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Three Things We Learnt This Year: end of year message from Ignacio Saiz, CESR's Executive Director


December 18, 2020

Dear friends of CESR,

It’s that time of year when I, like countless other non-profits heads, write to you to decry the state of human rights in the world, trumpet how our work is making a difference and ask for your generous support.  

But at the end of a year filled with such extraordinary loss and devastation, penning such a message feels glib and inappropriate. More than 1.6 million people are dead from COVID-19. Globally, 150 million more people have been pushed into extreme poverty and the number of people facing acute hunger has doubled. Frankly, our patchy successes as a human rights movement in confronting and preventing the structural injustices the pandemic has exposed are scant cause for end-of-year celebration.

So, rather than focusing on what we’ve achieved this year at CESR, this message reflects instead on three things we’ve learned as an organization, in the spirit of identifying how we might collectively do better over the coming year.

Firstly, responses to the pandemic have driven home how marginal human rights remain to economic decision-making. As a movement we’ve made significant progress over the last two decades in embedding socioeconomic rights guarantees into law, developing tools and mechanisms for their protection, and using these to secure ground-breaking victories. Yet the fact is that few countries are heeding these obligations in their economic responses to the pandemic, many of which are perpetuating existing inequalities rather than disrupting them. What’s more, while much of the human rights movement has rightly focused on the risk of “state overreach” – the abuse of pandemic restrictions to restrict civil and political freedoms – there has been much less attention paid to the equally grave risk of “state underreach” - the chronic neglect of government’s socioeconomic rights duties that has compounded the impacts of the virus. At CESR we’ve been working to address that gap. But unlocking the redistributive potential of socioeconomic rights to transform economic policy responses to the crisis remains a critical challenge that our movement must rise to more effectively in the coming year. 

Secondly, the systemic failures exposed by the crisis demand a more systemic approach to our human rights practice.The pandemic has illuminated the structural inequities generated and sustained by the prevalent economic model of the last four decades. More and more people are now questioning the morality of an economic system that has placed the market at the center of all human interactions, calling for our economies to be founded on a different set of values. This has opened a huge opportunity to reimagine an economy based on principles of human rights, and to explore how these can be deployed to tackle the systemic roots of the current crisis, not just its symptoms. By demanding action to redistribute resources, redress inequalities and rebalance power, socioeconomic rights directly contest the logic of neoliberalism, challenging its foundations and disrupting its sustaining narratives.  At CESR, we’ve begun to sketch out an alternative vision of a rights-based economy together with development and economic justice advocates.  A pending challenge for our movement is how to flesh out this vision and advance a propositional agenda for the kind of economic transformation we want to bring about in the wake of the pandemic.

Thirdly, closer collaboration is needed with other movements if we are to craft such a vision and build the collective counter-power needed to advance it. The human rights movement is not alone in asking existential questions about its theory of change and the effectiveness of its strategies in response to the pandemic. Nor is it equipped to tackle the enormity of the current socioeconomic rights challenges alone. At CESR we’ve seen huge appetite for collaboration across the human rights, labor, feminist, environmental and economic justice movements, among others, swelled by an increased awareness of the interconnectedness of our struggles and of the common obstacles we’re confronting. But we’re also keenly aware that alliance-building across movements involves generating trust, being open to what we can learn from each other’s approaches and to recognizing the inherent limitations of our own. It also requires that funders supporting different movements enable collaboration between them, rather than inadvertently fostering competition through their own programmatic silos.

A commitment to a more holistic, systemic and collaborative human rights practice – one that advances a vision of a rights-based economy and catalyzes cross-movement action to make it real - is at the heart of CESR’s new three-year strategy, forged amid the turmoil earlier this year. We’re already seeing positive steps towards that goal – from the recent adoption of a new wealth tax in Argentina, called for by a CESR-coordinated coalition of human rights and fiscal justice allies, to joint advocacy by human rights and economic justice advocates in South Africa on budgeting in response to Covid-19. But the strong gravitational pull towards “business as usual” means that the window of opportunity for advancing bold economic alternatives is already closing fast. 

If you share our hope for a better, healthier and fairer 2021, and are inspired by the idea of a rights-based economy, there are many ways you can contribute to making it a reality:

• Sign up to receive our Covid-19 Recovering Rights briefs and tell us what you think about them

• Give us your feedback on our vision of a Rights-Based Economy and what it will take to get there

 Share our work with your colleagues, networks and friends

You can also support our work by donating here. As a lean organization, your support will go a long way in strengthening our capacity to do the cutting-edge research, advocacy and skills-building we’re known and valued for. Of course, we realize that you may have other more immediate priorities this year and are grateful for your support in whatever form it takes.

Wishing you safe and happy holidays from the entire CESR team.

Ignacio Saiz
Executive Director


Cover image by Antonio Cansino from Pixabay