As the phrases ‘freedom’, ‘civil rights’ and ‘democracy’ take on epic proportions during the US elections, few commentators have reflected on what these words actually mean for the majority world. If we discuss human rights, no-one can escape the disparity between those rights enjoyed in the rich countries, and the widespread lack of even the most basic rights across the Global South. There remains a gulf between those rights enjoyed in Northern Europe or the United States - such as the right to life, the right to food, or the right to an education – and the daily infringement of these enshrined rights for billions of men, women and children in the less developed countries.
With the global integration of markets and cultures over the past few decades, the concepts of human rights and democracy can no longer be considered apart from the economics of inequality. Of the Four Freedoms articulated by Roosevelt in 1941, Freedom from Want is still a dream for at least half of the world population. When the Universal Declaration marks its 60th Anniversary in December, there will therefore 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. There are more millionaires today than ever, passing 10 million for the first time last year and adding an extra zero to the tally – “10.1 million millionaires”.
We also have the largest urban population in human history, with the number of slum-dwellers worldwide now breaking the one billion mark. 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, while the number of hungry people increased by 100 million to reach close to a billion people.
It is an age of the crudest paradoxes: unbelievable wealth amidst implausible penury; record levels of food amidst spiralling levels of hunger; and the paradox of rising economic growth alongside rising levels of poverty. 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 are 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 crisis in its essence is so simple that even a child could both understand it and comprehend its absurdity.
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This perverse 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?
There is barely a week that now 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, the wealthiest country in the world which led the globalisation of markets over the past few decades, now has the largest gap between its wealthiest and poorest households out of all the 30 OECD countries after Mexico and Turkey.
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. 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.
Not all of this is bad news. Just as citizens movements 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 market-led ideology are legion, the names for this better world are numerous too; it’s being variously called economic democracy, living democracy, earth democracy, democratic mundialization, or simply alter-globalization – with all of its component off-shoots including water democracy, food democracy or food sovereignty. Common to all of the proposals is a vision far greater than 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 or liberty, does not exist in any real sense anywhere in the world. 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.
One sudden sign of hope and change is the dramatic 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 global financial system continues to fall apart, 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 international 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% of the world population who, since the 1960s, have consistently forged ahead of the majority world – the fortunate 20% in the richest countries who consume at least 86% of the world’s goods. 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? 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?
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. 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 the 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. As one example, in mid-October the global call to action against poverty saw the “biggest mobilisation ever on a single issue”, with 116 million people taking part in demonstrations around the world. It’s one more sign of hope and change, an indication of the basin of goodwill and the unified consciousness that is already present in the world.
The intensity 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. It’s in this way that the concept 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.
Adam W. Parsons is the editor of Share The World’s Resources. This article was adapted from a talk 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 full transcript of the talk is available here
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