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Actualizing a Rights-Based Economy through synergies from alternative economic models


Students at the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre Clinic dove deep this year into the Rights-Based Economy and its connection to other economic models. In this guest blog post, they explore the synergies between sustainable alternatives to the dominant neoliberal system.

By Charles Duah Badu-Kusi, Charlie Meidino Albajili, Gülberk Gür & Ogheneovomega T. Ejokpa.

The World Inequality Report 2022 shows that global net wealth in 2021 reached 510 trillion euros, with the world’s richest 10% owning 76% of this wealth, while the poorest 50% own just 2%. The UN Global Resource Outlook 2024 reports that global resource use, which surged from 30 billion tonnes in 1970 to 106.6 billion tonnes in 2024 and is projected to double by 2060, accounts for 90% of biodiversity loss and half of greenhouse gas emissions. Such glaring unsustainability and inequality have resulted in a radical reassessment of the current dominant global economic order and led to a search for alternatives, one of which is the Rights-based Economy (RBE) advanced by the Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CESR).

The RBE is an alternative economic model that prioritizes human well-being and the environment over profit in an economy that works for both people and the planet. CESR advocates for the RBE through collaborative action with allies of alternative economy proposals (such as degrowth, red deal, doughnut economics, eco-feminism, feminist economics, etc.) to design a cohesive economic model with human rights at the heart of its framework.

In this project, CESR has partnered with the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, to advance the vision and actualization of the RBE by identifying synergies among alternative economic proposals advanced by social movements and based on the lived experiences of communities. In investigating these alternatives, we build on the previous work of CESR by analyzing the synergies between alternative economy proposals within the framework of four key elements of the RBE. We interviewed key stakeholders active in the RBE transition to provide insights into the practice and features of these alternatives, how they align with human rights, and how they can be translated into economic policymaking globally.

Defects of the current system

To address the extent of the current environmental unsustainability and wealth inequality, the RBE must find its basis in the burgeoning alternative economic models found at the margins of today’s society. Contrarily, the adverse effects of the capitalist system and the neoliberal economic ideology have dominated political economic thought and practice for the past 40 years. While metrics concerning social mobility, access to food, water, sanitation, education, and health have advanced since 1900, the proportionality of inequality resulting from the said advancements to the extraction of natural resources, distribution, and consumption drives the call for an urgent review of this dominant global economic order.

Some of the hallmarks of neoliberalism - globalization, technological advancement, and mass consumerism – have driven the world’s planetary boundaries to the brink while only benefitting a few. There remains a stark disparity in terms of material standards and well-being between the global North and South. The fixation on profit, economic growth, and GDP has led to a trend of global labor and material exploitation in which human needs, rights, and sustainability within the planetary boundaries are increasingly neglected. State assets have been sold to the wealthy, markets have been deregulated, and public expenditure has been reduced significantly with its knock-on effect on public services cost and delivery.

The RBE aims to address these entrenched problems by seeking alternative economic models that fit human needs and the environment at the center.

Finding synergies

To grasp how the many different alternative economic models can work together, we interviewed representatives from diverse groups such as the Feminist Macroeconomic Alliance Malawi, the Tax Justice Network, and the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Mexico. We also gathered experiences from organizations like the Jakarta Urban Poor Network and the Sea Salt Student Housing Cooperative. In total, we interviewed 15 activists, academics, and experts from different countries and sectors. This information helped us map the synergies between movements, revealing how these alternatives collectively challenge neoliberal dominance and offer solutions to environmental crises and wealth inequality.

While acknowledging the multiplicity of alternative economic models such as degrowth, buen vivir, eco-swaraj, and the new social contract, we recognize their varied contexts and approaches. Some alternatives are rooted in specific local values, while others have more theoretical foundations. These alternatives also diverge in their levels of radicalism, particularly concerning perspectives on sustainable development and nation-states. Despite these differences, we see clear synergies among them as they all seek to address the adverse effects of the neoliberal global system and aim for a more systemic shift. 

We have identified four key elements that encapsulate the synergies within the RBE. Firstly, these alternatives re-envision humans' relationship with the environment, rejecting the presumption of unlimited economic growth in favor of ecological balance. Secondly, they emphasize community-driven solutions, reconnecting daily practices to local contexts and empowering communities to define their own agendas. Thirdly, they transform people's relationship with work, countering exploitation through practices like reduced working hours, universal basic income, and workers' cooperatives. Finally, they advocate for non-hierarchical social relations, ensuring genuine equality across sex, race, and gender. These models collectively form the foundation of a cohesive RBE framework.

In considering this framework, the concept of a pluriverse is particularly relevant. Integrating the pluriverse perspective within the RBE context means acknowledging and incorporating various worldviews and practices, thereby creating a more inclusive and sustainable economic model that can better address the unique needs and challenges of different communities globally.

Actualizing the RBE

The outcome of our research and interviews indicates several aspects to address in realizing the RBE. First is challenging the unidirectional hegemony of the Western development paradigm, which promotes a generic notion of "progress" often detached from local contexts, especially in the Global South. For example, Jakarta's Grassroots movement redefined "kampung" from underdeveloped slums into innovative models of collective incremental housing, addressing urban housing crises with community-led solutions. Additionally, the over-individualistic perspective of property ownership must be reassessed. Shifting towards collective and community-based ownership can address monopolies and severe inequality in access to public goods. The Indian Dalit Movement for Seed Sovereignty emphasizes collective stewardship of resources and ensures marginalized communities control their agricultural inputs. Similarly, cooperative-based housing and community land trust initiatives promote equitable resource access and mitigate gentrification. Significant legal reforms are needed to support collective ownership, such as laws recognizing communal land rights and incentives for cooperative housing projects.

Our findings also indicate a need to redesign the purpose of the economy and establish new economic indicators to replace GDP. This will ensure that alternatives recognize that the purpose of the economy and its indicators is centered on human well-being and environmental sustainability. Importantly, as advocated by the Tax Justice Network,  global minimum tax, wealth tax of the ultra-rich, and the closing of MNCs tax loopholes are needed to finance a sustainable welfare system (UBS & UBI) to mitigate inequality and environmental shortcomings. Rethinking of decision-making mechanisms may also eliminate the exploitation based on ongoing effects of colonialism and imperialism, such as with the help of policies of debt cancellation. For instance, rearranging the decision-making mechanisms in the International Financial Institutions which are mostly based in the Global North, may help to create gender-equal, transparent, and accountable financial architecture.

Finally, because the current economic system offloads its costs and externalities on the environment and vulnerable groups and communities, it is important for alternative economic models to engage in a bottom-up approach, leveraging the indigenous, traditional, and cultural values of communities. This ensures the inclusion of these vulnerable groups in any conversation on alternatives that engender transitions to a human rights compliant and environmentally sustainable economy. The RBE proposes social justice which not only seeks to eliminate the problems of class and discrimination against diverse identities but also provides the appropriate conditions for the realization of equity everywhere by ensuring redistribution, recognition and participation. Redistribution, recognition, and participation are not separate layers of achieving social justice but rather manifest themselves in the various synergies between alternatives as solutions to intersectional inequalities and their strong interconnectedness.

The synergies found in many of today’s alternative economic models point to a solution to the harmful hierarchical relationship the contemporary global order creates between human beings and the environment and themselves. In this context, challenging the current mindset shaped by neoliberal structures can be the first step. Changing our consumption and production habits from the impositions of the neoliberal system will benefit both us and nature. However, this process will not be possible through individual actions such as turning off our lights, becoming vegetarian, or living a minimalist life, but through demanding an RBE. To achieve this transformation, the normalized hierarchical structures that permeate every part of our daily life must be dismantled, from the current inequitable international tax system to our political decision-making mechanisms. The RBE is possible, but if there is one thing our report illustrates, it is that it must be done differently. To conclude with a quote from one of our interviewees, Santhoshi Srilaya: “Problems are universal, and solutions are local."