In August 2013, a Singaporean employer was jailed for attacking her Filipina maid in an assault so severe it was described by the judge as ‘repugnant to all notions of a common humanity’. Recently, the plight of migrant workers employed in Qatar on construction projects for the 2022 World Cup has also been in the press. Forty-four Nepalese construction workers on World Cup sites died between June and August this year, from overwork and unsafe conditions.
Human rights abuses (sometimes) make global news headlines thanks in part to the work of activists, journalists and researchers. Because of their efforts, victories are sometimes being won that, though small, make a huge difference to the quality of people’s lives. But in the face of persistent – and deepening – global inequalities, there is still a very long way to go.
The Sheffield Institute for International Development has recently set out to reframe international development as global justice. Our starting point is that the daily absence of the building blocks for a decent life – respect, education, food security, acceptable housing, work and pay and so on – is not a failure of ‘development’ but a failure of justice. The failure is human not technical, and it is ‘addressable’ because it is not inevitable. Because it is addressable, we should have what Albert Hirschman, in his writing on Latin America, called ‘a bias for hope’.
Human rights are a vital tool for reframing international development in ways that set out our collective responsibilities to find a just global settlement. But to have traction, rights have to be understood as more than the traditional package of liberal rights. Other sorts of rights – social, economic, gendered, cultural – are also critical.
Action is needed much earlier in the life cycle of global injustice. It is not enough to protest once abuses are happening. Global justice means, above all, making arguments for urgent structural transformation to the global political economy. Why this matters is clear if we consider the abuse of migrant workers in Qatar. The inhuman conditions they currently endure were well known when the decision was taken to hold the 2022 World Cup in the state. Some 99 per cent of all workers employed in the private sector in Qatar are on temporary visas and are prevented by law from forming a trade union. FIFA cannot pretend that it was ignorant of this fact.
Events in Qatar suggest that although human rights arguments may be getting heard more than a generation ago, they are still getting heard too late. And they are certainly not shaping decision-making, whether in national or international settings. If international organizations and states do not take human rights seriously, the voices of activists will almost always be heard too late.
Framing international development as global justice means that our solidarities and our responsibilities are local as well as global. Internationalism is sometimes portrayed as caring for ‘distant others’ instead of those closer to home. Nothing could, or should, be further from the truth. Internationalism should be about challenging injustice everywhere. At home this means two things:
First, challenging simplistic and misleading dichotomies about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and countering racist views that seek to set out a view that some have more rights than others. Recent books such as David Goodhart’s The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Postwar Immigration are particularly worrying because they project an image of British people as having an innate primary ‘national’ identity based on race and culture that inevitably trumps our moral, emotional and human responsibilities to others. This ignores both the complexity of identity in Britain and the profound history of solidarity and support that Nick Dearden alludes to in his blog.
Second, it means taking seriously the injustices that happen close to home. Being an internationalist implies recognizing the immorality of welfare cuts that leave people to rely on food banks – as Oxfam does in its 2012 report ‘The Perfect Storm’, a stinging critique of the impact of the British coalition government’s budget cuts on the vulnerable and those on low incomes.
For rights to be made real, claims have to staked and arguments for justice made. Being an internationalist is about upholding those claims, engaging in debate and challenging injustice, whether on the street, in the classroom, in the press or simply among friends and family – sometimes the most difficult site of all. It is about reflecting on and prioritizing our ‘common humanity’. For an internationalist, the scales of justice must be simultaneously global and local.
Jean Grugel is Professor of International Development at Sheffield University in Britain.
The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.