Human rights, inequality, and the ‘orphan SDG’

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The SDGs offer an opportunity to mobilize action against inequality, but our approaches and policy solutions must be informed by human rights.

Kate Donald, Director of the Human Rights in Sustainable Development Program at CESR, writes for the Oxfam America blog.


Evidence shows that unchecked economic inequality is hampering poverty reduction, threatening the full spectrum of human rights and fuelling political instability. Indeed, the failure of governments across the world to meaningfully address inequality has been a key factor in the rise of populist politics, contributing over the last year to major shocks at polling booths in the US and the UK. Legitimate anger over the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots has made voters more responsive to socially divisive scapegoating and racist fear-mongering, with alarming implications for human rights as a whole.

However, it seems deeply unlikely that any of the policies or actions proposed by Donald Trump and his like will actually do anything to address extreme economic inequality except exacerbate it. Indeed, governments and elites of all stripes seem increasingly willing to call out the problem of economic inequality (for instance at Davos), but remain willfully or ideologically blind to the real policy solutions.

This is in part the challenge faced by advocates working on Sustainable Development Goal 10, which promises to reduce inequalities both within and between countries.  Motivated by increasingly unjust and extreme levels of economic disparity, many civil society organizations fought doggedly for a standalone goal on inequality in the new SDGs. Its inclusion marks a sea change in acceptance of inequality – beyond absolute poverty – as a core development issue.  However, SDG10 remains uniquely vulnerable to strategic neglect and pushback from governments across the political spectrum. This is even more worrying considering that, of all the SDGs, Goal 10 will arguably require the most profound and lasting changes to the ‘business-as-usual’ economic and development model.

One of the symbols of SDG10’s precarity is that there is no specific institution devoted to it at the international level. SDG2 on hunger has the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, SDG3 on health will be bolstered by the World Health Organization, and so on. In contrast, there is no UN body or agency dedicated to pursuing greater economic equality, never mind monitoring progress or holding decision-makers to account. This lack of an institutional ‘home’ for Goal 10 effectively makes it an ‘orphan’ goal – without an institutional champion and more vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of competing international development priorities and diverging national interests.

There is also a real risk that Goal 10 could be ‘captured’ by institutions ideologically averse to the serious redistribution it requires. Already, the World Bank has staked a claim to intellectual ownership over SDG10, subsuming the issue of economic inequality into its promotion of ‘shared prosperity’. Indeed, largely at the Bank’s instigation, SDG target 10.1 focuses solely on increasing the incomes of the bottom 40 percent rather than reducing economic inequality per se. This ambiguous, euphemistic approach shies away from directly attacking extreme inequality, and specifically from tackling the obscene accumulation of wealth at the top end of the spectrum. As a result, it offers little more than a repackaging of the same ‘pro-poor development’ policies that have failed to reduce inequality in the past.

For these reasons, the vocal engagement of civil society and social movements around the problem of economic inequality is all the more crucial. This includes the human rights movement, which could provide a vocal constituency for the Goal and a set of tools to safeguard it, especially as advocates are increasingly rallying around the issue as a human rights problem which the standards and mechanisms of human rights can help to address.

As explained in the Centre for Economic and Social Rights briefing From Disparity to Dignity, a human rights-based approach to development has always started from the premise that a development paradigm addressing only absolute poverty and basic needs is manifestly insufficient. While international human rights law does not make explicit pronouncements on economic inequality, it has a great deal to say about the range of policies that create or reduce it. For instance, governments have binding obligations under the human right treaties they have ratified to respect labor rights, tackle gender disparities including through care services and family leave, ensure access to public services such as social protection, healthcare and education, and raise the necessary resources through progressive and equitable tax policies. All of these are key policy pathways to reducing inequality. Human rights standards also impose duties on all states to respect and protect rights beyond borders, which if fulfilled – through actions like tackling cross-border tax abuse or strengthening corporate regulation – could enhance the ability of other countries to mobilize resources against economic inequality.

Human rights can also help to provide much-needed spaces for advocates seeking to hold governments accountable for progress – or lack thereof – on SDG10. These will be particularly valuable given that the official architecture put in place to so far to review progress on the SDGs is patchy and weak. Many human rights monitoring bodies – at international, regional and domestic levels – are already well-versed in tackling inequality and its structural determinants, and they can help to fill some of the accountability deficit.

While there is sure to be resistance from entrenched economic and political interests, the human rights framework can offer a set of tools and a normative discourse to aid mobilization around economic inequality – one that is premised on the inherent dignity of every human being, in stark contrast to the us-versus-them rhetoric of reactionary demagogues. With soaring levels of inequality presenting a serious and growing threat to the entire 2030 Agenda, delivering on SDG10 is both a human rights imperative and a development necessity.