I had a rather sad thought while reading Why Global Justice Matters. It occurred to me that I had read very similar books twenty years ago, outlining how aid, debt and trade are all tilted towards the global North. Poverty persists, inequality worsens, and the terms of globalisation remain firmly in favour of the richest.
The Doha Round of World Trade Organisation talks were supposed to address these issues. They started in 2001, got nowhere, and ultimately went quiet a few years later. With them went the campaign momentum that builds around regular meetings, and it feels as if the global justice movement has been subsumed into a broader debate about inequality, the energy shifting into the climate change movement instead.
Chris Armstrong is a professor of political theory at the University of Southampton, and his book is a useful introduction for a new generation. It’s short and accessible, the kind of thing you could easily read with a group of students and discuss. There are only three chapters, with an admirably straightforward structure:
- What is the problem?
- Why should you care?
- What can be done?
Students of international relations will be familiar with what is wrong – a billion people still in extreme poverty, and three billion more on the cusp. Half of those in poverty are children. Development, preferably through free market capitalism, is consistently prescribed as the solution, but almost all the growth goes to those at the top. Inequality grows, and the richest get much richer while the poor only get marginally less poor. As Oxfam reported this year, the world’s poorest 4.6 billion people share the same amount of wealth as the world’s 2,153 billionaires. Something is badly wrong with the global economy, and climate change will make it worse.
For people of compassion, it is obvious that this is wrong and that humanity can do better. I agree with Armstrong when he suggests that we see “the quality of the lives lived by the poorest of the poor as an important benchmark of human progress.” But for those benefiting from the system, there is still a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that anything can be done about it.
That’s where the book differs from those of 20 years ago. Writers such as Ha-Joon Chang or Joseph Stiglitz might have hoped that blowing the whistle would be enough – that lifting the lid on the scandals of globalisation would prick the conscience of those in power and drive change. That hasn’t happened, and that’s why the book’s middle section is so important.
Everyone should care about global injustice, says Armstrong, because we live in a global economy. We shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of globalisation without the responsibilities – the cheap clothes, for example, without acknowledging the realities of sweatshop labour. There is also common cause between the global poor and the local poor, all of whom suffer from a distant and self-interested elite. The same forces that perpetuate inequality in developing countries are eroding democracy and equality in developed countries. Another factor is that inequality makes global problems harder to resolve, from climate change to migration to pandemics.
The chapter on what can be done is the longest, a riposte to those who say that even if inequality is a problem, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. “Political progress often depends on what we think we can achieve”, says Armstrong, not what is actually possible. It might be hard to imagine an end to global injustice, but that shouldn’t stop us from making improvements where we can – clamping down on tax havens, reforming global institutions to amplify marginalised voices, ending perverse subsidies, controlling arms flows to dictators, or funding climate change adaptation.
“The goal of global justice cannot only be to eradicate severe poverty” says Armstrong. “It must also be to rein back the huge inequalities that characterise our world. If our lives have equal moral weight, then we ought to have more or less equal prospects in life.”
- Why Global Justice Matters is published by Polity Books and is available from Hive, Amazon UK and Amazon US.