A manifesto for global justice

Ditching development doesn’t mean simply changing language – it’s about radicalising our demands and reassessing old and new political ideas. Nick Dearden makes some suggestions for a global justice manifesto

February 25, 2015
7 min read


Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign

chile-marchA march in defence of public water in Santiago, Chile

Development has been co-opted. A ‘development manifesto’ today would prioritise aid spending, and call for more efficient production and more markets, leading to increased growth, trade and private sectors. It would be an appeal to Western states, neoliberal Southern governments and rich philanthropists.

For too long progressive thought has played along with this vision, fearful that anything else will only empower a UKIP-style ‘little Englander’ backlash. But if we want to reenergise a real movement for global justice, we need to confront development, and replace it with our own vision for a world based on equality, solidarity and democratic control.

Power not poverty

Attempts to eradicate poverty without fundamental social change have failed. Focussing on inequality can be a more political way of looking at the injustice that ‘the poor’ suffer. And challenging inequality first means redistributing the world’s wealth.

‘Aid’ is not only much too small to change anything, but the very concept is embedded in unfair power relations that create inequality in the first place.

Let’s ditch aid and in its place build a system of global taxation. To begin redressing a history of exploitation of people and planet, this flow from global North to South needs to be much greater and, vitally, not under the control of donor states, any more than income tax should be under the control of the rich.

Instead funds should be run democratically, and used to help build up decent welfare states, sustainable public transport systems, environmentally friendly energy access for all. The radical states of Latin America have already formed funds which could serve as a model.

Redistribution is urgent, but it isn’t enough in isolation. We also need to restructure the global economy to eliminate the vast inequality that makes redistribution necessary.

Control not access

Current development efforts entirely misunderstand poverty. For instance, introducing capitalist relations into non-capitalist societies, breaking people’s relationship to the land and their resources, can radically increase spending power while at the same time standards of living plummet.

Poverty is better thought of as a lack of resources – from food and land to energy and technology. And here, the central issue is who controls the world’s resources.

Current development thinking stresses providing access to resources for the poor. But this fails to challenge power relations which allow the elite to monopolise global resources. For instance, you can help provide access to food by giving the poor vouchers to purchase it from the rich, or by helping them market the resources they need to the rich to purchase. All this is quite compatible with the increasing concentration of ownership.

The concept of food sovereignty emerged in opposition to this way of thinking. It states that control of food is vital to a more equal society. Food sovereignty also puts an emphasis on small-scale farmers producing organic food – responsible to social need not profit. It necessitates widespread land reform. And it is already working – many millions of people are fed in this way.

Similar principles can be applied to other resources like energy: allowing communities to control their own energy supply, eventually within national and international frameworks, can produce both more sustainable and more socially just electricity.

Rethinking public ownership

In this vision, we don’t rent the world’s resources, we own them. In order to meet society’s needs in a just way, we need to promote collective ownership. But we also need to challenge some notions of state control, which is often too far removed from ordinary citizens to be able to serve people’s needs. It also depends on taking control of the state as a first step, a major problem when so many Southern elites are neoliberal in orientation.

More democratised forms of public ownership can arise by maintaining or reintroducing common land, cooperatives or democratic local authority ownership. This is happening in many places, including on our own doorstep – in Germany for example, local energy companies are gradually returning to public ownership. From Paris to Buenos Aires and Dar es Salaam to Cochabamba, water utilities have been renationalised in the last 15 years.

We need to use public ownership as a means of providing finance, which should also be seen as a public resource. We need to move away from forms of microcredit – which introduce small‑scale capitalist relations and notions of debt – and replace it with publicly controlled financing, using the wealth that is currently thrown at financial markets by, for instance, pension funds, resource wealth and local authority revenues.

De-linking the South

Public control does need to happen at a bigger level too – and the nation state cannot be simply written off if the majority of the world is to gain access to resources.

Thinkers like Samir Amin have long stressed the need for Southern countries to ‘de-link’ from the international economy. This is not a form of economic isolation but a means of withdrawing from economic relationships that are based on inequality. The problem for many Southern countries is not a lack of integration into the global economy, as too many development ‘experts’ believe, it’s rather that they are integrated on deeply exploitative terms.

Countries must use their own resources to build a better society and economy, and prioritise regional trade, ‘de-linking’ internal prices from the world market, and freeing themselves from control by international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This process of both de-globalising (more correctly de‑westernising) and regional integration is currently being realised in Latin America, where countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are recreating regional institutions to replace the roles of the World Bank, WTO, International Monetary Fund and the dollar as a world currency. New institutions, like the Bolivarian trade agreement ALBA, are based on principles of complementarity and redistribution from rich to poor. They show how challenging power goes from the local (for example movements against land concentration) to the national (nationalisation and regulation of resources) to the international.

Neither Washington nor Pyongyang

There is a tendency for anyone critical of the current free market system to be told to go and live in North Korea. It is certainly true that liberalisation has been a disaster for scores of African, Latin American and Asian countries forced into these policies. But there should not be a cast iron rule that we should always trade or always protect.

Indeed the problem is that the concept of trade liberalisation has been elevated beyond any social goal, as a good thing in itself. While there is a sophisticated system of governance for world trade, there are virtually no ways of enforcing human rights or social rights as an international level. We need to construct an international system which is precisely the reverse. The realisation of rights and freedoms for people and communities – as well as survival of the planet’s ecosystems – needs to be preeminent and enforceable.

Trade liberalisation as currently constructed is not about selling goods and services to each other, but about reinforcing an unequal power relationship, symbolised by the monopolisation of resources by giant corporations. But under a different system of rules, trade can help small farmers, producers and manufacturers.

Any project for global justice needs to immediately disband corporate monopolies – by taxation, undermining limited liability, imposing maximum size and wage differentials. But the point of this is not to introduce a mythical form of ‘truly’ free market, but to give support and space to more democratic means of organising society.

These ideas are first thoughts on how we might construct a manifesto for global justice. We welcome comments and debate at www.globaljustice.org.uk/manifesto


Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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