Archive for January 25th, 2010

It’s odd (but perhaps not unexpected) that I haven’t written much about Africa since it became my primary job focus. I found this piece by Jason Hickel in MRZine interesting as a follow-up to this poverty and human rights post from last June. In that post, I discussed Bill Easterly’s concerns with using human rights as an entry point for humanitarian aid. I concluded,

I have a hard time disagreeing with [Easterly] on these points. A human rights framework certainly provides ample motivation for fighting poverty, but it is lacking in the “how” area.

I think he misses one key point, though: social rights can inform approaches that emphasize the importance of subsidiarity in aid programs- having decisions made at the most local level possible. Of course, this effort must be combined with political and civil rights that build the capacity so that this type of process can actually happen.

Perhaps we can do better than rights, though. Hickel’s piece discusses South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy and the failings of the rights-based approach.

the state conveniently sidelines substantive questions of class…The reformers insist that the failures we sense are due merely to problems of implementation, that “rights” are the solution to social inequality.  South Africa has the most progressive constitution in the world, they remind us: it’s just a matter of realizing the rights that all citizens have been assigned.  If we can manage to beef up bureaucracy and expand service delivery, all will be well; the revolution lies therein.

The rights-based approach, as Hickel argues, reinforces state-based power structures with harmful class divides:

The state can grant people discursively constituted rights with one hand and strip them of the conditions for sustainable life with the other, without ever having to confront the contradiction.

In this sense, “rights” are a safe reformist option for a capitalist state with a progressive image to maintain.

Further, the rights that matter in the context of poverty alleviation are treated ambivalently:

socio-economic rights, however — such as rights to water, food, and housing — are only “progressively realizable,” according to the Constitution, and limited by the resources that the state has at its disposal…

When it comes to things like water and jobs, we need a fundamental paradigm shift, a transition from the notion of “rights” to the concept of “commons.”

South Africa has some basis for moving to this sort of concept. I’m not sure if it’s unique in that regard.

Hints of this hide in the Freedom Charter.  About natural resources it states, in paraphrase: “the national wealth of the country shall be restored to the people, and industry and trade shall be controlled to assist their wellbeing.”  Such words do not rely on the discourse of individual rights.  Nor do they hail the specter of command communism.  Instead, they assert the simple point that none has the right to possess and accumulate that which society holds in common.  Upholding this basic principle would not mean the abolition of private property or industry, but merely that certain public goods must be understood as commons, and that protections, profits, and benefits should accrue to people accordingly.

Conceptualizing socio-economic needs as drawing from a commons leads us to a radically different societal structure. As my former professor, David Ruccio, would often point out, we’ve made a choice as a society to not have explicit markets for things like human organs. Perhaps decommodifying water would also be reasonable. The knee-jerk neoclassical reaction to this idea is that water would then be inadequately provided. However, as many activists around the world has shown, water privatization has failed miserably.

And what about food? I can see the value of a market-based system because of the complexity that food production necessarily entails. However, the commodification of food has made it vulnerable to a host of “exogenous” shocks; many point to US biofeul legislation as the cause of the 2008 food price spike. In years past, OECD agro-subsidies have made it impossible for farmers in developing countries to produce food and expect a reliable return for their effort. I recently read the book Enough, which points out that the host of issues surrounding globally commodified food are the primary reason that Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution hasn’t spread to Africa. Our society seems to be moving the wrong direction. Developed countries are seeking to commodify carbon as well, perhaps a dangerous prospect for technological progress in that area.

Developing countries, for their part, are mostly at the whim of the global economy on these issues. South Africa, because of its size, may be able to address these problems and move to a commons-based approach to basic necessities. Uganda, however, would likely lose conditional aid if it rolled back privatization. Many developing countries simply lack the resources to mobilize desires that their civil societies might have for restructuring their economies. In any case, rights don’t seem to be getting us very far, so at the intellectual level, I’d think we should begin to use the commons as our theoretical basis.


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