Global Policy Forum

Preface to "Global Poverty or Global Justice?"


By Susan George

Transnational Institute
June 2006

A quite new journal called GLOBALIZATIONS, edited by Barry K. Gills, a professor of International Relations at Newcastle University, recently published a special issue titled Global Poverty or Global Justice? [Volume 3, No.2, June 2006] The response has been such that Routledge, the journal's publisher, will now re-issue it in book form. Barry Gills, a young Fellow of TNI in the late 1980s and early 1990s, asked me for a preface to the volume, to appear later this year. He has graciously accepted that it appear on my TNI site prior to publication. We both hope this will encourage readers to look for the book later on and acquire it - I can vouch that it is well worth it.

The decision to publish as a book the Special Issue on "Global Poverty or Global Justice?" of the journal Globalizations is well-taken. With the exception of climate change, surely no question could be of such great import for our common future. This collection of articles deserves a broad audience and the present volume will help it to find one.

Rather, however, than indulging in the usual prefacer's routine noting that "A argues B and X demonstrates Y", giving each contributor deserved - certainly in the present case - praise; I want to tackle in my own way the issue that none of us, in these pages or elsewhere, can grasp in its entirety. The varieties of global injustice are too numerous, its victims too diverse, its perpetrators too devious for comprehensiveness. The title, however, "Global poverty or global justice?" asks the right question, assumes we have a choice between alternatives, and implies that sane people could not possibly want to choose global poverty.

I fear they could, they do. Consider the following: "All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind". (1) This was the view of Adam Smith, who had no illusions about capitalism. He goes on to explain how, in his own time, such an outwardly sane person preferred a pair of diamond shoe-buckles, or any other frivolous and useless thing, to the upkeep of a thousand men for a year. The masters of mankind have consistently opted for other peoples' poverty over justice and, in our own age, they are suddenly able to do so on a global scale.

We must consequently revise our philosophical scale as well. From Plato's Republic onwards, until quite recently, the pursuit of justice was seen as a task for the polis, a discrete and homogenous community; or, later, for nation-States, but certainly not for an entity so vague as "the world". How could "the world" possibly undertake such a mission? Using what tools? What laws? What democracy?

This is the new question a miscellaneous collection of geographically separated, vastly dissimilar people, with little money and none of the attributes of the masters of mankind, are, in a courageous - perhaps foolhardy - manner, attempting to answer. They have become part of a worldwide assembly with indistinct borders, a movement usually called [at least in English-speaking countries] the "global justice movement". This name is at once intuitive and innovative: time will tell if it is also hopelessly utopian. Whatever their dreams, this may well be the case, although the title of this book and the contributions it contains leave the question open and imply that they - that we - have a chance. From now on, I shall say "we".

The notion of justice surely encompasses such concepts as equity, equality, fairness, rewards and punishments, the proper satisfaction of human needs and so on. But for justice to exist in real human communities, there must above all be laws and the means to enforce them. Not for nothing are the law courts, in Latin-based languages, called "palaces of justice". Without reliable law, every struggle for human emancipation would be a Sisyphean task; every case of individual or collective victimhood would require a fresh start and the stone to be pushed up the mountain would grow heavier each time. A movement which hopes for justice yet cannot impose upon others the legitimacy, in the strongest legal sense of the word, of its objectives in the longer term is bound for disappointment and sooner or later for failure.

The quest for global justice thus demands global legitimacy and global law. Where are these to be found? Some brave texts, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are like beacons guiding us, but unenforceable. The more cynical, like Jeane Kirkpatrick, refer to this instrument as "a letter to Santa Claus". (2) Actually existing global institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation will never lead to global justice and can indeed be empirically shown to create its direct opposite. Present global rules are, on the whole, those of the unbridled free market or of military power in which wealth and might substitute for right. The longer such institutions remain in charge and such rules in force, the more deeply entrenched global injustice will necessarily become.

Furthermore, no entity one might call a global "people", as in "we the people", can be presently identified to oppose these institutions and the present rules in a coherent and unified way. During the past two centuries, in some nations, fairness and equality have visibly improved because popular struggles and elected governments, at least nominally "of the people, by the people, for the people", have instated them, but we are far from such achievements on a global scale.

We are far from them because we have no international democratic processes, machinery or institutions to work with. Even limited democracy and popular participation in the making and enforcing of law come to a brutal halt at national boundaries. While this state of affairs is not, to say the least, conducive to the establishment of global justice, it is extremely convenient for the present masters of mankind. Its laws and institutions suit their needs, and place the free-market economy on the ruler's throne. "Freedom" is not what anyone's democratic Founding Fathers understood by the word but rather the freedom of capital to go where it wants when it wants, to produce, buy and sell wherever it wants and to do so with the fewest constraints possible imposed by labour laws and social conventions. (3)

This neo-liberal road is leading humanity into a wasteland. Rather than continuing to seek fairness where it is not to be found, or worse still, giving up, let us attempt to look at the problem of global justice in a fresh way. The global justice movement has at least a few good cards in its hand. For one thing, it is encouraging that a large body of scholarly work on "globalization" and "global systems" is being assembled; this volume is one example. Many of those contributing to this corpus honour the philosophical tradition which holds that thinking requires first and foremost saying No. "Posing the negative", challenging the received wisdom, advancing the dialectic has never been more urgent.

Nor is it that difficult. Myriad proof is virtually staring honest scholars in the face. Whether they concentrate on the public or the private actors in the global system, they can find an overwhelming embarrassment of riches. International governance rules are mostly set by the institutions one is tempted to call the Terrible Triplets - Bank (4), Fund, WTO - almost entirely in the interests of their most powerful members. When confronted, they often react by changing the names rather than the substance of their policies so that, for example, the failed HIPC - for Highly Indebted Poor Countries - initiative becomes the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers; or the usual trade negotiations are labelled the Doha "Development" Round.

Despite the best efforts of these formal institutions, common or garden capitalist activities of transnational corporations and financial markets do, if anything, more damage than they do. Our present global system, based on turbo-capital and neo-liberal, Washington Consensus, free-market rules is engendering one human disaster after another. Without insisting on too many numbers, since a preface is not the best place for these, let us nonetheless cast a cursory glance at a sampling of the data.

We may take the case of debt, often identified by social movements as the most glaring of all global injustices. By 1980, the South was already seriously indebted with debt stocks amounting to $540 billion. Twenty-five years later, in 2004, the stocks had increased to $2.600 billion, nearly five times as much. Meanwhile, over the same twenty five years, these indebted countries had reimbursed $5.300 billion, almost ten times what they owed in 1980. Magic! From another perspective, we may note that after the Second World War, the United States provided war-torn Europe with the Marshall Plan, about $90 billion in today's currency. The South's reimbursements to the North have, over a quarter-century, provided the creditors with 59 Marshall Plans. (5)

Perhaps debt's most inherently revolting aspect is that people who had no role in accumulating the debts are now called upon to make enormous sacrifices to reimburse them. Borrowed money rarely reached the poor; a fair proportion of it went straight to private accounts in Northern banks. Yet now, for example, even Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest part of the world, continues to supply its creditors with $28.000 a minute. The global justice movement concentrated for a time on debt cancellation and was making headway, but the stonewalling of rich countries and institutions has continued and few countries have so far benefited. What the history of anti-debt struggles tell us that there is no level of human suffering which, in and of itself, will cause policies to be changed.

Nor were huge debt-service outflows compensated by aid, investment or other incoming funds. The net South-to-North transfer in 2004 was about $270 billion; it would have been much greater had the sums sent home by immigrants not figured in the totals. Pakistan's most lucrative export is people - remittances make up the major part of its foreign exchange; in the Philippines twenty-five million families rely on their emigrant members for survival. The calculations concerning net transfers in the North's favour do not include the yearly loss of tens of thousands of skilled workers moving from South to North in search of a better life.

Poor people and poor countries often count on exports of one, two or three commodities for their foreign exchange but the rich countries, through prohibitive import duties, deny them the possibility of processing these. In the 20 years from 1980 to 2000, the price of sugar fell by 77 %, cocoa by 71%, coffee by 64%. (6) Given that the average annual subsidy to a United States cotton farmer is about $100.000, one can calculate that, in terms of GDP per capita, a Malian cotton farmer would need about a hundred years to equal a single year of the Northerner's income from his subsidy alone. (7) The Malian is also prevented from earning a fair return on his crop since US subsidies depress world cotton prices by at least a quarter.

What of the apparently legitimate activities of financial markets, whose currency speculators and leveraged merger and acquisition artists, working for the major banks and brokerage houses, are simply doing their jobs? The International Labour Organisation tallies ninety-five countries that suffered economic and financial crises between 1990 and 2003 alone. Many of these were caused by speculative attacks against their currencies and included the imposition of much higher interest rates and sharp devaluations, ruining businesses and reducing peoples' salaries, savings, pensions, etc. by at least a third. (8)

More recently, and for good reason, the concept of ecological justice has entered the language. Present global rules and practices have even managed to increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters which one might think, erroneously, were evenly distributed. Once more, poor countries and poor people in rich ones, are disproportionately vulnerable. According to the ILO, "natural", weather-related disasters in the early years of our millennium are running at twice the rates of the mid-1990s; with some 600 million people [a great many of them poor farmers] affected by these events in 2002. This was triple the average number of victims during the previous decade. Whereas the rich emit the greenhouse gasses that advance global warming; the poor take the consequences. Ecological neglect and over-exploitation of the environment increased the devastating impact of the Asian tsunami; Hurricane Katrina hit the poor unable to flee….one could go on and on.

Presumably, however, readers of this book will have their own collection of figures, of horror stories and the proper tools to add to them. None of us really needs any further proof of injustice because we are not wilfully ignoring the evidence. What we, and above all the people most affected need is some good news about official steps taken towards justice. Here, we risk further disappointment.

The standard panaceas proffered by the conventional wisdom, notably growth and trade, are not working. The Center for Economic and Policy Research [CEPR] in Washington has carried out pioneering work showing that neo-liberal policies practiced and imposed by both public and private institutions are not contributing to growth, which has notably slowed since 1980, the very moment when neo-liberal policies began to take hold. Nor is it wise to place one's hopes in trade as today's major importers are likely to reduce their purchases drastically. (9)

The masters of mankind periodically gather to deplore the effects of poverty and injustice while remaining quite comfortable with their causes. The G-8 stops even talking about debt once the pressure is off. The achievement of the modest objectives of the Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 to be reached by 2015 will now require, we are reliably informed, over a hundred years.

The victims of injustice, particularly though not exclusively in the South, and their allies everywhere must change their future for themselves as the rich are not going to do it for them. The global justice movement, especially the scholars that count themselves part of it, can help by continuing to expose the policies that lead inexorably to poverty, and show why they do not and cannot work. Faced with well-financed neo-liberal propaganda, progressive researchers and teachers must impose their own legitimacy. It is also possible, though not always effective, to demonstrate why justice is in the interests of everyone, even of the masters of mankind.

Beyond these obvious steps, the global justice movement should take comfort in its very newness. Many would date its existence, even if several precursor moments could be cited, from the battle of Seattle against the WTO in late 1999. In historical terms, this is nothing, an instant. Hopeful signs exist all around us. Alliances are becoming easier to form as more and more groups recognise how they are being harmed by present policies. The internet works for us more than for our adversaries, reduces the costs of organising and provides alternative sources of information. Previously isolated struggles - for example, the "water wars" in Bolivia, and elsewhere - are providing templates for others and inspiring similar efforts to reclaim public water worldwide. (10)

Every month seems to bring a new, at least mildly progressive, government in Latin America. Over a hundred governments have accepted the principle of international taxation and some have made a modest start by taxing airplane tickets; opening the way for a future global fiscal policy. The failures of established international institutions are harder and harder to hide and the legitimacy of elites is less and less recognised. Imperial wars no longer succeed and resistance to them, whatever its ambiguities, is increasing. In spite of setbacks, there are more democratic governments in the world than two decades ago and people who have tasted democracy do not willingly give it up. These can help to lay the foundations for international democracy.

As the manifold oppressions of global poverty grow, so do the hopes for global justice. A sense of acute urgency must accompany them. Undoubtedly every generation sees the problems of its own age as demanding urgent solutions - think of the people who fought against slavery or who saw the rise of fascism in the 1930s. In all such times, and ours is one, neutrality is blindness; impartiality between perpetrators and victims of injustice cowardly. Let us thank the authors in this volume and the editor, Barry Gills, for being both visionary and brave.


1. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book IV Chapter 3, p. 512 in the Penguin edition of 1974.
2. This may be why President Bush in 2003 named Ms. Kirkpatrick Chairperson of the US delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Who said he has no sense of humour?
3. A prominent European businessman, now retired, called Percy Barnevik, thus defined the meaning of "globalisation" for his group of companies.
4. Terrible at the top, in any case: many people lower down are doing good work locally, for example in health and education programmes.
5. Debt figures available on the useful site of the Comite pour l'annulation de la dette du tiers-monde,
6. See Tim Kelsall's contribution to this volume.
7. Calculated from the UNDP's Human Development Report 2005 which uses Purchasing Power Parity to measure GDP per capita which in the case of Mali comes to $994. If the standard current dollar figure for GDP/capita were used, the Malian farmer would need between three and four hundred years to equal one year of average American subsidies.
8. See International Labour Organisation, Economic Security for a Better World, ILO Socio-Economic Security Programme, Geneva, 2004, pp 39-40.
9. See; particularly Mark Weisbrot, Dean Baker and David Rosnick, "The Scorecard on Development: 25 years of diminished progress", September 2005 and Weisbrot and Rosnick, "A Shrinking Market: Projections for US imports", July 2006.
10. Various authors, Reclaiming Public Water: Achievements, Struggles and Visions from around the World, Corporate Europe Observatory and Transnational Institute, 2005.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.