The social, environmental and economic crises that continue to reap havoc across the globe provide a critical opportunity for ordinary people to demand economic reform and political transformation says STWR’s director, Rajesh Makwana, in an interview with John Habets & Henk Gloudemans.
Share The World’s Resources is a civil society organisation that campaigns to strengthen and scale up the sharing economy in all its forms. STWR advocates for an international program of emergency relief to prevent life-threatening deprivation and end poverty-related deaths as a foremost global priority, alongside extensive reforms to the world economy to ensure a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations.
What was the main reason for founding Sharing The World’s Resources (STWR) and what are the most important aims your organization hopes to achieve?
STWR was established by a group of concerned citizens who, like millions of others across the world, wanted to add their voice to the growing call for global justice and economic reform. In particular, the intention was to raise awareness about how the principle of sharing, a simple human behaviour practiced since the dawn of civilisation, can be applied as a solution to the urgent global crises we face today.
Broadly speaking there are three major global crises which we feel are of immediate concern to humanity as a whole: life-threatening deprivation, environmental destruction and conflict over natural resources. It takes little imagination to see how the principle of sharing can be applied as a solution to each of these crises. In simple terms, sharing wealth and financial resources more equitably can rapidly reduce poverty and inequality. Finding ways of sharing the world’s scarce natural resources sustainably is also crucial, whether we are talking about land, oil or even the atmosphere. And sharing rather than aggressively competing to control or acquire natural resources can help de-escalate conflict and strengthen international peace and security.
Through our website and publications, we present our research in a way that can appeal to a diverse group of global citizens, from ordinary people and students to global justice campaigners and decision-makers in governments. Our aim at this stage is to demonstrate why governments need to put the principle of sharing at the heart of their policy decisions and how this could be achieved, both on a national and global basis.
What are the main resources that should be shared by the international community and why?
Broadly speaking, there are three types of resources that should be shared more sustainably and equitably both within and between countries. Arguably, the immediate priority is to create a more balanced distribution of the world’s wealth and financial resources. As we outlined in our recent report ‘Financing the global sharing economy’, there are many ways in which this can be achieved by governments, including through implementing financial transaction taxes, preventing tax avoidance, reducing harmful subsidies and redirecting military spending. Implementing these and other measures that campaigners have long been calling for could form a crucial first step towards ending extreme poverty and reducing inequality.
Another huge challenge is to find ways of sharing the world’s natural resources in a way that can benefit all people, but without transgressing planetary limits. As the World Wildlife Fund have demonstrated, humanity consumes 50% more resources than the planet can replenish. In order to rebalance consumption patterns across the world, nations will have to agree on a much fairer and more just system of global resource management – one that puts environmental sustainability before consumerism, economic growth and profit.
But sharing resources on an international scale would be impossible without more democratic, inclusive and effective forms of global governance. To achieve this, political power also needs to be shared much more democratically between countries than compared to current economic arrangements. For example, global governance bodies such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank need to be radically reformed to ensure that they are far more representative of the developing world. Despite all the bad press that the United Nations receives, it still holds the potential to play a pivotal role in managing the global economy in the interests of all member states if it is significantly reformed and, most of all, rendered far more powerful and inclusive.
What should be done to ensure that the remaining commons do not decline any further?
The key threat to the world’s remaining commons is excessive consumerism and the high levels of pollution it creates (such as CO2 emissions), particularly from the lifestyles of those in rich countries. The New Economics Foundation has calculated that if consumer behaviour globally was the same as that of citizens in the US, more than five planets worth of resources would be needed to sustain life on earth. It has long been clear that we simply cannot continue pursuing an economic model that is dependent on the endless consumption of natural resources. And of course, the possibility of people in the majority world eventually consuming at the same rate as those in rich countries will have dire consequences for future generations and the environment.
Since we live in a globalised world where the resources we consume are often sourced abroad, it will not be possible to rethink our economic priorities unless governments act collectively and cooperatively, which clearly goes very much against the modus operandi of today’s geopolitics which is based on competition over resources and national-self-interest. One solution is to establish some form of ‘Global Commons Trust’ which could enable the international community to take collective responsibility for managing the world’s remaining commons and ensuring a balanced pattern of resource use and consumption across the world. Ground-breaking global agreements of this kind would need to be accompanied by reforms at the national level, including de-prioritising economic growth, dismantling the culture of consumerism and investing heavily in low-carbon infrastructure – measures that most governments still fail to acknowledge as essential for creating a sustainable future.
In ‘International Sharing: Envisioning a New Economy’, STWR writes: "Humanity has reached an impasse. Despite ongoing development efforts since the foundation of the United Nations, the international community has failed to end global poverty". Do you think international programs like the Millennium Development Goals will succeed in making poverty history?
It would be unfair to dismiss the significant reductions in extreme poverty that have been measured over the past decade, especially as the trends are clearly going in the right direction. For example, the data suggests that the first Millennium Development Goal to half poverty by 2015 has already been met. But such statistics only tell part of the story. The international consensus to end poverty can be traced back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified 65 years ago and has been reiterated in numerous international agreements since. Despite these longstanding commitments from the world’s governments, at least 850 million people are currently unable to access enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs. Even if MDG-1 on eradicating extreme poverty is officially met, there will still be around a billion people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2015.
The sheer extent of extreme poverty in today’s world highlights how development efforts to secure basic human needs are grossly insufficient. From even the most basic ethical perspective, surely the international community needs to be much more ambitious about ending all forms of life-threatening deprivation within an immediate time-frame, not as a long term goal or vague aspiration. In a world where, according to Oxfam, the annual incomes of the richest 100 people alone is sufficient to wipe out global poverty for 4 years, the continued existence of extreme poverty and hunger anywhere in the world can only be described as morally reprehensible.
How does ‘inequality’ relate to ‘poverty’?
Attempting to eradicate poverty without also tackling inequality would be a mistake, as both are the outcomes of an unjust global economic system that concentrates resources into the hands of a minority. There is ample evidence to suggest that inequality weakens efforts to reduce poverty, impedes economic growth, undermines social cohesion and distorts the democratic process. In light of this widely-publicised research it now seems likely that there will be a post-2015 development goal related to inequality, although it is not clear how effective it could be.
The real causes of inequality stem from public policy choices that governments make and the policies that underpin economic globalisation at the international level. For example, multilateral institutions like the World Bank and IMF continue to promote policies that increase inequality, even though the myth that economic growth will eventually ‘trickle down’ has long been shattered. Sharing the proceeds of economic growth much more fairly is perhaps the simplest solution to reducing inequality, and one which governments have the power to implement rapidly if they chose to do so.
But action to tackle inequality must take place internationally, not just in a domestic context. For the world as a whole, income inequality has widened to a level far greater than inequality within even the most unequal nation, with the income of the world’s top 1.75% of earners now exceeding that of the bottom 77%. Such enormous discrepancies in living standards between rich and poor are at the root of many of the world’s problems, and this highlights the need for more effective forms of redistribution at the global level as a correction to unjust economic arrangements.
In ‘Sharing the World’s Resources – An Introduction’, we can read that a new understanding of what it means ‘for humanity to evolve and progress’ is urgently needed. In your opinion, what principles of the dominant economic model in particular stand in the way of balanced evolution and inclusive human progress?
The assumptions at the heart of economic orthodoxy today are at least partly responsible for preventing human progress from taking a more sustainable and balanced path. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, classical economic theory still assumes that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive and acquisitive, and these assumptions have been used by policymakers to justify the unrestrained proliferation of free markets for many decades, if not centuries. This misguided approach to economics has neglected the basic tenets of sound environmental stewardship while clearly failing to secure basic human needs for all.
But there is ample scientific and anthropological evidence to demonstrate that human beings are actually hardwired to cooperate and share, and that we are not driven exclusively by a competitive nature or a desire to maximise our economic interests. We now know that humanity would not have evolved as a species without these attributes, and this is no doubt why sharing is still so commonplace within families and communities and remains central to the teachings of many of the world’s religions.
It is high time that economists and policymakers let go of their blind adherence to economic dogma based on outdated assumptions about human nature. If humanity is to survive the formidable challenges we face, economic policy must be based on values that reflect what it truly means to be human as we build a new society that is fit for future generations.
What would you say are the main principles holding the key to ‘transforming economic relationships between governments’ in order to overcome the deep crisis so many people in the world are now confronted with?
The key to transforming international relations is putting the needs of the world as a whole before the needs of any one nation. The crises we face are global in nature and extend beyond national borders, so in order to address them effectively it is imperative that nations acknowledge their mutual interdependence and accept that we are part of an extended family that shares the same needs and rights. In other words, we need to cooperate. In an international context, cooperation relates to the ability of sovereign states to work effectively as a community of nations – something that they are blatantly failing to do at present. Despite ongoing negotiations, the world’s governments have not managed to establish binding agreements on CO2 emissions, commit to a more sustainable approach to development, or establish a fair system of international trade.
One of the key obstacles preventing the resolution of these negotiations is the highly competitive global economic framework within which the discussions take place. It stands to reason that policies which promote international sharing and cooperation go against the grain of the current economic paradigm, which promotes competitive free markets, encourages the privatisation of the commons, and champions endless growth and the accumulation of wealth. To facilitate effective international cooperation, a more inclusive and democratic international framework is urgently needed and, as mentioned above, the United Nations could and should have an important role to play in this process.
What does the ‘global sharing economy’ you introduce in your publications look like in practice?
There are many examples of what is now widely referred to as the ‘sharing economy’, including knowledge sharing websites like Wikipedia, time banking and forms of collaborative consumption where people share everything from cars to office space. But few people recognise that universal systems of social welfare and public service provision – which are now commonplace in developed countries – are perhaps the most important examples of effective ‘sharing economies’ today. The global sharing economy, however, is still very much in its infancy. Many developing countries still struggle to fund national systems of social protection and, apart from a highly flawed system of international aid, there is currently no global mechanism for redistributing financial resources between countries.
In our recent report we suggested that the most important first step towards establishing a global sharing economy is to share the world’s vast financial resources more equitably. Redistribution on a global scale is feasible even before more fundamental reforms to the world economy are enacted, such as the establishment of commons trusts or more effective global governance institutions. By implementing such redistributive measures as those highlighted in the report, governments could mobilise several trillions of dollars to prevent life-threatening deprivation, reverse austerity measures and mitigate the human impacts of climate change as a foremost global priority.
What does sharing and cooperation mean in relation to the daily practice of agriculture and farming?
The principles of sharing and cooperation have always been central to the way people live and work in agricultural communities. For example, land was traditionally shared by farmers who often managed it cooperatively as a commons, and the right to save and share seed has always played an integral role in farming practices around the world. The tradition of cooperation is still very evident in the way that agricultural cooperatives function today, in which farmers share machinery and skills and use their collective bargaining power to guarantee better access to credit and markets.
Despite the production of more than enough food to feed the world’s population, it is widely acknowledged that global food systems are now experiencing a severe crisis with hundreds of millions of people unable to access adequate food. This is largely the consequence of an environmentally damaging form of so-called ‘modern’ industrialised agriculture, along with the arrival of genetically modified crops and the highly controversial patenting of seeds as pioneered by the agri-business sector.
Nonetheless, in recent years there has been a resurgence in agro-ecological farming practices which put food production back into the hands of small farmers, reduce the reliance on chemical inputs and encourage crop diversity. This ecologically sustainable approach to farming is not only championed by international movements such as ‘La Via Campesina’ and ‘Seed Freedom’, it is also supported by the evidence of the hundreds of experts who authored the ground-breaking IAASTD report, which was commissioned by the UN and World Bank in 2008. In order to end hunger and create a truly sustainable system of food production, it is now clear that the future of farming will need to be agro-ecological and closely aligned to the principles of sharing and cooperation.
In your opinion without ‘a transformation of goals and priorities by the major powers and the institutions that govern the global economy, any benefits from foreign aid will be negated by the unjust arrangements of the international economic and financial system’. Can you explain which major powers and institutions you mean?
Through their combined political and financial power, a number of dominant institutions, states and corporations exert a disproportionate influence over economic policy around the world. These include nations of the G8 and G20, powerful global governance institutions such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank, and a relatively few large multinationals – especially the most powerful financial, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations.
As a result of this concentration of political and financial power, the rules that govern the flow of wealth and access to the world’s resources maintain an unjust system of international trade and finance. The imbalanced distribution of wealth and resources between countries is clearly illustrated by global financial flows; in 2009, for example, $545bn was transferred from developing countries to rich countries even after taking international aid donations into account. This makes a mockery of official development assistance from OECD countries, which totalled $125.7bn in 2012. The movement of illicit capital flows – often as a result of corporate tax-dodging facilitated by tax havens – further exacerbates this haemorrhaging of capital out of developing counties.
What are the outlines of the ‘program for survival of a sustainable future world’ that STWR offers?
There are a number of essential and practical steps that seem unavoidable if humanity is to survive the social, environmental and security crises we face today. If only from a common-sense and moral viewpoint, the most urgent priority must surely be to prevent all needless poverty-related deaths within the shortest possible space of time. Currently, around 15 million people die every year simply from a lack of access to essential resources such as food, water and healthcare. Yet not since The Brandt Commission’s proposal for an ‘emergency program’ of assistance to developing countries have policymakers considered ending extreme poverty in a way that is commensurate with the vast scale of the crisis. As we outlined in our recent report, governments already have at their disposal the financial resources, capacity and technical knowledge needed to prevent life-threatening deprivation as a foremost global priority.
Of course, redistributing financial resources will not address the root causes of poverty, the environmental crises or the ongoing conflicts over the world’s natural resources. To address these systemic issues, everything from the way we extract, produce, distribute and consume resources to the influence that multinational corporations wield over society and policymaking will need to be transformed. Put simply, placing the principle of sharing at the heart of future policy decisions would have far-reaching implications for the survival of humanity as it would ensure that the world’s wealth, power and resources is distributed in an inherently equitable and sustainable fashion.
Citizens often feel like powerless bystanders who are kept out of important political decision-making processes. What can they do to get involved in the movement for change?
How long can concerned citizens allow the world’s escalating crises to continue unabated? While it might be true that governments in many countries have alienated citizens from the political process, the globalisation of technology has meant that people are more politically aware than ever before. This is especially true of the younger generation, who have harnessed the power of the internet to facilitate mobilisations against injustice in diverse countries. Yet millions of people around the world have been campaigning for a more just, sustainable and peaceful future for many decades. Thousands of social movements and public campaigns now exist and many of them are very effective at mobilising public opinion – even on a spontaneous, leaderless and international basis. As the Arab spring and various Occupy and other movements have again demonstrated, there is nothing more powerful than a united people’s voice. It is hardly surprising that ‘world public opinion’ is often considered to be the new superpower in world affairs.
The social, environmental and economic crises that continue to reap havoc across the globe provide a critical opportunity for ordinary people to demand economic reform and political transformation. The time has come to remind governments of their duty to serve their citizens faithfully and to accept that our economy is entirely dependent on the natural world, not separate from it. Nothing short of a global Tahrir Square will suffice. Ordinary people and not just the usual non-governmental organisations and campaigners must unite beyond national borders, call for an immediate end to injustice, and demand that the principle of sharing is implemented in world affairs.
This article appeared in issue 53 of the Dutch magazine WereldDelen.
The original interview in Dutch is available here: www.werelddelen.nl/WD53web.pdf
Visit the WereldDelen Foundation website:www.werelddelen.nl