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Towards a rights-based economy: Putting people and the planet first

Guest content
10 December 2020

A joint report by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and Christian Aid asks a radical question: what would it look like if we had an econmomy based on human rights?

Choosing between people or the economy has become a persistent theme in political debates as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians in the UK are rejecting a free school meals plan because it would “destroy” the economy and increase “dependency”. The South African President cited “fiscal challenges” as “dictating” the government’s ability to extend its COVID-19 income support grant. The Colombian Vice-President has said that no State can afford to cover people’s basic needs.

These false “people vs the economy” dichotomies overlook a fundamental truth: people are the economy. There is no healthy economy without a healthy population where everyone can enjoy their socioeconomic rights – such as to housing, food, education and decent work.  They also shine a spotlight on the fundamental injustice at the core of our current economic model—a model that results in scarcity and precarity for the many, and unimaginable wealth and privilege for the few.

Across countries, movements and world views, people are clamoring to rethink how our economies should function and who they should serve. To advance this debate, the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and Christian Aid are launching a new publication, A Rights-Based Economy: Putting people and planet first. It asks a radical question: what would it look like if we had an economy based on human rights?

Human rights and the economy have not traditionally been spoken about in the same sentence. Slowly, this is changing. More and more voices – including social movements and progressive politicians – are making these links. Increasingly, those in the human rights movement – from UN experts to grassroots organizations – are starting to interrogate economic systems and policies. Undoubtedly, the neoliberal economic system that has calcified over the last 40 years has wrought incalculable damage on the rights of millions. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, hunger was on the rise, the gap between the rich and the poor had escalated to unprecedented extremes, and millions were living in abject poverty. It’s increasingly clear that human rights enjoyment cannot be insulated from the economy. Poverty and inequality are the product of economic policy choices made by powerful elites and corporations.

Even now, human rights organizations tend to focus on the downstream effects of bad policies decided in restricted decision-making spaces where economic orthodoxies dominate. Very rarely are rights used to build a positive, concrete vision for how to shape those policies upstream.

This report seeks to decisively break that mold. Human rights, we believe, enrich our vision of economic justice. They provide a widely agreed framework of ethical values and legal obligations that should underpin our economies; values such as dignity, solidarity and equity. Importantly, this framework is informed by a holistic understanding of human wellbeing.

The report defines a rights-based economy as one that would guarantee the material, social and environmental conditions necessary for all people to live with dignity on a flourishing planet. It sketches out some of the steps that would be needed to get there – from concrete policies to systemic shifts. The report challenges several entrenched notions about human rights – that they are irrevocably individualistic, that they are neutral on how resources should be redistributed, that they do not have radical potential. In doing so, it builds a vision for how a progressive understanding of human rights can illuminate economic policy choices. It also gives a birds-eye view of the different mindsets, models and measures needed to realize that vision.

Concrete policies – designed and implemented with human rights considerations at the forefront – will provide decisive steps on this journey. These include the robust taxation of wealth; universal and comprehensive social protection systems; reclaiming public services; and reforming and regulating corporations. But it is equally vital to pursue more seismic shifts in how power is vested and what we produce, distribute, consume and value. For example: care must be recognized as the fulcrum of our societies and economies, and valued and supported as such. Corporations would be required to prioritize the interests of their workers and the health of planet above lining the pockets of their shareholders. Respect for planetary boundaries should guide all economic decision-making and decisive action taken to prevent further climate catastrophe. The report shows how human rights can not only inform this new vision of economic justice, but also guide us on our path to achieving it.

This report marks a crucial first step under the primary objective of CESR’s new three-year strategy: envisioning a rights-based economy and catalyzing action towards making this vision a reality. We see this as a collective, collaborative, iterative process. So, this report introduces some initial ideas of what the key features, values and components of a rights-based economy might be. There is more still to flesh out and refine; to rethink and reimagine. 

In order to build out a fuller blueprint for a rights-based economy, we believe it’s crucial to reach out beyond the traditional human rights movement. Our allies in the movements for labor rights, environmental justice, racial justice, economic justice, corporate accountability and beyond have allied visions which we want to learn from, draw on and feed into. This is precisely why we chose to co-publish this first report with Christian Aid, an international organization working for economic justice worldwide. We’d love for you to join us on this journey! Please feel free to reach out on TwitterFacebook or via email with your feedback and ideas.