The post-COVID-19 environment affords an unmissable opportunity to build a better economy and world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the fundamental injustice at the core of our current economic model, which results in scarcity and precarity for the many, and unimaginable wealth for the few. The economic fallout from the pandemic and the inadequacy of governments’ responses to it are prompting more and more people to question the morality of an economic system which for decades has placed the market at the centre of all human interactions, measuring progress and development solely in terms of economic growth.
As the UN Secretary General rightly put it: ‘the COVID-19 pandemic has brought home the tragic disconnect between self-interest and the common interest; and the huge gaps in governance structures and ethical frameworks’. We now must think how we can radically change the way we interact with one another and with the planet. We new to fundamentally re-configure our economic structure putting people and planet above profit and greed.
Why we need a Rights-Based Economy?
Today, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and Christian Aid – two international organisations working for human rights and economic justice – are launching a new report entitled ‘Towards a Rights-Based Economy: Putting Planet and People First’. The report asks a fundamental question: what would it would look like if we had an economy based on human rights?
The report argues that the primary purpose of rights-based economy (RBE) is to guarantee the material, social and environmental conditions necessary for all people to live with dignity on a flourishing planet. The measure of its success is whether all people are able to enjoy their full rights – economic and social, civil and political, cultural and environmental – without discrimination and without reducing the ability of future generations to do so.
Human rights enrich our vision of economic justice by providing a widely agreed framework of ethical values and legal obligations that should underpin our economies, informed by a holistic understanding of human wellbeing. They demand action to redistribute resources, remedy inequalities and rebalance power. They therefore challenge the logic of the currently dominant model and bolster the compelling alternative visions of a just economy advanced by feminist, indigenous and environmental movements, among others.
How can we move towards a Right-Based Economy?
The report recommends 6 shifts we’d like to see in how the economy works:
- In the RBE, comprehensive and universal social protection systems are a fundamental tool for ensuring guaranteed income and a dignified life for all, even when faced with unemployment, poverty, sickness, disability or old age. For example, when planning for the COVID-19 recovery, governments should prioritise social protection spending instead of private-sector focused initiatives.
- Rights-based labour and wage policies ensure that work is empowering, safe and dignified; that wages provide enough for the full range of basic human needs; and that power differentials between employers and employees do not inhibit workers’ collective bargaining and other fundamental rights. For example, corporations should actively engage with labour unions and cherish their contributions rather than penalising those being involved in collective action.
- Public services in the RBE ensure that everyone – regardless of income – has access to the essential goods and infrastructural foundations for a dignified life. After decades of commodification and privatisation, shifts such as ‘remunicipalisation’ are seeking to ensure that public services are democratically governed and aimed at tackling disparities. For example, in 2016 the City Council of Vallodolid, Spain decided to remunicipalise the water supply in the metropolitan area to make water more affordable for poorer households.
- Rights-centred tax policy – including corporate and wealth taxes that ensure the rich pay their fair share, coupled with robust action against tax abuse – would reverse the trends of recent decades which have robbed countries, particularly in the Global South, of their available resources and disproportionately burdened the already disadvantaged with the costs of contributing to the public coffers. For example, a group of 83 wealthy individuals called for immediate, substantial and permanent wealth taxes to fund the COVID-19 recovery and beyond.
- In the RBE, robust corporate regulation and alternative corporate models – from cooperative movements to worker buy-outs and employee share-ownership schemes – are put in place to ensure that corporations no longer simply extract and exploit, but contribute towards society and reward workers fairly. For example, member States should promote, support and resource the creation of robust corporate standards such as those being discussed this week during the negotiations of a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights.
- An equally seismic shift is needed in global economic governance. In a global RBE, wealthier countries would refrain from impeding socioeconomic rights realisation in low and middle-income countries, including by cancelling debt and by cooperating, not competing, in response to collective problems such as climate change, pandemics and illicit financial flows. For example, international financial institutions should, as part of their COVID-19 package, cancel the $42.7bn debt diverting life-saving funds to women in poverty and preventing 76 countries in the global south from strengthening public health systems and social protection.
The current state of affairs is ultimately a choice; a collective choice. This means that we can put in place joint-solutions as those mentioned above. The post-COVID-19 environment affords an unmissable opportunity to advance a vision of the RBE and catalyse a broader movement demanding the necessary transformations. This will require a broad spectrum of actions – from mobilisation, organisation and direct action to research and advocacy, legislation, popular education and the promotion of cultural change. We all have a role to play.
Dr. Marianna Leite works on the development of holistic approaches to gender and intersecting inequalities that ensure equality of outcomes and rights for all. She is a specialist on gender and development and an international human rights lawyer.
Kate Donald is Director of Programs at CESR. Before joining CESR in 2014, Kate worked as Adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, examining the impact of public policies and development initiatives on the rights of people living in poverty.
Photo: Image originally from Alternautus, Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA. Drawing inspiration from Buen Vivir, this mural is by the Brigada Ramona Parra, a Chilean political street art collective.