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New visions of global solidarity

Adam Parsons STWR

As part of STWR’s ‘global call for sharing’ campaign, we are periodically highlighting the growing public debate on the need for wealth, power and resources to be shared more equitably both within countries and internationally. This debate is becoming more prominent by the day, although it is often framed in an implicit context without directly acknowledging how the principle of sharing is central to resolving today’s interlocking crises.

In this light, the editorial below illustrates some of the many and diverse ways in which a call for sharing is being expressed, whether it’s by politicians, economists, campaigners, activists, academics or anyone else. To learn more about STWR’s campaign, please visit: www.sharing.org/global-call  

In this latest editorial we’re highlighting some of the various ways in which a call for sharing is being expressed in the field of international development, especially in relation to calls for more and better overseas aid. The most up-to-date figures released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that aid to the most impoverished nations fell by a sixth in 2014, which may not augur well for delivering the new sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be agreed in New York in September.

A flagship report recently published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) stressed that if countries are serious about meeting the SDGs on eradicating global poverty by 2030, they also have to get serious about delivering 0.7 percent of their gross national income as official development assistance. According to the report’s financing estimates, the total cost of meeting the social sector ambitions of the SDGs – social security for all, universal healthcare and universal access to good quality education – will be $148bn per annum. After accounting for current aid flows and tax revenues, this leaves a financing gap of $73bn per annum within the poorest countries – a sum that could easily be met if all donor countries delivered on their longstanding 0.7% aid pledge.

However, if governments continue to follow current development strategies, the report warns that the gap between rich and poor will further widen. This will leave some 550 million people living on less than $1.25 a day, while around four million children will still die needlessly before the age of five. The ODI is therefore making a case for a new ‘global social compact’ that includes all the basic elements necessary to provide everyone with a decent standard of living, which will also require mechanisms to reduce inequality and share the fruits of economic growth. With an essentially upbeat message for the global financing summit to be held in Ethiopia in July (where governments will pledge funds to support the SDG targets), the ODI argues that global poverty can indeed be eradicated by 2030 if new development ambitions are matched with new development finance.

The absurdity of growth assumptions

Another academic paper that’s received a lot of attention recently is by the progressive economist David Woodward, which takes an altogether more radical view on the kind of structural changes and redistributive measures that are necessary to end poverty. To begin with, Woodward demonstrates how the core assumption that lies at the heart of the SDGs – of ever-increasing global economic growth that proportionately benefits the poorest households – is extraordinarily ambitious and problematic. Updating previous findings on how unfairly the proceeds of growth are shared between rich and poor, it turns out that it would take about a century for all people to rise above the $1.25-a-day income bracket even according to the most optimistic growth forecasts – far from the SDG target of achieving this historic feat in the next fifteen years.

However, if a more realistic poverty line of $5-a-day is used rather than the World Bank’s controversial measure, then right now a staggering 4.3 billion are unable to achieve basic health and wellbeing – and it would take over two centuries to eradicate extreme poverty at this rate. (The Overseas Development Institute, incidentally, have also released a new report on ‘finding the missing millions’ which estimates that the World Bank’s information on the number of people living in extreme poverty could be drastically underestimated because of inadequate data collection, and the real figure could be many millions more than the official 1.01 billion.)

Woodward further questions whether it is even structurally possible to make the global economic pie grow by around 10 times, so that enough crumbs of growth can trickle down to the poorest people to lift them out of poverty. Based on the current economic model, global per capita income would need to be over $1 million per year (however unequally distributed) if the poorest two-thirds of humanity are to earn a mere $5-a-day. Clearly, such a strategy raises serious questions in light of global carbon constraints, when we’re already hitting environmental limits at current levels of economic activity. Hence the title of Woodward’s paper, ‘Incrementum ad Absurdum’.

He doesn’t purport to have all the answers, but makes a persuasive case as to why we need to shift our attention “from global economic growth itself, and towards improving the distribution of the benefits of global production and consumption”. In other words, the only viable route to eradicating poverty is through fundamentally rethinking our whole approach to development, and reconfiguring the operation of the global economy in accordance with the principle of sharing. As one commentator on Woodward’s paper succinctly puts it: “The physics of planetary boundaries means in global aggregate terms we need to consume less. So, to stay the right side of environmental thresholds, a radical shift in distribution to favour the poorest becomes the only way to reconcile the twin challenges of halting catastrophic climatic upheaval and ‘ending poverty’.”

What could all this mean for the existing system of overseas aid? One thing’s for sure – that the present situation cannot continue in which whole populations suffering from unforeseen disasters are forced to rely on insufficient, voluntary handouts from the international community, as recently witnessed following the earthquake in Nepal. It’s interesting to note in this regard that Oxfam have started to conduct a ‘fair share’ analysis on aid giving, which shows how little is shared by rich countries to help address urgent humanitarian needs as a result of the conflict in Syria.

In the longer term, there’s no question that “a shift is needed from a development model based on charity and aid to one based on human rights, reinforced by accountability mechanisms”. Such are the words of the new UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, who talks in no uncertain terms of the possibility of ending hunger and achieving the fundamental aims long ago set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – presuming we can fashion the political will strong enough to overcome entrenched interests in maintaining food insecurity.

An aid system based on genuine sharing

One view on how aid giving to the poorest countries must dramatically change is seen in recent work by the British campaigning organisation Global Justice Now (GJN), who outline a compelling vision of international solidarity to build a fairer world. Their latest report called ‘Profiting from poverty, again’ reveals how the UK’s Department for International Development (DfiD) is driving inequality across Africa and Asia by funding private sector health and education projects, thereby boosting big business interests and undermining universal rights to free, high-quality public services. The report details how some of these private services are being run by UK-based companies that have an inappropriately close relationship to those making decisions within DfiD.

GJN demand a halt to all aid programmes that promote the for-profit provision of education and healthcare, among other recommendations. They also call on the UK government to “build support for aid which stresses the need for redistributive economic policies, and democratic accountability to southern recipients of these funds, as opposed to a charitable vision which maintains donor control over resources.” In a number of recent articles and op-eds, GJN’s director Nick Dearden further imagines what aid would look like if it is genuinely based on a model of sharing and social justice. He argues that we should look towards the British example of the National Health Service, in which healthcare was taken out of the hands of the market to be run democratically in the public interest after the Second World War. Not only should we turn around the creeping privatisation of this great institution, but also call upon the UK government to help other countries around the world to build decent health systems.

This shouldn’t be considered charity any more than funding the NHS or state education systems is charity, writes Dearden. “It’s about redistributing from those who have, to those who don’t. It’s about building a fair and decent global society where we don’t watch people starve through lack of resources. It’s about starting to put right the damage our governments have done to the world over decades and centuries – through wars and unfair trading systems and outright plunder. And that can only be done when priorities aren’t driven by our own government, but by democratic decisions made in the countries which are receiving those funds. The current amount spent on aid is a pittance compared to what’s necessary for this task.”

A similar vision of aid based on global solidarity and true sharing has been reaffirmed in recent months by the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP), who have long called for a new approach to homeland security in the United States through a strategy of nonviolence and generosity. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine and co-chair of the NSP, ran a full-page ad in The New York Times on the day before the Israeli Prime Minister was due to address a joint session of Congress about Iran’s alleged “quest for nuclear weapons”. The ad, which was signed by many notable signatories, boldly stated: “No, Mr. Netanyahu—you do not speak for American Jews. And … The American People Do Not Want a War with Iran!” In a series of op-eds that appeared in Salon and Huffington Post among other alternative media outlets, Rabbi Lerner took issue with Netanyahu’s reactionary message of hate and fear, and instead promoted the kind of wise common sense that is too seldom heard in contemporary discourse on foreign policy.  

With a comprehensive understanding of the political situation in the Middle East, he calls on all progressives to join him in persuading the U.S. government to pursue a ‘Strategy of Generosity’ in contrast to Israel’s ‘Strategy of Domination’, which Lerner describes as a struggle of worldviews that is at the core of public debate between liberals and conservatives. The former strategy is encapsulated in the Global Marshall Plan initiative developed by Tikkun and the NSP, which was summarised anew in Rabbi Lerner’s recent articles. As written in his Salon piece, such an approach to international development and national security would:

“Have the U.S. lead the other advanced industrial countries in each dedicating 1-2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product each year for the next twenty to once and for all end both domestic and international poverty, homelessness, hunger, inadequate education, and inadequate health care and repair the global environment;

Overturn all the trade agreements (and stop the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] currently being negotiated in secret by the Obama administration) that have favored the interests of Western globalized capitalist firms while undermining local economies and impoverishing tens of millions of small farmers in the global south and east who are then forced off their lands and into the big cities where they live in slums and become attracted to a politics of resentment;

Create local community-based economies outside the control of national governments or large corporations to make sure that this doesn’t turn out to be another pointless give-away program but instead becomes a program of genuine empowerment of local communities around the world.

Approach the peoples of the world with a spirit of humility and a genuine desire to learn from their cultures and experiences. That does not mean suspending our ethical values (we need not tolerate abuse of women or children under the guise of multiculturalism). But it does mean ridding ourselves of the false notion that having more material things and being richer than other societies is somehow a sign of being better or wiser. In fact, we need to open ourselves to the wisdom of those who may be poorer in things but richer in their cultural resources and in building communities in which people care for each other.”

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such noble visions of global solidarity, genuine cooperation and economic sharing will be taken into consideration when Heads of State meet in New York in September to formally agree the Sustainable Development Goals. These general commitments also remain far removed from STWR’s vision of an international programme of emergency relief to end all instances of unnecessary deaths due to hunger or poverty, not on the basis of charity but as a leading priority of all UN Member States. As a result, millions of people will inevitably continue to die each year from preventable poverty-related causes until governments are finally impelled to cooperate in sharing the world’s resources. The depressing debate on immigration within countries of the European Union further underlines how dramatically public opinion needs to shift, until rich nations understand “that they cannot remain islands of prosperity in a sea of deprivation, and that a more equitable sharing of wealth, technology, skills and knowledge is the fundamental basis of a just and peaceful world order”.

But everywhere there is hope and evidence of a new consciousness arising, one that fundamentally understands how – in Rabbi Lerner’s words – “our security and well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on this planet as well as on the health of the planet itself”. The above recent examples are just a small indication of how civil society groups and policy thinkers are embracing our global interdependence, and calling in their different ways for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources both within countries and internationally.

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Photo credit: nan palmero, flickr creative commons