Perspective

The Roots of Equity, Justice and Prosperity for All

In Brief: 
  • As awareness of the oneness of humanity pervades human consciousness and social structures, development ceases to be something one group of people does for the benefit of another.
  • All individuals must be engaged in a common enterprise of development, and work shoulder to shoulder to contribute to the development of the whole.
  • Addressing economic disparities, then, will require addressing extremes of wealth in ways that have so far been resisted or declared impractical. Social norms and the laws reflecting them will need to ensure that those who have amassed fortunes share their wealth to provide for the essential needs of the masses and to promote the common weal.

[Editor’s note: The following perspective is adapted from the Bahá’í International Community’s recent contribution to the UN Global Thematic Consultation on “Addressing Inequalities.” The full statement can be read at: http://www.bic.org/statements/beyond-balancing-scales-roots-equity-justice-and-prosperity-all ]

As deliberations about the Post-2015 development agenda gain momentum, it is becoming indisputable that the future we want is not a bisected world of haves and have-nots. The effects of social inequalities are apparent on all sides: apathy, alienation, social unrest, violence and the erosion of trust between individuals and the institutions of governance, to name but a few. The vitality and legitimacy of any vision of development rests on the degree to which it embodies the highest aspirations of the world’s peoples and the extent to which they play a role in its articulation.

But even as we yearn for such a transformation, society remains enmeshed in norms of conflict and competition: political systems are organized as contests for power; legal systems as contests of legal advocacy; economic systems as contests of capital accumulation; and educational systems as contests of intellectual achievement and recognition. Such structures promote separation into opposing groups of “we” and “they”—groups that fight, compete, negotiate, even cooperate across the boundaries of their separateness. These norms exacerbate the many categories of “otherness” that distort human relationships and perpetuate injustice.

We propose that humanity is experiencing a transition that can be described as the passage from a collective childhood to our collective maturity. During this transition, the thoughts and attitudes associated with the period of humanity’s childhood are gradually being uprooted and the structures of a civilization that reflect our adulthood are gradually taking shape. Characterizing this transition is the redefinition of human relationships within the context of a single social body, animated by bonds of mutualism and reciprocity. Such a transition calls for an organic change in the structure of society on an unprecedented scale. It requires that the oneness of humanity become the operating principle of our collective life.

As awareness of the inescapable oneness of humanity pervades both human consciousness and the structures of society, a new vision of development begins to emerge—one in which labels of “donors,” “recipients,” “developing” and “developed” have to be re-examined. From this perspective, development ceases to be something one group of people does for the benefit of another. Instead, all individuals, whether materially rich or poor, engage in a common enterprise of development, and all work shoulder to shoulder—as is their right and responsibility—to contribute to the development of the whole.

Oneness through justice

Viewed through the lens of the oneness of humanity, the principle of justice applies not only to social institutions but also at the level of the individual. At this level, justice can be seen as an evolving moral capacity that connects one’s well-being and happiness to that of broader society. The very motivation to respond to the injustices of present-day society and the will to exert ourselves for the betterment of others is animated by this moral principle. Justice calls for fair-mindedness in one’s judgments and equity in one’s treatment of others.

At the collective level, justice is the practical expression of the awareness that the well-being of society and of the individual are intimately linked and that the welfare of the individual is best secured by advancing the welfare of the whole. A concern for justice helps to curb the tendency to define progress in ways that bestow advantage on the privileged few, and can blunt tendencies towards partisanship and manipulation of decision-making processes.

Justice requires universal participation: all people have both the right to benefit from a materially and morally prosperous society and a commensurate responsibility to participate in its construction. If development is to be effective, it must promote the participation of the people in determining the direction of their communities, whether analysing specific problems, attaining higher degrees of understanding, exploring possible courses of action, or making collective decisions.

The lens of the oneness of humankind also sheds light on the vulnerable situation of national, ethnic and religious minorities. The imperative of preserving cultural diversity is implied by this principle: if a just international order is to emerge, then the infinitely varied cultural expressions must be allowed to develop and to interact with one another in ever-changing patterns of collective life.

Addressing inequalities

Disparities of income and wealth, though far from the only kind of inequity, are another aspect of concern in relation to sustainable development and social harmony. Over 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening. The poorest 40% of the world’s population account for five per cent of the global income. Poverty eradication measures, even where finding some measure of success, have failed to address growing disparities in income and unprecedented concentrations of wealth.

The reticence to consider growing concentrations of wealth has resulted in a dangerous “blind-spot” in development discourse and policy and has failed to draw the important connection between the extreme wealth of some individuals and groups and the degrading poverty afflicting masses of the world’s population. Resource-rich regions and resource-poor regions can no longer be treated as unrelated phenomena but, rather, as characteristics of a global system that selectively bestows advantage on the privileged few, while leaving the masses to make do with a small fraction of the world’s resources.

The shortcomings witnessed in the economic systems of the 20th century are, in large part, a reflection of the failure of the materialist ideology on which they were founded. Though the productive output of the global civilization has grown significantly over the past century, the fruits of that production have not “trickled down” to the masses of humanity. Not only has the gap between the wealthy and the poor continued to widen, but the poor have, in many instances, become even poorer in absolute terms.

Addressing economic disparities, then, will require addressing extremes of wealth in ways that have so far been resisted or declared impractical. Social norms and the laws reflecting them will need to ensure that those who have amassed fortunes share their wealth to provide for the essential needs of the masses and to promote the common weal. To be sure, a dynamic and creative world economy cannot flourish within an overly restrictive legal code. But neither can a just, vibrant, and prospering world civilization allow some members to accumulate personal fortunes larger than could be spent in a lifetime, while others die from lack of basic necessities.

Laying the foundations for a more equitable future will require the formation of new models of development, prosperity, and economics. These models must be shaped by insights arising from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience and a keen appreciation of the central role of relationships between humanity and nature, among individuals and communities, within the family, and between individuals and social institutions.

The injustices evident in the current global framework will require more than skilful methodologies and technocratic solutions, which have so far failed to alter the basic inequities in the way the fruits of human endeavour and prosperity have been distributed. No longer can people of good will be content with the goal of providing for people’s basic needs. Only as all members of the human family are invited to make their contribution to the betterment of society, and only as the distribution and use of resources are arranged in a way that permits each to do so, will progress against the age-old specter of inequality and inequity be possible.

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