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The Commons and public services: A new way forward or an alternative to human rights?

Guest content
23 February 2024

A new briefing paper explores alternative approaches to delivering universal public services based on the shared ideas of the commons and human rights movements. Does the commons offer a different way to imagine a more fair and equal future for society? By the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR). 

In recent decades, many States have taken steps to commercialise public services. In this context, 'commercialisation' means adopting market-driven approaches and practices to deliver public services. 'Public services' (also called 'social services') are essential to realising economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. They include education, healthcare, social security, care, housing, energy, and water and sanitation.

Through commercialisation, States have placed services and resources that were publicly owned and managed in private hands. Private activity has a role in certain economic transactions. However, the commercialisation of public services is associated with specific human rights concerns. It increases inequalities and segregation, disproportionately harms the most disadvantaged, often lowers quality and diminishes democratic control in areas essential for human dignity.

The commercialisation of public services has often gone hand in hand with corporate capture of public decision-making. Powerful multinational corporations increasingly influence sectors critical for functioning democracies, such as education curricula and the production of vaccines. Moreover, the private sector's presence at the heart of social services has influenced policymaking in ways that advantage corporations, typically by favouring public-private partnerships that transfer funds from public to private actors, in many cases despite clear evidence of their ineffectiveness.

The commercialisation and privatisation of public services have increased inequality and entrenched power disparities, putting profit and greed ahead of people's rights and ecological and social well-being. It adversely affects workers, service users and communities, and its costs and damages fall disproportionately on those who are historically disadvantaged.

Since 2020, GI-ESCR has sought to identify alternatives to privatisation and to traditional State-centred models for providing goods and services to address these challenges. In particular, it has explored systems that enable local communities to design their own rules, manage resources and provide certain services for the benefit of their members. One of these was the movement for the Commons.

In 2020, GI-ESCR organised a series of workshops to foster a dialogue between leading figures from the Commons and human rights. This initiative contributed to our broader work to build an interdisciplinary movement and mobilise collectively to confront the powerful interests and institutions that drive the commercialisation of services relevant to economic, social, cultural and environmental rights. 

This collective effort led to 'Our Future is Public' (OFiP22), an unprecedented gathering of movements and NGOs working for public services and against privatisation held in Santiago, Chile, from 29 November to 2 December 2022. The conference was attended in person or virtually by nearly one thousand delegates from 113 countries, representing 567 organisations that work in a wide range of public services, from education and health to care, energy, food, housing, water, transportation and social protection.

All the participants sought to address the harmful effects of commercialising public services, to reclaim democratic public control and to reimagine a genuinely equal and human rights-oriented economy that works for people and the planet. OFiP22 adopted the Santiago Declaration, which calls for universal access to high-quality, gender-transformative and equitable public services as the foundation of a fair and just society.

During 2023, following the commitments from the Declaration, GI-ESCR continued to work transversally and in solidarity with other CSOs and movements to build collective analysis, develop joint activities, strengthen the frameworks on the critical role of public services for the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights and its financing through progressive taxation policies. This briefing summarises what emerged from our discussions with representatives from the movement for the Commons and highlights the potential for future cooperation. We encourage others to continue exploring definitions of the term 'public' as well as the values and practices that the Commons and human rights movements share.

Link to full report: The Commons and public services: a new way forward or an alternative to human rights? 

Original source & image credit: Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (GI-ESCR)