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A Rights-Based Economy: In Critical Times, a Roadmap for Action

We will not recover from this crisis by reviving "economic growth", but by transforming our broken system for good. A Rights-Based Economy offers a blueprint for change.

We need to tell a new story about the economy. About how inequality is a choice, not an inevitability. About how change is possible. About how we can tackle the ongoing legacies of historical exploitation. About how civil society can build collective power across movements. About the tools, ideas, and alliances that we need to do so.

Late last year, as part of our effort to tell this new story, CESR published A Rights-Based Economy: putting people and planet first with our partners Christian Aid. We’re pleased to say it’s generated a lot of enthusiastic responses. For example, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier de Schutter, said: “As we seek to 'build back better’ after the worst crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression, this report provides exactly what is needed: a roadmap for action.”

Today, we’re launching this short video summarizing some of the ideas in the report.  We’re hoping to spark conversation about the economies we need and how we can use human rights to get there. We’re asking for your ideas, reactions, and your help in weaving together the threads of this new story.     



For a long time, the story we’ve heard is that the best way to guarantee everyone’s right to live with dignity is to prioritize economic growth. Market efficiency will ensure that resources “trickle down” to those in need, we’re told. This has given governments, corporations, and international financial institutions a free pass to essentially make economic policy decisions a “rights-free zone”.

There’s overwhelming evidence that this story is fiction. Despite near-constant growth in recent decades, roughly half of humanity are still living in poverty (scraping by on less than $5.50 a day). At the same time, the 10 wealthiest people in the United States collectively own $853 billion– enough to end extreme poverty several times over. Global hunger has been rising rather than falling in recent years. 9% of the world’s population were classified as undernourished in 2019, while the number of people suffering from acute hunger is estimated to have doubled since then. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination still run rampant and are starkly reflected in the disparate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as in disparities of income and wealth. Meanwhile, we are careening towards climate catastrophe.

But there’s another story we can tell. Human rights are a widely recognized framework for justice. They set out a series of protections and entitlements that guarantee everyone the conditions essential for dignity, freedom, security and wellbeing. Transforming our economic system to put rights at the center means changing the daily lives of millions of people. People who now lose everything when faced with a medical emergency wouldn’t have to, because healthcare access would be guaranteed. No person would fear destitution because they take time out of the labor force to care for a loved one, because they would be supported by a robust social protection system. No child would be forced to skip school during their period, because their school lacks running water and they can’t afford sanitary products. Healthcare, education, clean water, a roof over your head - these things are rights to be guaranteed to all, not a privilege or a commodity.

Moreover, how resources are distributed—within and between countries—is central to guaranteeing people’s rights. Fundamentally, there are no rights without resources to make them real. These resources do exist; they are just concentrated in the hands of the privileged few. So, those with power over economic policy have to consider – and be held accountable for – how their decisions could help or hinder people from lower-income groups and countries enjoying their rights, equally.

This is why we’re doing this work around a rights-based economy, which sits at the heart of our new strategy. Over the years, we’ve done a lot of groundwork to explore this question. But we have more work to do collectively to craft the full story.

Without taking on the big questions of how the spiraling concentration of economic power gives rise to ever deeper inequalities, the human rights project is destined to fail. Our occasional victories may be important. But the problems we tackle will repeat themselves over and over.  We need to confront the system which allows a  handful of powerful people to rig the rules of the game ever further in their favor, leaving human rights violations to proliferate unchecked and unpunished.

Our aim is not to crowd out existing transformative visions for alternatives to neoliberal capitalism. The just transition, the global Green New Deal, buen vivir, feminist economies… we see the rights-based economy as building on and enriching these visions, and vice versa. And this is why we are determined to make this a collaborative effort – as we flesh out this blueprint, we need to learn from feminist economists, indigenous activists, trade unionists, environmental justice advocates, and more.

What is coming up? The report and the video share our initial vision. But, there’s a lot more to explore. And we want you to help us! Over the next year, we’ll be building out a fuller blueprint for a rights-based economy. We’ll be doing this in collaboration with partners and allies around the world. In the process, we want to forge broader alliances with aligned movements, connect the dots between different redistributive struggles, and work with others to weave a coherent narrative around them. We’ll be organizing some conversations and other activities to this end – join our mailing list and follow us on Twitter if you want to stay informed.

If you like the video, please share it on social media, using the #RightsBasedEconomy hashtag. And if you want to be a part of this journey, please get in touch!