United Nations sign on the wall of UN Headquarters in Geneva.
Inequality & good governance: key to the fight against global poverty
Between now and next September’s UN General Assembly, the global community will be writing the replacement for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the 8 objectives that have dominated international development for the last decade and a half. Although only some progress has been made towards the MDGs, they have been crucial in driving international priorities, national agendas in developing countries, and the flow of aid money. So this is important.
Unions globally will be pressing for decent work to have a much higher prominence in what will be called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – unless the name changes in the next 11 months. Decent work, as defined by the ILO, was only an indicator for the first of the MDGs, the eradication of severe poverty. We argue that this lack of prominence is why the first goal was only partly reached: without more and better jobs, poverty will remain ingrained in the global economy.
We will also be arguing strongly that tackling inequality needs to be a goal in itself: not so much between nations as within them. That includes equality for women, disabled people and so on, but the sharpest argument at the moment is specifically about economic inequality. There are almost as many people in absolute poverty in India as in sub-Saharan Africa, but taking a country by country approach means India looks like a middle income country, and is used by some to suspend aid programmes and ignore the crushing inequality that leaves so many people poor. (It’s undeniable that India has the resources to begin to tackle poverty at home as well as send missions into space, but until it shows the will – and to be honest even then – it will still be part of the rich world’s responsibility to help the hundreds of millions of poor Indian who blight the world economy, even if that doesn’t mean big overseas aid programmes.)
Of course we’ll be backing those arguing for retention of education for all and access to health. And there are the usual arguments about how many targets to set: every new iteration or proposal increases the number, and everyone calling for the goals to be made more realistically realisable argues for fewer.
But one of the biggest arguments there is likely to be is over the issue of good governance, which the UK government in particular is pushing! with some support from other developed nations and fragile states, but meeting resistance from middle income and emerging economies. The fragile states can see how an emphasis on good governance could lead to assistance in restoring their state institutions as well as peace and stability. Emerging and middle income states see western interference in their often relatively new democracies which were often hampered by the same governments now advocating good governance (read Latin America, for instance, or post-colonial countries anywhere.) it also includes countries like China who don’t exactly agree with the OECD countries’ argument that democracy and growth go hand in hand.
Unions have traditionally supported both the call for greater human rights and the anti-imperialist struggle. And while our colleagues in those emerging and middle-income countries unwaveringly lambast their governments for confusing ‘independence’ with ‘freedom’, there are undeniable tensions when post-colonial powers lecture their former empires about democracy, having withheld it for so long.
But I’d argue that this is an issue so vital to the development of trade unions, workers’ rights and fundamental freedoms that we can ally with the UK government on this issue, if we can achieve certain safeguards. We must insist that collective rights (freedom of association, for example, and the right to strike) are as important as individual rights – and neither should be over-ridden by property rights or freedoms for investors. That’s in line with Jim Murphy’s call earlier this year for DFID to set up a human rights unit, but not in line with the inclusion of Investor-State Dispute Settlement in trade agreements.
There is still a lot to play for before the UN agrees the next stage in the war on poverty.