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Two discourses on sharing: social policy and the commons

Adam Parsons
11 September 2013

The following article is based on a talk given by STWR's Adam Parsons at the 11th international conference of the Globalisation for the Common Good (GCGI), held at the Cité Universitaire Internationale in Paris under the theme: "Imagining a Better World: An Intergenerational Dialogue for the Common Good to Inspire a Creative Leadership".

Thank you, it's a pleasure to be part of this inter-generational dialogue of practitioners and academics which is being held due to a deep concern about the multiple crises that we see in our communities and around the world. What I'd like to do is look very broadly at what it might mean in policy terms to share the world's resources, and briefly explain why it makes sense to frame the world's complex political and economic problems in relation to this simple, everyday concept of sharing.

For us as an organisation, the starting point isn't only the question of what structural changes to the global economy will be needed to share the world's resources more sustainably and equitably. Although structural transformation is urgent and imperative to address social inequalities and injustice, arguably the first question is what should be done to mitigate the very worst instances of hunger and poverty across the world on the basis of an international emergency. Because if our human understanding of sharing is to mean anything in a world of plenty, it must surely mean an end to extreme deprivation in all its forms as a foremost global priority. We're all familiar with the harsh impacts of austerity policies and the worsening social effects of the ongoing financial crisis, which is widening inequalities and causing profound hardship for millions of people in OECD countries. But much less discussed is the true extent of needless poverty-related deaths in less developed countries, which is far greater than all of the deaths related to global conflict, natural disasters or climate change.

You may have seen the new figures recently released by researchers from The Lancet who estimate that hunger is responsible for 600,000 more child deaths each year than was previously thought, a figure that accounts for almost half of all deaths among children under the age of five.[1] When you consider preventable adult deaths alongside these figures, the World Health Organisation's mortality statistics reveal that at least 15 million people die in low- or middle-income countries each year, mainly as a consequence of a lack of access to sufficient food, clean water, adequate shelter and medical assistance - the basic essentials that most of us in affluent countries have long taken for granted.[2]

This highlights the need for international sharing in its most immediate and critical aspect, yet an adequate response to this humanitarian emergency is far from the radar screens of our world leaders today. We don't have to wait until 2030 to end extreme poverty, for example, when we have the means to achieve far more than this within a much shorter timeframe if the political will existed.

In a recent report called Financing the Global Sharing Economy, we illustrated how governments could mobilise more than enough money to reverse austerity measures, prevent life-threatening deprivation and mitigate the human impacts of climate change. One of the key intentions of the report was to make the simple case that governments could mobilise these resources within the framework of the current economic system, and even before initiating the more complex and lengthy process of restructuring the world economy. By implementing a variety of redistributive policies, from tax and debt justice to redirecting perverse subsidies, governments could raise several trillion dollars every year to strengthen and scale up systems of sharing, both nationally and globally.[3]

An emergency programme

Yet not since The Brandt Commission's proposal in 1980 for emergency assistance to developing countries have policymakers seriously considered a large-scale transfer of resources from North to South as the first part of a program of global economic restructuring.[4] No-one talks about the Brandt Report any longer, but maybe it's time that we revisited its proposals for a number of reasons. As reflected in the two quotes below [box 1], what the Commission recognised was that the greatest division in the world today is the economic disparity between the economically-advanced and less developed countries, and it's the tensions inherent in this imbalance that poses the greatest threat to world peace. It therefore called for comprehensive negotiations between rich and poor countries with a view to restructuring the global economic framework in all its dimensions, including energy production, sovereign debt cancellation, international trade reform, re-regulation of the monetary system, disarmament, and new approaches to development finance.

More than three decades later, however, we're still dealing with all these issues in separate negotiations that often produce very little in the way of meaningful change. We've evolved a globalised system of trade and finance but without truly global democratic representation, in which decisions about economic integration are left almost entirely to the private sector and the world's most powerful countries. Despite the disparities that Brandt spoke of now reaching breaking point, we're still far away from his vision of nations coming together in a collective effort to resolve them.

Box 1:

"The crisis through which international relations and the world economy are now passing presents great dangers, and they appear to be growing more serious. We believe that the gap which separates rich and poor countries - a gap so wide that at the extremes people seem to live in different worlds - has not been sufficiently recognised as a major factor in this crisis. It is a great contradiction of our age that these disparities exist - and are in some respects widening - just when human society is beginning to have a clearer perception of how it is interrelated and of how North and South depend on each other in a single world economy."

..."Our survival depends not only on military balance, but on global cooperation to ensure a sustainable biological environment, and sustainable prosperity based on equitably shared resources. Much of the insecurity in the world is connected with the divisions between rich and poor countries - grave injustice and mass starvation causing additional instability. Yet the research and the funds which could help put an end to poverty and hunger are now pre-empted by military uses."

- Willy Brandt, in North-South: A Programme for Survival (1980)

In these respects, Brandt's vision still holds much relevance today. Granted, we need an entirely new economic paradigm that goes far beyond global Keynsian stimulus measures and North-South transfers of aid, which is what Brandt's Independent Commission particularly focused on. But what we haven't seen in government leaders since that time is the same sort of practical idealism around restructuring the world economy to close the gap between rich and poor countries, while ending hunger and extreme poverty on the basis of an international emergency.

What the last few decades have therefore made clear is that we cannot rely on governments alone to lead us toward a world of greater equity and justice, and the responsibility for change rests upon the shoulders of ordinary people in society. However, world public opinion is still not focussed on the understanding that we are in the midst of a civilizational crisis, and that we have very few years left in which to turn things around. What we need is a return of the spirit of the Brandt Report, but that energy and idealism has to be reflected in discussions around the kitchen tables of every home, and cannot be left to the bargaining tables of world leaders. With that in mind, it makes sense to reframe and update the findings of the Brandt Report in very accessible terms, and for us to be clear about the programme of priorities that governments need to implement today.

If we look at what governments need to achieve at the most basic level, there are two broad areas that can be considered [Box 2]. I've just talked briefly about the first point, which is the need for the international community to implement an unprecedented program of emergency humanitarian relief to mitigate hunger and needless deprivation across the world as a leading priority. On the second point, with regards to ensuring that those resources which are essential to life are made accessible to all people and available to future generations, there are two prominent discourses that we can draw upon if we want to talk in a comprehensive way about sharing the world's resources. With regards to guaranteeing access to basic goods and services - such as staple food, healthcare, shelter and education - we are especially concerned with the whole discourse on social protection, which has received so much attention in recent years from international agencies, governments and development economists. And the other discourse of particular importance when it comes to sharing and conserving natural resources - such as land, water, energy and the atmosphere - is the emerging (or rather re-emerging) focus on the ‘commons'.

Box 2:

What governments need to achieve in basic terms:

1. Implement an unprecedented program of emergency humanitarian relief to prevent hunger and extreme deprivation across the world as a foremost priority.

2. Establish new economic arrangements to ensure that those resources which are essential to life are accessible to all people and available to future generations. These include basic goods and services such as staple food, healthcare, shelter and education, as well as natural resources such as land, water, energy and the atmosphere

Transformative social policy

Firstly to say just a few things about social protection, it's clear that a lot of progress could be made - even within the existing economic paradigm - if the proposals for a basic level of social protection for the world's poor were implemented by governments. Around 75 or 80 percent of the world population do not have adequate social security, which is almost four out of every five people, many of whom are struggling just to survive in the poorest countries. It would therefore be a huge step forward if all the world's poor were provided with social transfers to guarantee income and food security, alongside the universal provision of essential services.[5]

However, even if the current proposals for a minimal level of targeted social protection for the world's poor are implemented, as promoted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) of the United Nations, we can expect to see continued increases in levels of poverty and inequality if the global economic system remains structurally dependent on growth, liberalisation, privatisation and deregulation. This is perhaps one reason why many NGOs and activists have little faith in the efficacy of the post-Millennium Development Goals, because they still don't question the political underpinnings of our globalised world that have led to such staggering inequalities in wealth and income.[6] It makes no sense to attempt to tackle absolute poverty on the one hand, while on the other doing little to reverse the flow of wealth from rich to poor countries that is creating such extremes of inequality in the first place.

The discourse on transformative social policy is of paramount importance in this regard, because unless there are wider structural changes to our economies and societies then it will remain impossible to ensure that everyone has access to the essentials of life as a universal human right. There are countless books and reports that spell out the kind of broad transformations of the economic framework that are needed to tackle poverty and inequality on a global level, such as major reforms and re-regulation of international trade and finance, a rethinking of development assistance, and the democratisation of global governance [Box 3]. It almost goes without saying that international actors like the IMF, World Bank and Dfid will have to abandon their neoliberal approach to development, and a wholesale change in direction is needed in order to enable developing countries to increase their public resources. The renewed interest in global tax justice is clearly a step in the right direction,[7] but it's also clear that massive transfers of resources from North to South - over and above the currently inadequate system of overseas aid - are central to financing an equitable development agenda and closing the gap between rich and poor nations.[8]

At the national level in both rich and poor countries, such transformative change means that governments will have to shift away from economic growth as the primary criterion of success or failure of economy policy, and instead see the fulfilment of basic needs and/or improved quality of life as the main yardstick of social progress. This inevitably requires a strong interventionist role for governments, and the re-regulation of economies so that market forces are no longer the decisive factor in how societies are organised. It is also dependent upon the democratic participation of all citizens who need to be empowered to articulate their real needs. And as outlined in the social policy research of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), the universal provision of public services has to be part of a country's social contract, and cannot be left to the private sector or reduced to public services only for the poor.[9]

So what we're talking about is, essentially, the politics of building social democratic welfare states - redistributing incomes to provide cash transfers to people unable to work; guaranteeing decent wages and employment security to those in work; and providing free health, sanitation and education services for everyone. Robust redistributive systems of this kind could improve the lives of millions of people in every country and dramatically reduce inequality - providing, of course, that governments and civil society are willing to take on the most powerful interests that have co-opted the political process and stand in the way of such established policies.

Box 3:

Transformative change at the national level: The politics of providing universal social protection and public services

  • Economic growth no longer the primary criterion of success or failure of economy policy.
  • The fulfilment of basic needs and/or improved quality of life as the main yardstick of social progress.
  • A strong interventionist role for governments, and the re-regulation of economies.
  • Democratic participation of all citizens.
  • Universal and de-commodified public service provision, funded by progressive income tax, corporate tax, capital gains tax etc.

    Transformative change at the global level: Structural reform to tackle poverty and inequality

    • Restructure systems of international trade: i.e. relocalisation, re-regulation, democratic self-determination.
    • Rethink international development assistance: i.e. pool aid at the international level, raise funds through an automated mechanism.
    • Reform and re-regulate global finance: i.e. public control of money creation, sovereign debt cancellation, curb speculation, stabilise currency exchange rates, control tax competition, stop tax avoidance and transfer mispricing by multinational corporations.
    • Reform the United Nations and global governance institutions: ensure they are democratic, effective, and fully representative of all nations.

    If the trend of international social policy begins to move back in this direction, perhaps one day that will mean that social and economic rights are guaranteed at the global level, and funded through global taxes or other innovative sources of financing.[10] We clearly cannot continue forever with a situation in which economic activity is increasingly global in nature, but the benefits accruing from that activity are defined by national boundaries. This has dramatic implications for the current system of overseas aid, which could instead be pooled internationally and transition towards a system of public spending at a global level, to be redistributed for global public goods.[11] This concept of global public spending in a globalised world can be readily grasped by anyone, and there is no reason why such a system could not be implemented. However what it implies is a shift in mind-set towards what is good for the world as a whole, and not just for the country we are born into, which is a universalistic mode of thinking that is arguably still lacking amongst both politicians and voters.[12]

    Sharing the planet's finite resources

    In the future, even supposing that governments implement genuinely redistributive structures and institutions at national and global levels, it will still not be enough if we only tackle redistribution after the event. Tax and welfare systems can address existing inequalities to some extent, but new economic arrangements also need to ensure that growth happens in a way that generates fewer inequalities to begin with. After several centuries of unimpeded economic growth and industrialisation, the challenge is further complicated by the need to drastically reduce carbon emissions and manage consumption levels within environmental constraints. Humanity is currently consuming natural resources at a rate 50% faster than the planet can replenish them, which means we already require the equivalent of one and a half planets to support our consumption levels.[13] Yet as countries in the South imitate the North's patterns of production and consumption, demand for resources of all kinds is increasing exponentially - especially for food, oil, land and water. Hence the issues of resource scarcity and environmental limits have risen up the global agenda in recent years, and are becoming ever more pressing due to both a growing population and rising affluence in emerging economies.

    Within a vastly overpopulated and over-consuming planet, and given the uneven distribution of the world's natural resources and economic power, there clearly exists a huge challenge for the international community to develop an entirely new paradigm for the management and distribution of world resources. Currently, the wealthiest 20% of the world's population consume at least 80% of global resources, and are therefore responsible for the vast majority of climate change and environmental destruction. Meanwhile, the poorest 20% of the population lack sufficient access to essentials such as food, clean water and energy, and account for just 1.3% of global resource consumption.[14] We also know that the poorest people are the first to suffer from the harsh effects of climate change and resource depletion, despite doing the least to cause it.

    This leads to serious issues of fairness and equity in the discussions around planetary boundaries and sustainable development. If the world's finite resources are to be made accessible to all people but consumed at a sustainable rate, then the greatest reductions in the use of natural resources has to come from the world's richest consumers. There's no doubt that more efficiency is needed in transforming natural resources to meet human needs, but the issue of resource scarcity also demands that high-income countries drastically reduce their ecological footprints, assuming that poorer nations are to be allowed to grow their economies and improve their overall material standard of living.

    The global commons

    The discourse on the global commons has critical relevance in this regard, not least in terms of harmonising consumption patterns across the world. The concept of global trusteeship is key to this transition, in which the international community recognises that natural resources form part of our shared commons, and therefore protects them from exploitation by holding them in trust for the benefit of all. This fundamental reconceptualization could enable humanity to move away from today's private and state ownership models, and towards a new form of resource management based on non-ownership and trusteeship. In line with the ‘common heritage of mankind' principle that already exists in international law, there are a number of proposals for how such trusts could be organised on a global level to incorporate the full range of renewable and non-renewable resources, including fossil fuels. For example, many of the commons that are truly global in nature, like the oceans and atmosphere, could be managed by existing or newly created United Nations agencies, or through sovereign treaties or other global institutions. And governments could also agree to the creation of a common resource pool on a global level, whereby each nation maintains sovereignty over the resources they control but agrees to an overarching program of sustainable use of that resource and the sharing of surpluses [box 3].    

    Box 4:

    The global commons - a new phase of multilateralism

    "The creation of a global resource pool entails an entirely new phase of multilateralism, in which nations collectively agree to preserve and protect the various commons of Earth and maintain a pool of shared production and goods large enough to provide for everyone's needs. In giving up a portion of their sovereignty, rich nations would recycle their excess resources through this global clearinghouse, which would then be redistributed to poor nations needing assistance. The resources required for production and the goods that are produced would go into this common pool, and the goods which people consume or use would come from it."

    - James B. Quilligan[15]

    With the world's resources held in trust and managed in the interests of all nations, it could be possible for nations to progressively equalise global consumption levels so that all human beings can flourish within ecological limits. To achieve this, over-consuming countries will need to significantly reduce their resource use in overall and relative terms, while developing countries must be able to increase theirs until a convergence in global per capita consumption levels is eventually reached. This broad concept is similar to the ‘contraction and convergence' framework as originally proposed by the Global Commons Institute, which is already widely discussed in relation to tackling climate change.[16] However the real challenge is reducing consumption levels in industrialised nations, and again many proposals exist for how to achieve this. For example, it is clear that resource management will need to be at the forefront of policymaking, and consumption-led economic growth can no longer be the goal of government policy. Much also needs to be done to dismantle the culture of consumerism, and investment must dramatically shift towards building and sustaining a low-carbon infrastructure, alongside a vast array of energy and resource efficiency measures.[17]

    The call for sharing

    This is merely to outline very broadly what it may mean if governments commit to the sharing of global resources, and to make a case for why we should relate this simple, age-old practice of sharing to international social policy and new economic thinking. The tendency of many scholars and analysts is to look at economic issues through the lens of their particular discourse or specialism, which often leads to widely different conclusions about the kind of new economic paradigm that governments need to move towards. But if progressives of all stripes are to transcend left/right political thinking and unite around common themes, what's needed is an overarching movement for change that goes beyond the divisive ‘isms' of the past.

    This is why, as an organisation, we put so much emphasis on sharing as a solution to the major crises facing humanity. Sharing is a universal principle that can help connect the work of progressive campaigners in diverse fields and in different countries, as well as provide a straightforward and yet overarching policy framework for influencing political and economic reform. We're already seeing an inchoate call for sharing being expressed on the streets in almost every country, whether it's a demand for more spending on public services, for reversing austerity policies, for an end to tax avoidance by large corporations, or for more equal rights to land and natural resources.[18] As that popular call for economic sharing continues to grow, there is a tremendous opportunity for heterodox economists and intellectual activists to link up with this rising voice of the engaged public, and to help translate these various demands for sharing into concrete social and economic policies on both national and global levels.


    [1] The Lancet, Maternal and Child Nutrition paper series, 6th June 2013.

    [2] Figures based on World Health Organization, Disease and injury regional estimates, Cause-specific mortality: regional estimates for 2008, Note: Only communicable, maternal, perinatal, and nutritional diseases have been considered for this analysis, referred to as ‘Group I' causes by the WHO. Ninety six percent of all deaths from these causes occur in low- and middle-income countries and are considered largely preventable.

    [3] Share The World's Resources, Financing the Global Sharing Economy, October 2012.

    [4] Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues under the Chairmanship of Willy Brandt, North-South: A Programme for Survival, Pan books, 1980.

    [5] Share The World's Resources, Is a ‘Global Social Floor' the Right Path for Ending Poverty?, March 2011.

    [6] cf. Thomas Pogge, Eight Ways to End Poverty Now, PassBlue, 1st May 2013; David Woodward, How progressive is the push to eradicate extreme poverty?, The Guardian, 7th June 2013.

    [7] Share The World's Resources, No Tax, No Justice, September 2011.

    [8] Isabel Ortiz and Mathew Cummins, Global Inequality: Beyond the Bottom Billion, Unicef, 2011, p. 42-3.

    [9] United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics, Geneva, September 2010.

    [10] Charles Gore, The Global Development Cycle, MDGs and the Future of Poverty Reduction, 2008.

    [11] cf. Francine Mestrum, Towards New Paradigms for Development and Solidarity, Global Policy Forum, 2nd  May 2011; Francine Mestrum, Fight Global Income Inequality, Znet, 21st August 2009 

    [12] Jonathan Glennie, A public sector for the whole world could end aid as we know it, The Guardian, 6 November 2012.

    [13] WWF et al, Living Planet Report, 2010.

    [14] Alison Doig, The Rich, the Poor, and the Future of the World: Equity in a constrained world, Christian Aid, April 2012

    [15] James Bernard Quilligan, People Sharing Resources: Toward a New Multilateralism of the Global Commons, Fall/Winter 2009, Kosmos Journal.

    [16] Aubrey Meyer, Contraction and Convergence: The Global Solution to Climate Change (Schumacher Briefings), Green Books, 2000.

    [17] cf. Chandran Nair, Consumptionomics, Infinite Ideas Limited, 2011; Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth, Routledge, 2011.

    [18] Share The World's Resources, A Global Call for Sharing and Justice, February 2011.

    Photo credit: nicolas haeringer, flickr creative commons