynch And Capgemini Release 12th Annual World Wealth Report', Capgemini, 24 June 2008.

[3] Adamu Yahaya, 'Urban Slum Dwellers Worldwide Nearing One Billion', allAfrica.com, 9 October 2008.

[4] Brian Halweil. ‘Grain Harvest Sets Record, But Supplies Still Tight' Worldwatch Institute, 12 December 2007.

[5] 'WFP says high food prices a silent tsunami, affecting every continent', World Food Programme (press release), 22 April 2008.

[6] 'US$30 Billion a Year Would Eradicate World Hunger', Environmental News Service, 3 June 2008.

[7] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin Books, 2007), p.18.

[8] see Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

[9] Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan Books, 27 March 2006)

[10] World Institute for Development Economics Research, 'Pioneering study shows richest 2 percent own half world wealth', press release, 5 December 2006, www.wider.unu.edu.

[11] Jim Lobe, 'Rich-Poor Divide Worst Among Rich Countries', IPS news, 21 October 2008.

[12] Adrianne Appel, 'US: No Golden Parachutes for the Working Poor', IPS news, 20 October 2008.

[13] John Vidal, 'Wealth Gap Creating a Social Time Bomb', The Guardian, 23 October 2008.

[14] Julia Kollewe, ‘BP smashes forecasts as profits soar 148%', The Guardian, 28 October 2008.

[15] John Ralston Paul. The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (Atlantic Books, London 2005) p xii.

[16] see John Cavanagh and Jerry Manders. Alternatives to Economic Globalisation: A Better World is Possible (International Forum on Globalisation, 2004), p.25.

[17] United Nations Development Programme, ‘Human Development Report 1998: Consumption for Human Development', (New York, 1998).

[18] For the latest world poverty estimates, see Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion, ‘The Developing World Is Poorer Than We Thought, But No Less Successful in the Fight against Poverty', The World Bank Development Research Group, August 2008.

[19] John Cavanagh and Jerry Manders, op cit.

[20] Jakob Skoet & Kostas Stamoulis, "The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2006: Eradicating world hunger - taking stock ten years after the World Food Summit" (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006)

[21] Guinness World Records - Adjudications, 'Largest Stand Up in One Week', 10 October 2008,http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/adjudications/081009_Largest_stand_up.aspx

[22] Anthony Barnett, 'World opinion: the new superpower?', OpenDemocracy.net, 18th March 2003