Global economic justice


by Daniel Little

My subject here is the role of ethical principles in the conduct of economic development planning and strategy. Bluntly, what does justice in development involve, and why should policy makers care?

The field of “development ethics” has been around for at least fifty years, since the publications of Gunnar Myrdal (Myrdal, 1968). But it has received more focus and attention in the past thirty years, led by the brilliant work of Amartya Sen. Sen has many qualifications for theorizing about the ethics of development. He is a Nobel prize winning economist, he is an Asian by birth, and he has a penetrating mind when it comes to issues of the greatest importance – famine (Sen, 1981), the treatment of women in developing countries (Sen, 1990), and the nature of wellbeing (Sen and Hawthorn, 1987), to name several.

It is sometimes thought that the study of ethics is not very “practical”. It is thought to be too theoretical and general to offer guidance in real-world dilemmas, it is perhaps too Eurocentric, and it perhaps depends on assumptions that are highly debatable (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, …).  And, most concerning, it might be thought that ethical theories ultimately don’t give clear guidance in the most important areas of action. Perhaps some of these concerns are legitimate. But I am here to argue that none of these failures create much difficulty when it comes to topics concerning just economic development.

Because really, almost all of us can be brought to agreement about the fundamentals of human wellbeing and equity. We do not need a highly technical philosophy of justice to arrive at a very robust set of principles to guide our thinking.  The greatest challenge we face is not that the requirements of justice are hard to discover. Rather, it is that powerful interests in the world have purposes that are flatly contrary to the requirements of justice. So the real challenge for us is to find ways of improving the justice of our global society in the face of powerful countervening pressures based on private interests.

I will argue, further, that addressing this challenge is of the greatest importance to humanity. Injustice is a causal force in the world, and it is a force that leads to conflict, violence, and human destruction.  Rightly understood, injustice is a tectonic force that leads eventually to powerful earthquakes. But unlike plate tectonics, we can do something about the social forces associated with injustice. And we must, if we are to help our planet evolve to a more peaceful and harmonious condition.  And this is, after all, the topic before us at this Beijing Forum.


The current reality

Critics of globalization have emphasized several central themes in recent years.  Does globalization inevitably involve the exploitation of poor countries by rich countries?  Do multinational corporations acquire too much power in an increasingly globalized world?  Does the pace of globalization create economic processes that lead to environmental harms—perhaps disproportionately in poor countries?  Do these processes lead to conditions of labor throughout the world that are inconsistent with reasonable standards of human development and well-being?  And does the process of globalization lead to intensification of inequality, both between rich and poor countries, and within developing countries themselves?

The facts about poverty and inequality in the developing world are well known.[1] Poverty is endemic and debilitating in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  There has been some progress on poverty, not on inequality in the past decade, and much of the progress on poverty has occurred in China.  There is famine in Africa and North Korea and substantial food insecurity in many countries in Asia and Africa. There remains a very serious power imbalance within and across countries, leading to mistreatment of the poor as individuals and as populations. There is endemic predation of resources by powerful insiders in many countries — Myanmar, Brazil, and even India, for example.  And there are all too many examples of governments that trample on the rights, wellbeing, and dignity of their own populations, and of powerful outsiders taking advantage of weaker countries for resources — agriculture, water, minerals.[2]

The extent and depth of poverty in the world today is a crushing and immediate problem. The economies of many countries in the world continue to reproduce life circumstances for the extremely poor that make it all but impossible for them to participate in normal, productive lives. The Millennium development goals that were endorsed by the United Nations and other national and international organizations are still far from realization. At least a billion people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America live in extreme poverty (defined by the United Nations as per capita income less than a dollar a day), and a larger number are subject to hunger and malnutrition. This is an accumulation of misery and despair that cannot be tolerated.

Poverty alleviation can be understood to mean a variety of things: ensuring that families have higher disposable income, ensuring that families have access to the goods necessary to satisfy their basic needs; or creating social safety nets that help to provide the means of health, nutrition, and education that are fundamental to improving the productivity of the poor. And all of this implies two important consequences: the world economy needs to grow consistently for a very long time, and the purchasing power of the poorest 40% of the world’s population needs to increase more rapidly than the growth rate. Overall inequalities need to decline as economic growth proceeds. Getting out of poverty means, among other things, having access to more of society’s resources for the sake of consumption: better diet, healthcare, education, transportation, housing, clothing, and other goods. And this is critically important, because as Amartya Sen has argued throughout his career, poverty obliterates human potential and opportunity. It destroys the individual’s “capabilities and functionings” for life.

Now consider the environmental side of the coin. Sustainability means designing a social and economic system that is eventually … sustainable. It means using non-renewable resources in a way that permits future generations to have the ability to achieve the things they will need to do; it means using renewable resources in ways that permit replacement; it means managing water and air quality in such a way that we’re not locked into a downward spiral of worsening quality in these essential resources; and, of course, it means managing human activity in ways that permit control of global climate change. Experts like James Gustave Speth (Speth, 2008) have argued that these goals can only be met by damping down the consumption patterns of the world’s affluent billion. But how will that work for the world’s poorest billion?

In addition to issues having to do with poverty and wellbeing, a view of the world that is attuned to justice needs also to consider a second range of issues: conditions of labor, access to healthcare and education, and freedom from violence and coercion.

A major obstacle to global justice is the fact of a set of power arrangements that badly work against the interests of the poor and disadvantaged. Power – exercised by both governments and private organizations – has large and measurable effects on the conditions of life and freedom of people in the developing world.  Governments and private organizations have interests that lead them to use power to take advantage of individual citizens.  And the arbitrary and lawless exercise of power against individuals is palpably unjust.

We might define power in these terms: “access to social and material resources that permit an individual or group to control or influence social outcomes, including the behavior of other individuals and groups, the distribution of things, and the configuration of social institutions.” And we can give a simple schematic description of the chief mechanisms and tactics through which control and influence are exercised in contemporary society: coercion, threat, manipulation of the agenda, manipulation of information and thought, and positional advantage.

C. Wright Mills (Mills, 1956) offered an account of power in the United States that had radical implications.  He held that there is a small subset of the American population that (1) possess a number of social characteristics in common (for example, elite university educations, membership in certain civic organizations); (2) are socially interconnected with each other through marriage, friendship, and business relationship; (3) occupy social positions that give them a durable ability to make a large number of the most momentous decisions for American society; (4) are largely insulated from effective oversight from democratic institutions (press, regulatory system, political constraint). They are an elite; they are a socially interconnected group; they possess durable power; and they are little constrained by open and democratic processes.

A major source of power derives from a threat of violence. Recent events in various countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have thrown the spotlight on the use of violence against innocent citizens who are challenging one aspect of power or another.  A common source of power conflict arises over land seizures by private developers, often in league with local officials. What these incidents reflect is a disturbing and apparently growing incidence of the use of violence by private security companies against groups of citizens who are engaging in a variety of efforts to protect their interests or advance their claims. These incidents of violence also occur at the hands of police.

What these reports suggest is a very sober reality: that under current conditions in many countries, ordinary groups of people are subject to the imposition of serious violence if they come together to press their claims. There are reports of violence by paid thugs concerning migrant workers, factory workers, peasants subject to land confiscation, and ordinary poor people who have somehow gotten into conflict with the authorities.

What this demonstrates is that the forging of an effective and binding legal order — one that clearly articulates and defends the civil and individual rights of citizens that are valid even in circumstances of conflict between the powerful and the powerless — creation of this legal order is a profoundly important goal for every society. Only on the basis of these kinds of legal guarantees can civil society be an arena in which citizens and groups can advocate for their interests in a peaceful and progressive manner.

These current realities have major implications for justice. They imply relations of exploitation, based on superior power. They imply deprivation of some populations of the resources needed for a decent life. They imply a suppression of basic human freedoms, like the freedom to make choices for him/herself or the freedom to express opinions and participate in a public form of decision making.

We can turn these observations of the contemporary world into components of a theory of global justice.  Political and economic institutions need to create conditions in which citizens enjoy —

  • Freedom from exploitation
  • Effective rule of law
  • Freedom from violence and coercion
  • Freedom from poverty and hunger
  • Access to the necessities of human development: education, healthcare, housing, and nutrition

Basis for a theory of justice in development

What kinds of ethical ideas are relevant to formulating a framework for thinking about global justice?  How can philosophy help in clarifying what basic justice requires in development?

The moral consensus 

There is a clear and reasonably uncontroversial basis for a simple theory of justice that all nations and cultures can accept. This is grounded in a few core values about human development and is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millenium Development Goals, and other founding documents of the United Nations. [3] This conception emphasizes several key values:

         equal worth of all persons

•         value of freedom

•         value of democracy and self-determination

•         the injustice of hunger, lack of education, lack of healthcare

•         the injustice of capricious arrest and state violence (illegality)

These values underlie most of the Millennium Development Goals formulated by the United Nations:

•         Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

•         Achieve universal primary education

•         Promote gender equality and empower women

•         Reduce child mortality

•         Improve maternal health

•         Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases

•         Ensure environmental sustainability

•         Develop a global partnership for development

•         A charter for international cooperation in development.

These values provide a basis for steering our core institutions and practices in the direction of greater justice: whenever it is possible to reform institutions and practices in ways that enhance one or more of these factors, we should do so.  Policy makers and legislators can ask the question, how will this or that change to a set of institutions affect the well-being of individuals and populations affected; how will the change affect the freedoms and opportunities for self-determination of the people affected; how will it work to increase the effective scope of law within various societies?

Sen’s capabilities approach

Are there philosophical principles that would provide a secure foundation for these commonsensical ethical ideas?  There are.  Here I will focus on the insights that Amartya Sen has provided within economics and development theory on the subject of global justice and the ends of development. [4] Sen’s most recent work on global justice topics is his The Idea of Justice (Sen, 2009), in which he offers an alternative to John Rawls’s approach to the problem.  Here he gives primacy to the value of full human development as a benchmark for global justice, and he advocates for the importance of piecemeal, practical improvements for the condition of the disadvantaged.  His whole career, however, lays the basis for his current thinking about global justice.

So what does global justice require? A society is more just when it does a better job overall of enabling its citizens to realize their capacities and freedoms.  Sen argues that the fundamental goal of development should be to create social and economic institutions within which every individual is enabled to fulfill his/her capabilities and to realize the functionings of a full human life (Sen, 1999).  And Martha Nussbaum extended this idea with particular emphasis on the ways in which gender inequalities in development have deeply harmed women in the developing world (Nussbaum, 2000). [5]

Sen’s writings have done much to clarify the human reality of economic development. His special contribution has been to establish the linkages between the philosophical theories and ideas in this tradition, on one side, and the practical exigencies of economic development planning, on the other. He argues for the importance of creating conditions in which people can fulfill and actualize their human capabilities. In his lectures on the standard of living, Sen distinguishes between a commodity-based definition of the standard of living and a “human functioning” view of well-being (Sen and Hawthorn, 1987). His seminal insight is that we are centrally concerned with the human being in possession of a bundle of capabilities that can be either realized or impeded through the economic and social environment in which the person is located. Living well means having the opportunity to fully develop one’s capabilities, to formulate a satisfying plan of life, and to have reasonable freedoms and opportunities to carry out one’s life plan.

The basic insight here is that economic well-being is best defined in terms of the individual’s freedom to become a fully functioning human being. “In assessing the standard of living of a person, the objects of value can sensibly be taken to be aspects of the life that he or she succeeds in living. The various ‘doings’ and ‘beings’ a person achieves are thus potentially all relevant to the evaluation of that person’s living standard” (Sen and Hawthorn, 1987 : 29). If we were fortunate enough to live in a world in which all persons, rich and poor, were fully able to realize their human capacities, then the issue of poverty and wealth would be of minimal concern. In our world, however, the limitations on personal development imposed by poverty are all too obvious.  Clearly, malnutrition, illiteracy, poor health, boring and dangerous work conditions, and early mortality are serious obstacles standing in the way of full human development for the poor.

Sen’s theory of “capabilities and realizations” supports a good answer to questions about life satisfaction and the bad of poverty. Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshaled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill’s theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism; Mill et al., 1974.)

The key idea expressed in Commodities and Capabilities (Sen, 1985) and subsequently in Sen’s work is that well-being is the aggregation of the individual’s collection of functionings.  “It is possible to argue that the well-being of a person is best seen as an index of the person’s functionings” (17).

On what does the claim of functionings to reflect well-being rest? Basically, the claim builds on the straightforward fact that how well a person is must be a matter of what kind of life he or she is living, and what the person is succeeding in ‘doing’ or ‘being’. (19)

Sen thinks about this formulation in formal terms: the person’s functionings are represented as a vector of qualitatively distinct characteristics, and one of the central problems is to assign relative values to the components of the package.

The primary specification of a person’s well-being is in terms of a functioning vector bi. It can be converted into a scalar measure of well-being only through a real-valued ‘valuation function’ vi(.), mapping functioning vectors into numerical representations of well-being. (33)

Sen’s approach to well-being is appealing largely because it replaces “utility” with a more granular conception of “functionings”.  This permits more concrete discussion of the individual’s life activities and, as Sen argues here, a better way of assessing his/her overall well-being.

What has turned out to be enormously important in Sen’s framework of capabilities and functionings is its relevance to the topic of economic development.  We want economic development to lead to an overall improvement in human happiness.  But how should such a goal be assessed and measured?  By offering a concrete theory of functionings, Sen lays a basis for attempting to empirically measure changes in functionings over time.  Literacy, for example, is an important functioning for the human being.  Extremely poor societies invest very little in formal education, and literacy in the population is low.  We can make a very concrete argument that a given strategy of development is improving human well-being if we can demonstrate that it is leading to a higher level of attainment of literacy.  Health itself is a complex functioning for the human being; here too, it is possible to measure progress in health achievements in different societies.  So the functionings approach provides a concrete way of trying to assess progress in economic development processes.  The approach is a great improvement over the “average GDP” approach, since Sen demonstrates in numerous places that average income implies something about access to commodities, but it has only a weak connection to the functionings that the population is able to realize.

This philosophical approach puts the emphasis on the realization of the human person’s most essential capabilities.  This raises an immediate question, however: What are the most important and universal human capabilities? Martha Nussbaum attempts to provide a fairly specific answer to this question. She, like Sen, defines human well-being in an objective way, by identifying a set of core capabilities that are critical to full human functioning. The individual’s level of well-being is assessed by the degree to which his or her circumstances permit the realization of these capabilities. The core of the theory is a principled account of a set of fundamental human capabilities that are held to be essential to a good human life. The Aristotelian origins of the approach are manifest. Nussbaum contends that we can say a great deal about what is needed for a good human life, and this account is substantially independent of cultural variations (that is, human beings have the same capabilities for functioning in a wide variety of social and cultural settings).  She believes that the capabilities involved in a good human life may be listed and justified, and the resulting list can serve as both a guide and a critical standard for development policy.  Her analysis enumerates ten specific capabilities. [6] She characterizes the significance of this list in these terms: “My claim is that a life that lacks any one of these capabilities, no matter what else it has, will fall short of being a good human life” (Nussbaum and Glover, 1995:85).[7]

A particular advantage of Sen’s approach to development ethics is the fact that it has direct, practical implications.  When we consider the complexity and difficulty of improving the justice of fundamental international institutions and relations, the program of arriving at an ideal theory seems unappealing.  Instead, we need to have some plausible and action-supporting principles that allow for practical improvement in the overall justice of the global system. We need to have some concrete ideas about how to get from here to there.  Sen’s emphasis is on enhancing justice, not creating an entirely new theory of justice.  In this respect he departs from the perspective taken by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (Rawls, 1971).

This is the approach taken by Madison Powers and Ruth Faden in their study of the ethics of global public health (Powers and Faden, 2006). They too are looking for a theory of justice that provides an incremental strategy for improving the conditions of justice in the world.  And in fact, the premises mentioned above conform fairly closely to the six dimensions of personal well-being that Powers and Faden highlight: health, personal security, reasoning, respect, attachment, and self-determination.  What is evident in their analysis is that Powers and Faden are bringing the perspective of public health into the discussion of global justice.  Here the emphasis is on “enhancing” justice rather than providing a conception of ideal justice.  Like Sen’s work, Powers and Faden are determined to be practical: their theorizing should assist policy makers in their deliberations as reforms are considered.

This approach — the idea that we can improve justice in a piecemeal way — spares us the unrealistic pretense of offering a general, universal theory of justice that we hope or expect all people can be persuaded to accept. It works from the point of view that injustice is more specific and more widely agreed upon. We don’t need to engage in irresolvable debates about whether there are universal human rights in order to agree that the world will be more just if fewer people are forced into famine conditions. Sen refers to this approach as “comparative justice”. [8]

The Human Development Index championed by the United Nations Development Programme takes advantage of the insights contained in the capabilities approach (United Nations Development Programme, 2011).  HDI includes three measures: life expectancy, literacy, and per capita GDP.  A very powerful argument can be made that societies that make the most progress in improving their HDI levels have made more progress in improving human well-being than those that increase GDP but fail to improve factors like literacy and health.  It will not surprise the reader to learn that Sen’s writings and advocacy played a crucial role in the design of the HDI.

The workings of the HDI within the UNDP and the international community provide a marvelous example of the central argument of my talk today: thinking about justice matters, and good ethical reasoning can have material effects towards improving the well-being of the world’s population.  The links from the philosophy of well-being to the formulation of a set of United Nations measures of development to changes in the behavior of national governments to improved outcomes for the world’s poor are particularly clear in this case.  Here we see a “ratcheting” of better outcomes through design of policies and measures that conform to good ethical thinking.


Why honor justice?

Most people would probably say they would prefer to live in a more just world to a less just one. There is a strong moral basis for preferring justice. But is this a consideration that states and large international organizations need to take into account as they design their strategies and plans for serving their present and future interests? Do national governments have good practical reasons to think about the consequences their policies and actions may have on the circumstances of justice in the world? What about policies and actions through which states attempt to secure their future economic wellbeing — do policy makers need to pay attention to the social justice consequences of these actions?

There is a strong empirical and historical case for thinking that the answer to this question is “yes.” Injustice is a source of resentment, indignation, and conflict. In the long run, the victims of injustice will not be ignored. Justice is a security issue for states and supra-national organizations, and simple prudence demands that policy makers take it into account. To put a simple label on this idea, justice is a security issue. [9]

What are the theoretical and historical arguments for this conclusion? Here are several.

On the side of theory, several points are well established. Chronic and unrelieved poverty leaves people with low attachment to their own societies and less for the global community. The frustration of very basic human needs is bound to fuel indignation and resistance. So poverty and deprivation are causes of resistance. But there is also evidence that inequality itself has negative consequences for a society’s health; this is the central finding of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010). Finally, the social psychology created by a system that is perceived to be unfair and exploitative is likely to breed resistance and lawless action. Barrington Moore, Jr. was right when in Injustice (Moore, 1978) he wrote:

Without strong moral feelings and indignation human beings will not act against the social order. In this sense moral convictions become an equally necessary element for changing the social order, along with alterations in the economic structure. (469)

Gareth Stedman-Jones summarizes Barrington Moore’s conclusion in these terms: “His argument is that human beings in stratified societies accept hierarchies of authority, so long as these hierarchies are not merely imposed by force, but based upon an ‘unwritten’ social contract, which binds together dominant and subordinate groups in a set of mutual obligations”.

So there are good empirical reasons, based in social psychology and the study of contentious politics, for expecting that injustice breeds conflict. It is not difficult to find very strong confirmation for this view in the events of the day, from Egypt to Thailand to Great Britain.

Are there historical demonstrations of the consequences of injustice for disorder? There are. We have the examples of slave revolts throughout the Americas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia following World War II; the sustained resistance of the Burmese and East Timor peoples to dictatorship; and the sustained struggle for equal rights in the United States by African Americans, sometimes punctuated by major urban riots. In each case a set of social institutions had been created that were profoundly unjust for a sizable population, and this population gathered resolve and courage in opposing those arrangements.

So the conclusion seems clear. If we want to have a world in which there is a sustainable level of the rule of law and a low level of social conflict, we need to invest in justice. We need to work to create a system in which all peoples can satisfy their most basic human needs; where everyone can feel that he/she is respected in her humanity; and where no one judges that the basic structure of social life is exploitative.

In other words, states are well advised to actively include the basic requirements of justice in their plans for the future. Otherwise they are simply creating the tinder for future conflict.  And this is true in the global system as well.


Global civil society

Let us conclude by considering what a just global community might look like.  Here I will discuss the idea of a “global civil society.”  A civil society is one that is characterized by multiple associations, free activities and choices by individuals, and a framework of law that assures rights and liberties for all citizens. It is a society with multiple forms of power and influence, minimizing the potential for exploitation and domination by powerful elites or the state. And it is a society in which citizens have developed a sense of mutual respect and consideration for each other. The fact of civil association serves to enhance the strength of collective identities among citizens, by building new loyalties and affiliations. Citizenship and unity are built through association with other citizens and the knowledge that they can pursue their interests and values through their associations. [10] But we can emphasize as well the importance of civil associations as a counterweight to the power of the state. Citizens have greater security when they can be confident that the state cannot act against their interests with impunity.

What is involved in sustaining a civil society?  There are several factors that are particularly important. There is solidarity—a degree of shared identity among the individuals who make up the society as groups with interests in common. There is a sense of justice—confidence that the basic institutions are fair to all. There is confidence in the future, that one’s children will have reasonable (and improved) life prospects. There is a sense of dignity—of being treated with human dignity, of being assigned equal human worth. And there is a need for stable, fair, and predictable institutions that give citizens the confidence that they can pursue activities, form associations, and engage in civil discourse without fear. When these conditions are satisfied we can have the greatest confidence in the stability and flourishing of a civil society. [11]

This formulation invokes a conception of society that is familiar from John Rawls’s theory of justice: “as a fair system of cooperation over time from one generation to the next, where those engaged in cooperation are viewed as free and equal citizens and normal cooperating members of society over a complete life” (Rawls, 2001: 4). Citizens within a well-ordered society respect one another; they have confidence that their most basic interests are fairly treated; and they have confidence that the basic institutions of society permit them fair access and permit them to pursue their conceptions of the good. A well-ordered society is thus a powerful and pervasive foundation for a stable society, and justice is an important causal factor in sustaining and reproducing a society. The underlying hypothesis is that shared moral values, including particularly the values, that determine the terms of social interaction, create the grounds of stability in a society. And profound disagreement about these values creates the possibility of serious conflict.

These ideas find their most common application in the context of local or national communities. How does this concept pertain to the idea of a world society? Is there any meaning we can assign to the notion of a global civil society? Or does this concept apply only to connected populations engaged in face-to-face interactions with each other? Is a global civil society feasible? This would be a world in which all persons recognize and respect the human reality and worth of all others—near and far. It is a world in which people are tied together through cross-cutting civil associations—local, national, and international.  These may include labor organizations, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, or religious groups. It is a world in which persons share a sense of justice—they share a basic agreement on the essential fairness of the institutions that govern their lives. And it is a world in which all people have grounds for hope for the future—that there are opportunities for them to improve their lives, that they will have fair access to these opportunities, and that their children will have better lives than they themselves have had. Such a world has every prospect of sustaining stable, peaceful, and civil social life—both local and international.

How does a theory of global justice relate to this vision? [12] The connections are profound. Justice requires an urgent commitment to ending poverty throughout the world. It requires a commitment to democracy and human rights—and the effective legal institutions that can secure both. It entails adherence to the values of fairness and human equality, and the importance of reshaping international institutions with these values in mind. And these are precisely the values that are needed to establish the basis of peaceful civil society. If these values are genuinely and deeply embedded in our planning for the future—and if the people of the developing world become convinced that these are real, guiding priorities for the people and governments of the wealthy world—then the potential bonds of international civility will be established. And at the country level the positive institutions of law, democracy, and economic opportunity will reinforce the values of civility and mutual respect.

So the important values that pertain to just global development are arguably critical to a decent future for humanity. A world order that is not grounded in a permanent commitment to human dignity and justice is not only criticized from the perspective of morality. It is likely to be an increasingly unstable and violent arena for deep and desperate conflict. So for our own sakes and for the sake of future generations we need to commit ourselves in practical and enduring ways to the establishment of global justice, an end to poverty, and the extension of effective democratic and human rights to all persons in all countries.

Three specific points are particularly central. First, poverty is not simply a problem for the poor or for poor countries. Rather, it is a problem for the world, and one that we must confront with determination and resources. This means that we need to develop plans that have a likelihood of success for poverty alleviation; we need to work toward the political consensus that will be needed in order to carry these plans out; and we need to exercise our democratic rights and voices so as to bring about the large commitment of resources that will be needed.  The Millennium Development Goals place this as the first priority.

Second, the equality of worth of all persons is an essential moral fact. All persons are equally deserving of attention. And much follows from this fact. The extreme inequalities of life prospects between citizens of the north and the south are inconsistent with this principle. The persistence of anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes throughout the developing world is inconsistent with the equal rights and worth of the citizens who suffer under those regimes. And the inequalities of voice that are present in current international institutions represent an affront to the moral equality of all persons who are affected by those institutions.

Finally, democracy and individual rights are critical. It is only through effective democratic institutions for government and decision-making that the interests and concerns of citizens will be aggregated into just policies and progressive social institutions. Public deliberative institutions permit all citizens to influence the policies that affect the terms of their lives, and they represent a meaningful obstacle to the emergence of exploitation and domination of the powerless by elites.

Are there examples of international settings that embody some of the features of a global civil society? The European Union, and the pan-European institutions and identities that the EU is in the process of forging, offer a promising example of a system that can bring about a just international order. Here we find fledgling experiments in the creation of solidarities that transcend language, religion, nation, or place. And we find an emerging discourse of solidarity that may provide the political basis that will be needed to bring about global justice (and the international transfer of resources and knowledge that this will require). There is a measure of “global thinking” among European citizens that offers a basis for optimism about the feasibility of an engaged world citizenry. OECD institutions have already gone a long way in the direction of giving meaningful priority to the needs of developing countries. The OECD and the Development Assistance Committee represent effective and broadly supported institutional agents of change within the processes of economic development. And surveys of European public opinion suggest an emerging and strengthening public support for global justice.

Finally, what does the concept of a global civil society imply for the durability of national or cultural identities? Can the Brazilian, Sikh, or Muslim at the same time be a member of a global civil society? This question can be posed at virtually every level of scale—village, region, nation, or global system. And the answer is everywhere the same. One can be both cosmopolitan and Muslim, both Brazilian Catholic and citizen of the world (Nussbaum and Cohen, 1996), (Taylor, 1992). In other words, this conception of a just global civil society does not presuppose a process of homogenization of world cultures. Instead, it presumes the development of a cross-cultural consensus about the importance of civility as a necessary context for the many cultural, religious, or national differences that will persist and that constitute one of the positive engines of creativity that are available to the world’s people.


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[1] Ferreira and Ravallion review current evidence in a policy research paper for the World Bank (Ferreira and Ravallion, 2008).  Lester Brown provides a summary view in World on the Edge (Brown, 2011) and in other writings.

[2] L. Cotula et al., Land grab or development opportunity? (Cotula et al., 2009); Jeffrey Sachs (The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time), Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom), and Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It) have all made good contributions on the pressing urgency of this issue and some ideas about strategies that can work.

[3] Johannes Morsink provides a valuable discussion of the origins of the Universal Declaration (Morsink, 1999)

[4] A very good introduction to Sen’s ideas is provided in Christopher Morris’s Amartya Sen (Morris, 2010).

[5] Nussbaum provides a comprehensive and compelling presentation of the capabilities approach in Creating Capabilities (Nussbaum, 2011).

[6] Here are the capabilities Nussbaum enumerates (Nussbaum and Glover, 1995 : 15):

  • Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length
  • Being able to have good health, adequate nutrition, adequate shelter, opportunities for sexual satisfaction and choice in reproduction, and mobility
  • Being able to avoid unnecessary and non-beneficial pain and to have pleasurable experiences
  • Being able to use the senses, imagine, think, and reason and to have the educational opportunities necessary to realize these capacities
  • Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves
  • Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s own life
  • Being able to live for and to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings
  • Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals and the world of nature
  • Being able to laugh, to play, and to enjoy recreational activities
  • Being able to live one’s own life and no one else’s, enjoying freedom of association and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure

[7] David Crocker takes an important step forward in his recent contribution to the ethics of development (Crocker, 2008).  It is framed around the foundation of the capabilities approach; but it goes beyond existing capabilities theory by emphasizing the crucial role of agency and deliberative democracy within development.

[8] Another important contributor to applied development ethics is philosopher Tom Pogge.  Pogge’s work on global justice provides a good bridge between abstract moral theory and practical, real-world issues of justice in a developing world.  Pogge has sought to engage these issues in ways that have real, substantive engagement with the issues of poverty, hunger, and maltreatment that continue to set the stage for the majority of the earth’s population today.  See especially Follesdal and Pogge, 2005, Pogge, 2007, 2008.

[9] This is a point that the European Union has recognized explicitly:

“In the context of ever-increasing globalisation, the internal and external aspects of security are inextricably linked. Flows of trade and investment, the development of technology and the spread of democracy have brought prosperity and freedom to many people, while others have perceived globalisation as a cause of frustration and injustice. In much of the developing world, poverty and diseases such as AIDS give rise to security concerns, and in many cases economic failure is linked to political problems and violent conflict. Security is a precondition for development. Competition for natural resources is likely to create further turbulence. Energy dependence is a special concern for Europe.”

[10] Robert Putnam (Putnam, 2000).

[11] Several of these features fall within the concept of what John Rawls calls a well-ordered society (Rawls, 1971).

[12] I consider this idea in greater detail in The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty (Little, 2003).


[Thank you Dan for contributing this paper]

The writer is professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  Recent books include The Paradox of Wealth and Poverty: Mapping the Ethical Dilemmas of Global Development and New Contributions to the Philosophy of History. He blogs at  This paper was presented at the Beijing Forum 2011.