In pursuit of a better, fairer world

Published in Al Jazeera in February 2014

In pursuit of a better, fairer world

Tackling rampant inequality is not just a moral duty: It’s a human rights obligation.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which often feed into each other [Reuters]


About the Author
Luke Holland

Luke Holland is a researcher and communications coordinator at the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Story highlights

Development negotiations taking place in this year will have a pivotal impact on the future wellbeing of ordinary people everywhere. Relatively unnoticed by the media, a broad spectrum of consultations and talks are currently unfolding as the community of nations endeavors to agree a new sustainable development agenda that can ensure equitable socio-economic development while also guaranteeing environmental sustainability in the post-2015 era. This week (Feb-3-8) in the UN’s New York headquarters, the Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals will address one of the most pressing issues of our time: inequality. This will be the OWG’s eighth and final session before drawing up a set of concrete proposals to be presented to the General Assembly, which is due to hammer out the

Relatively unnoticed by the media, a broad spectrum of consultations and talks are currently unfolding as the community of nations endeavours to agree on a new sustainable development agenda that can ensure equitable socio-economic development. This round of negotiations will have a pivotal impact on the future well-being of ordinary people the world over.

This week, the UN’s Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals, the eighth and final session, will address one of the most pressing issues of our time: Inequality. OWG is due to draw out a set of concrete proposals to submit to the General Assembly, which is expected to hammer out the parameters of a new global development framework next September.

As demonstrated in a devastating recent report from Oxfam, global inequality has now reached historic and unacceptable levels. Tackling these increasingly pronounced disparities, both within and between countries, will be essential if future development efforts are to deliver a more just and sustainable world.

A lack of attention to inequality in the original Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed on back in 2000, left the door open to patterns of widening economic and social divergence.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which all-too-often feed into each other. Differentials in household wealth and income conspire with disparities between rural and urban areas, and inequalities along the lines of gender, disability, ethnicity, and migration status, in a dysfunctional synergy. The result is that many millions of people are shut out of development processes, their rights violated, their dreams and aspirations smothered and their potential to contribute to development wasted.

Inequality comes in multiple overlapping forms, which all-too-often feed into each other.

This is not just a question of North-South politics; the post-2015 agenda will apply to all countries, and as such its provisions on equality will have important implications for disparities within developed countries, too.

Policy-makers would do well to remember that inflated levels of income inequality were also a central factor in triggering the global financial crisis, and the ruinous human costs that came with it.

Above the law?

Ethical and instrumental considerations are not the only reasons growing disparity must be tackled head-on, however. It is also a legal obligation under international human rights law. The duty to address inequality and discrimination is contained in the principal human rights treaties which the vast majority of states have already signed and ratified, and it also lies at the core of a human rights-based approach to development, which is being demanded by civil society organizations all over the world.

Underpinning this drive is the understanding that future development efforts must be based on principles of justice, rather than charity, if they are to have a genuinely transformative impact. A human rights approach empowers citizens to influence and direct development processes themselves, and in this way addresses the structural underpinnings of inequality in a way that a traditional charity-based model cannot. Most importantly, it represents a paradigmatic and corrective shift away from the shortfalls of the current MDGs, which will expire in 2015 with few of the targets they contain being achieved.

The principles of universality and non-discrimination, as set out in the international human rights legal order, require that inequality be addressed both in law and in practice, wherever it may manifest. At the most basic level, this requires robust anti-discrimination legislation, rectifying unjustifiable wage differentials and providing for decent work. Such fundamental measures must go hand-in-hand with efforts to tackle the structural drivers of inequality, such as regressive fiscal policies and taxation regimes, egregious levels of tax abuse and evasion, weak labour market regulation and economic policies that promote “jobless growth”.

Moreover, the duty to meet minimum core standards of social and economic well-being, as confirmed by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, requires that states guarantee basic social protection floors to all people within their jurisdictions. Research by the International Labour Organization has demonstrated that this key tool in redressing inequality is affordable even in low-income countries. And in an age when the roll-back of social protection systems has exacerbated poverty and inequality in manycountries, the necessity of fulfilling this duty is more pertinent than ever.

All of these measures will be crucial to redress inequality in the post-2015 era. Policies implemented by the state and other powerful development actors only represent one side of the equality equation, however, as an empowered, well-informed and actively engaged society will likewise be necessary if the failures of the past are to be avoided this time around.

Democratising development

Arguably the greatest failing of the current MDGs is that they were conceived in a top-down manner, with states promoting development for an ostensibly passive beneficiary populace. This approach, founded in a vision of development that is itself rooted in inequality, must be turned on its head. Effective systems of accountability, participation and transparency are the tools with which this about-face can and must be achieved.

Firstly, all development actors must be held accountable for commitments set out in the new agenda. The absence of effective systems of accountability in the original MDGs meant that governments faced no meaningful incentives to deliver on their promises. In order to remedy this fatal flaw, time-bound commitments must be subject to effective monitoring of both the goals, the policy and budgetary efforts governments made to achieve them.

This question of accountability also speaks to the need for the meaningful participationof those facing poverty and discrimination in all development processes. Just as powerful development actors must be held accountable to the new goals, so those most affected by poverty and injustice must be enabled to shape the design, implementation and monitoring of development.

People living in poverty generally see their deprivation in terms of voice and power, or the lack thereof, just as much as material wealth.

Ensuring transparency by delivering timely, disaggregated data on the processes and outcomes of development efforts will be a crucial prerequisite to achieving the effective participation of vulnerable groups.

Taken together, the principles of accountability, participation, and transparency can serve to facilitate empowered citizen pressure, thereby ensuring more responsive governance and confronting the structural underpinnings of inequality. Combined with other direct measures, such as progressive fiscal policies and social protection floors, they have the potential to overcome these key obstacles to equitable and sustainable development.

In September this year, the international community will meet again, when the General Assembly considers the OWG recommendations and negotiations on the post-2015 agenda move into the final strait. Between now and then, those who would prioritise even greater accumulation of wealth for an elite few, rather than a just and sustainable future for all, will no doubt seek to influence debates and consolidate their power. The international community faces an ethical and environmental imperative to make sure short-sighted economic demands do not take precedence over social and economic justice, however.

Indeed, the real test of progress must surely be the degree to which ordinary people can access their inherent human rights and enjoy freedom from both want and fear. This is the legitimate expectation of those campaigning for a new sustainable development agenda that reflects the lived experiences of women, indigenous people, persons with disabilities and others frequently left out of the development process.

Should national governments fail to properly address equality and the human rights obligations that underpin it in the design and implementation of the post-2015 framework, they will not only be derelict in their legal duties; they also run a serious of risk of squandering the opportunity to create a better, fairer world for this and future generations. The stakes could not be higher.

Luke Holland is a researcher and communications coordinator at the Center for Economic and Social Rights. 


Globalization in Nepal be not allowed at cost of national interest

Published in Telegraph Nepal in February 2015

Prof Ram Kumar Dahal, Senior Political analyst,TU Nepal

With the process of globalization, the decision making power of the government is gradually shifting to international institutions – MNCs and donor agencies, thus weakening the former’s capability. In some cases, discussion on the topics of high importance like – national interest and priorities, national sovereignty human rights and so on – is not allowed. Under the powerful pressure of these international institutions, the national governments are forced to conclude that they have no alternative left but to accept their harsh conditions. National officials are pressured into signing on the dotted line when the Bretton Woods authorities appear in a backward country with highly sophisticated computerized statistics and already formulated policy prescriptions (Bruin, 1996: 7). The market reform processes in the developing world, as Rehman Sobhan opines, “introduced by multilateral agencies have undermined democratic institutions and disempowered states and citizens” (International IDEA, 1997: 85). In most underdeveloped countries, they have, rushed like as Schwab and Smadja opine “a brakeless train wreaking havoc” and the globalization process is “threatening a very disruptive impact on economic activity and social stability in many countries. The mood in these democracies is one of helplessness and anxiety, which helps explain the rise of a new brand of populist politicians (which) can easily turn into revolt. The human and social costs of the globalization process are multiplying to a level that “tests the social fabric of the democracies in an unprecedented way” (Klaus and Claude, 1996). “National politics has more or less has lost control. Many democratic governments are facing this problem today and people are asking why we are letting the markets rule our countries” (International IDEA, 1997: 83).

The process of globalization in Nepal, as in other countries of the Third World, has pressurized the state to redefine the traditional notion of power, legitimacy, sovereignty and political authority. It has also led to the growth of elitist democracy and the rise of a comprador class into power. People are being pulled, across the nation state for the creation of a larger political order based on different rules (as European Union) coming very close to pooling the citizen’s loyalties and shaping their common economic, political and social life (Dahal, 1998).

The transnational corporate power has been able to enhance the repressive power of the state to silence the opposition, the only viable institution resisting the harmful effects of globalization and its tools within the national boundary. Moreover, the integration of all the components of the national economy – information, transportation, labor, raw materials- to a unified system of market naturally erodes the viability of national economies and the capacity of the governments to govern. The declining capacity of the government has caused a crisis of proper political representation and raised a serious question of independent status within the state. This process has also paved the way for the depletion of the ecological base of life on this planet and marginalized the majority of the powerless citizens. The authority of governments that flowed from the institutional position and election is also decaying under the weight of planned modernity. So is the ability of the state to mediate between the contending gender identities, social classes, social groups and political parties. To-day’s well developed information mechanism (global media) has weakened the citizens’ bonds with the nation-state (such as family), faith in community, neighborhood and enhanced the power of the governments to compromise the democratic values for the satisfaction of their economic ends. In many countries, the government, political parties, national police and armies serve not the nation but, the security of these international institutions which often violate the supreme laws of the land.

As privatization and globalization processes have led citizens towards capitalization, the feeling of nationalism has become weak. Those who talk about national upliftment, nationalism and national interests are considered as the mad stray dogs barking unnecessarily without realizing the hard reality of life in Nepal. To become multimillionaire overnight and to have capital reserves in foreign banks by deceiving the people and betraying the nation have become the ideals of the political elite. The process of economic globalization has made it difficult for the rulers to rule effectively. The undermining role of the legislature in Nepal, had led to “ineffective enforcement of the law” and the “inability of the government to enact legislations that it may consider necessary for fighting corruption” (Pandey and Chitrakar, 1996: 1). If the parliamentarians are just there to endorse or ratify the readymade decisions coming through the MNCs and BWIs, what is the need of the people’s supreme legislative body in Nepal? Why cannot the MPs assert their role? The three organs of government have met on the common forum, when their personal interests were concerned. The facilities, enjoyed by them often unconstitutional and illegal especially duty free Pajero, have rendered the theory of separation of powers and the checks and balances of the organs of government redundant. Indeed the process of globalization has led to a conflict between nationalism and corporate class. The position of the VAT, as imposed on the recommendation of the World Bank, and the Arun-III became highly controversial among the nationalist forces (INHURED International, 1995; Bruin, 1996: 62).

Impact on Bureaucracy:

The de-bureaucratization process, under the pressure of the BWIs to cut down the administrative budget, brought the retrenchment of more than nineteen thousands civil servants leading to politicization of bureaucracy and political instability in the country. Under the influence of globalization, there has been a change of attitude towards Nepalese bureaucracy. The bureaucracy in Nepal is the first to be shaken. During 1990-1998, the civil servants have been moved, removed, replaced and inducted so many times with each change of government that the civil service has become paralyzed as a public institution. Obviously, the civil service remains at the mercy of the ruling authority and its role has been confined primarily to that of the executor of the ruler’s order. The democratically elected governments of Nepal during 1991-98 have thought about the “spoil system” along the line of the US which has made the bureaucracy a mere rubber stamp. “Successive governments, “have looked at the civil services not as an ally but as a rival for executive power and also as a berth for their relatives or party workers and henchmen ostensibly to ensure that their programs or ‘manifestoes’ would be carried out faithfully by their own trusted men rather than the so called civil servants appointed by an earlier government” (Malhotra, Sunday Despatch, January 25-31, 1998: p. 1). The process of globalization has led to the growth of corrupt practices in Nepal. “Eradication of corruption” “needs a broad based attack which cannot be constrained let alone eradicated without reforming the political process. The current social values sanctified by the ethos of the so called market economy and liberalization,” “need to be recast. Battle against corruption must be made an integral part of foreign aid strategy. Networking among concerns and institutions interested in clean governance and cost-effective aid must be developed” (Pandey, 1995: 1-10).

Mechanism to Minimize the Negative Effects of Globalization:

The growing negative impacts of globalization have adversely affected the operation of present day Nepalese political system. It would be, thus, essential to develop effective mechanisms to minimize them and to maximize the positive ones. In this connection, it would be essential to identify the agencies (both national and international) of globalization and to study the approaches, methods, strategies and tactics used by them to achieve their targeted goals. Are they not like the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) that once worked against Nepal’s national interests by encouraging and distributing money to the supporters of Free Tibet Movement with a view to damaging or adversely affecting Nepal’s age-old ties with its northern neighbor? It would also be appropriate to study their vested interests and their short and long term strategies separately. If it is long term one, can we sacrifice the short term interests, benefits and its side effects? Is it essential to develop a separate mechanism to meet the challenges created by them (if they are long term ones)?

In Nepal’s particular case, it is a must to search for an appropriate answer whether the reckless globalization process we are welcoming here, which does not provide goods, services and benefits to the larger masses, can be considered globalization in a real sense or not. Only a process which in fact does maximum well to the maximum number of people should be welcomed. Moreover, while adopting the process, priority should be given to the mobilization of local resources, protection of indigenous culture, promotion of sustainable development and participatory democracy at local level and the acceptance of foreign aid accordingly. The traditional socio cultural and economic organizations and the service focused NGOs should be encouraged and strengthened at local level that, in fact, does not endanger indigenous culture, life styles and habits and nationalism should be encouraged and strengthened at local level.

As Nepalese economy and polity are not self reliant, they have certainly to accept or adopt the process of globalization, but while doing so, Nepal should strictly preserve its national interest and benefits, national identity and values. Globalization at the cost of national interest should never be permitted. In order to prevent the Nepalese society from the negative effects of globalization, the political parties, political and non-political groups, interest and pressure groups and the conscious section of people have to play an important role. The political parties, with their sister organizations under their fold, in particular, have to develop national consensus over the most controversial and important issues like security, nationalism and national interests, goals and objectives; acceptance of foreign aid in different sectors, giving approval to the agents of globalization, to mention a few. A scientific and most up to date record of the agencies of globalization; NGOs and INGOs and current statistics concerning the movement of foreigners within Nepal and Nepalese citizens residing outside Nepal – must be maintained in HMG particularly in Foreign and Finance Ministries.

In order to minimize the weaknesses of globalization, the conscious section of the society has an important role to play by watching the activities of the agencies of globalizations: international institutions, NGOs and INGOs operating within Nepal’s territorial jurisdiction. They should also work as the watchdogs of democracy strictly observing the behavior of their democratic leaders, especially those in power. The political parties, like other interest and pressure groups of Nepal – the Human Rights Organizations, the trade unions, student organizations, women and youth groups, to mention a few – are trying to globalize themselves by establishing links with similar organizations throughout the world and their participation, thus, is increasing at global level. These groups could play effective roles in lessening the negative impacts of the process of globalization by stressing key concepts like nationalism, national interests, goals and objectives. They must try to make Nepal self reliant rather than emphasize dependency theories. The core laws of the state should be strengthened so as to solve the existing problems (e. g. citizenship). The share of the state in the GDP and in utilizing indigenous local resources should be increased. The public power should not benefit the comprador class and a few private individuals; rather it should be utilized for the welfare and benefit of the larger section of the people, especially the marginalized ones.

Nepal to-day needs production revolution, not the consumption one, to direct the political economy towards self-reliance and the sovereign state should enjoy complete autonomy in this respect. As this process has affected each and every sphere of Nepalese life, mass consciousness has to be aroused so as to judge to what level and extent, they should welcome the globalized agencies and for what. As to-day’s Nepalese state is based on class and is largely determined by money power, it has in fact promoted elitist democracy and the outright betrayal of the mass and participatory democracy, though the ruling elite never admits this openly. Nepal should also actively participate in the regional process strengthening its relations with the neighboring countries and stopping reckless globalization. A powerful and active cell in the governmental machinery particularly within the Ministry of Finance and Foreign Affairs should be established to overview the impacts of globalization, particularly towards minimizing its negative effects on Nepalese polity

As nationalism is a strong device to mitigate the evils of globalization, its base should also be strengthened; and the people’s legitimate right to development should be established. When the public sector becomes weak, it negatively affects the state and thus the concept of good governance should also be encouraged so as to encounter the negative impacts of globalization. The parliamentarians, the most trusted and democratically elected leaders of the people, should play assertive and dynamic roles within and outside parliament in minimizing them. Instead of putting their Lyapche or approving blindly the ready-made package policies prepared by BWIs and other institutions, the MPs should effectively play the policy making role keeping in view the key concepts of nationalism, national interest and public welfare. The power elite can play an effective and dynamic role in this direction. They should serve the interests of the electorate who have elected them, not to the BWIs, other international institutions, INGOs businessmen, comprador class and a few elites or their Yes men and the so called the Tatha-Batha or their Chumchas only. They must not be guided by personal interests but by nationalistic concepts, national interests and objectives. Moreover, the cabinet itself can develop an effective mechanism or cell to check the negative impacts of globalization.


The impact of globalization on the Nepalese polity is two-fold. On the one hand, it has helped to democratize, liberalize and decentralize the power of the state while on the other, it has stripped away the vital decision- making power of the government to govern: to formulate public policies and execute them. Globalization has also led to the homogenization of the ideologies of mainstream political parties, induced “identity politics” and generated political factionalism.

The effect of globalization on the Nepalese polity is the proliferation of laws, rights, and institutions without corresponding increase in enforcing mechanisms, resources, responsibilities and viabilities for policy effectiveness. The levers of globalization (privatization, denationalization, decontrol, deregulation, etc.) have made Nepalese democracy a surrogate of market forces and delinked the social web of state power. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-racial society where development is uneven, the globalization process has intensified the rich-poor, urban-rural gaps, notwithstanding its positive contribution to renewed consciousness towards the universalization of rights, international cooperation, gender issues, environmental ethics, and a move toward demilitarization of development. How can the Nepalese citizen enforce accountability of their leaders, maintain the transparency of the regime, and legitimacy of their political order? Evidently, the answer lies more on devising the competitive ability of the citizens to obtain benefit from the global distribution of opportunities and minimizing the risks, social, economic and political in nature to the multi party dispensation. Text courtesy. Impact of Globalization in Nepal, NEFAS publication, 1998. Thanks NEFAS and the distinguished author Dr. Dahal. Some more to follow: Ed. 

The Future Role of Civil Society

Published in Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and Work Affairs in January 2013

The Future Role of Civil Society examines the evolving role of NGOs, labor organizations, and faith groups, among others, in building civil society in the global arena. The report is a compilation of insights from over 200 leaders in government, business, international organizations, and civil society at large, 80 expert interviews, and 5 related workshops. The report aims to engage civil society in reaction to anticipation of ongoing changes in politics, technology, economy, as well as government, business, and international organization leaders who are interested in further collaborating with civil society actors. It includes discussion of the role of religious leaders, faith communities, and faith-based organizations in building civil society. The World Economic Forum partnered with KPMG to produce the report.

Download the Report

The Power and Potential of Southern Think Tanks for the Post-2015 Agenda

Published in The Hewlett Foundation Blog in November 2014.

Work in Progress

The Power and Potential of Southern Think Tanks for the Post-2015 Agenda 

November 14, 2014 — By Sarah Lucas and Rachel Quint

The preliminary findings of the Post-2015 Data Test, as described in Part 1 of this post,  add up to an important action agenda – one with both technical and political ramifications. On the technical side, it is clear that many countries have a long way to go to meet the data needs to measure against the Post-2015 agenda. The missing or weak data inspire an action agenda around a need for increased data coverage, quality, consistency, disaggregation, timeliness, and so on.

On the political side, the lessons across the seven country studies revealed a lot of tricky questions. How can we have common sustainable development goals (SDGs) that are both a rallying cry at the global level, yet meaningful at the country level? If you set and measure against country specific targets to make them more meaningful at home, where is the global accountability? Is there value in having a “global minimum standard” for some goals, if these minimums are long surpassed by the richest countries and out of reach for the poorest? Should we include goals in new and important areas, even if we don’t know how we’ll measure them? Why aren’t ministries of foreign affairs, who are leading negotiations, talking with national statistical offices who manage data? How do you build “demand” for solid data among policy makers and advocates? Who will pay to fill all the data gaps at the country and global level? This is a pretty complicated agenda, being hashed out in abstract through the UN process, and brought vividly to life by the data test country studies.

It’s tempting, as one (rather prominent) speaker at the Data Test event suggested, to keep these technical and political agendas separate. Keep the technical side to the statisticians. Limit their job to telling us which goals are measureable, and gathering data when we need it. Leave the political questions to the negotiators, the high-level representatives of the 193 UN member states. Put differently, and very dramatically, by one participant, “our data cannot be more revolutionary than our societal goals.”

However, the dichotomy of technical versus political misses an important point — these two parts of the agenda are deeply connected.  The reason we have the data we have, and don’t have the data we don’t have, is all about politics. The politics of who decides what gets measured, who funds data collection in developing countries (hint: most often donors), what populations remain unmeasured and therefore officially invisible (hint: poor, minority, or remote communities). None of this is by accident. As Debapriya Bhattacharya of the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh put it at the New York event, it is an “embedded social political relationship.” Rather than waiting for our societal goals to get more inclusive before we push our data to be, let’s use the gaps in data to inform how our societal goals need to shift!

To keep this dichotomy at bay, we need to proactively build bridges between the technical and the political sides. Who can do this well? We would argue that policy research centers – think tanks – in the global south are particularly well positioned to do this.

Think Tanks, like those involved in the Data Test and in the Southern Voice on Post-MDG International Development Goals network, naturally inhabit the in-between space between the technical and the political, bridging these worlds with research and policy engagement.

In fact, there are at least 5 bridges that southern think tanks can build to make the Post-2015 agenda more compelling at the global level and more meaningful at the country level.

Bridge #1 — Between using data to measure goals and achieve the goals. So far there has been much more focus on the data needed to measure the progress against the SDGs. But what about the data policy makers need to make decisions, target populations, set priorities and allocate budgets toward achieving the goals?  Think tanks in many countries play a leading role in translating data into information policy makers can actually use to inform decisions.

Bridge #2 — Between what is currently measurable and what must be measured. In the broiling debates about how many goals we should have, it would be too easy to narrow the list of development goals by just taking off the ones that can’t currently be measured. But this would leave us without any of the new and controversial topics like governance, human rights and environment. Rather, negotiators should have the courage to keep in goals that truly matter for development, and commit to finding new ways to measure them. Well-timed research from the domain of think tanks could play an important role in filling this gap.

Bridge #3 — Among government entities in a given country. Almost all the Data Test scholars lamented the poor communication among ministries of foreign affairs, line ministries, and national statistical offices. This creates challenges for setting goals that are meaningful and measurable at the country level, and will wreak havoc on any efforts to actually implement the goals. Think tanks have the power to help here too, simply by convening. Having spent over six years in the U.S. government, one of us can vouch for how different agency officials scramble to get on the same page if they have to appear together on a panel. This may seem like a blunt instrument, but it works!

Bridge #4 — Between the national and global. The bridge between a mobilizing global Post-2015 agenda and targets that are tailored enough to be meaningful at the country level will be hard to build, particularly in the abstract. It will be critical to have people and organizations – beyond official government negotiators – shuttling between the national and global priorities.  Southern Voice provides a great platform for country-level think tanks to bring country-level priorities to the global stage, and to bring global-level accountability to national discussions about the Post-2015 agenda.

Bridge #5 — Between civil society and governments. Who will hold national government accountable for negotiating positions that reflect citizens’ priorities, and for implementation against the globally-agreed goals? Civil society organizations will play a critical role here. Who will provide the data, research, and analysis, to make civil society’s advocacy stronger, and government decision-making more evidence-based?  You guessed it – policy research centers.

So, for all the statisticians and political negotiators alike, keep Southern Voice and other think tanks on your radar screen. They can be a critical actor in getting to a set of goals that are both ambitious and achievable, both aspirational and (eventually) measurable, and both agenda-setting and implementable!

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