Are universal social standards possible?

Addressing the North-South Conference for Sustainable Development in Berne, Switzerland, on 26 May 1998, Dr Julius K Nyerere, the former President of Tanzania and current Chairman of the South Centre, expressed his personal view that while universal social principles are possible, universal social standards based on those principles are not. We reproduce below the text of his address at the Conference which was organised by the Swiss Coalition of Development NGOs.

FIRST, I would like to thank you for inviting me to this Conference. I value the opportunity to share with you my own personal views about some of the issues which working for 'sustainable development' can raise. I say 'personal views', because although I was invited as Chairman of the South Centre, I am not speaking as a representative of its member governments. I speak merely as an individual with some experience of the problems of developing countries.

The title on which I was asked to speak is 'Are universal social standards possible?' My answer is definitely NO! Universal social principles are possible; but universal social standards based on those principles are not possible. There are something like 190 separate nation states in the world; each of them is different in physical geography and natural resources, in each the people are a unique mixture of history, of religious beliefs, of cultures, and of social structures. Social groups have overlapping but still varying value systems. And between countries and within countries, there are not only different levels of wealth - there are even differences in the way in which the people measure wealth.

When you have that kind of cultural and resource diversity, on what basis is a 'universal' standard to be worked out, and who is to decide on it? The assumption is that what we have in mind is the universalisation of Western concepts and standards. But why? Those concepts and standards are based on Western history and culture, on high (and rapidly changing) technology, and on levels of personal and communal consumption which are not universal now and which the world's resources cannot sustain on a global basis.

A person's 'social income' is very relevant to his 'standards of living' - his 'social standards'. Once a person's food and shelter is assured through an adequate personal disposable income, then things like health provision, the availability of clean water, access to education, and security in case of sickness, unemployment or old age - all such things are involved in a person's 'standard of living' because they are important to his or her well-being and future prospects. Certainly, every social unit (however small or backward) makes some provision for these 'social services' in its organisation, just as it normally ensures that people do not die from starvation or exposure to bad weather. Further - as was recognised at the social summit last year - social, economic and political issues are all intertwined; none can sensibly be considered in isolation. All are relevant to the lives of human beings; all are included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Yet, the demand to include 'social issues' in international trade discussions is not being made in the context of a holistic approach to improving the human condition. On the contrary, the demand hides protectionist tendencies in the developed countries of the North. For it is being justified on the grounds that fair and free competition demands a 'level playing field' for the participants in international trade: all countries, for instance, must have the same labour costs. This is a subtle argument for shutting off Northern markets to so-called cheap goods from the South; but it is paraded as a fight for the rights of the workers of the South!

Naturally, this argument is attractive to trade unionists in developed and developing countries alike, for every worker wants more pay and better conditions of work. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) has therefore indicated that it is sympathetic to the idea; it would like good labour conditions to be made universal - or, at the very least, to ensure that, once achieved, good wages and conditions of work are not reduced by employers on the grounds that globalisation makes unemployment the only alternative to wage reduction.

Until now, the process of globalisation itself has been left to 'market forces'! Almost every kind of existing international - or national - regulation or tax or other so-called 'obstacle' to trade is under attack. Yet, despite that, we now have this call for 'universal social standards' to become a matter of enforceable international law!

More important than theoretical inconsistencies, however, is the fact that it would be impossible for poor countries to meet the cost of any internationally acceptable 'social standards'. These countries could sign any number of treaties; they could (and probably would) want to ensure that all their workers received real wages comparable to those in Switzerland, for instance. But that would be dreaming. For social standards (whatever definition is used) are ultimately dependent upon the wealth of that country. The poor of a nation cannot be made less poor by forcing their government to sign an international treaty which prohibits or simply ignores the reality of poverty!

Within a country, or any other economic unit, problems of relative poverty - that is, of unequal 'social standards' - can be dealt with through redistributive taxation, or at least kept to a minimum by other state measures. The richer individuals or regions are taxed by an appropriate authority, and the money raised is used by the state to provide for everyone minimum levels of education, health care - and perhaps of income. Such transfers of resources from rich to poor within the nation are a legal obligation; they are not left to charitable impulses!

When an economic union seeks to establish common standards among its members, its foundation treaty does not just require that each member state undertake to meet those standards. It also lays down other obligations on members which will enable the poorer members to do so. For example, the richer countries of the European Union have a legally binding obligation to pay to the European Commission certain stated amounts, or proportions which will be transferred to the less rich member states. This is not regarded as charity; it is a legal obligation attached to membership.

Under the relentless pressure of unfettered globalisation, the world is becoming one huge Free Market. That is what the developed countries want. And to avoid trouble from their own workers while facilitating the process of globalisation, they now have this idea of demanding universal levels of social standards based on their own capacities. And this means that by a legally binding treaty, economic sanctions would be applied against any country which fails to enforce such standards internally.

Yet, the idea that the rich countries should be legally bound to help the poor ones to meet those social standards is rejected. Proposals for an international tax of any kind, for any purpose, are dismissed as absurd. Indeed, the poor countries come under immense pressure even to cut back on domestic redistributive taxation. Under international conditionalities, it is made increasingly difficult for them to tax their own rich in order to improve the social standards of their own poor.

The sheer impossibility of poor countries meeting social standards set at levels fixed by the rich has, however, now been generally accepted. The demand that labour standards be a factor in trade policy has therefore been modified. It has now become a proposal that all countries should implement 'core labour standards'. These require an acceptance of freedom of association and collective bargaining, the abolition of child labour and of forced labour, and a ban on discrimination in employment practices. Most of these requirements are already included in ILO conventions or other international agreements which have been accepted by almost all countries.

Nonetheless, breaches in these core labour standards do often occur. Usually, a country's failure to implement the convention which it signed is connected with its national poverty - and the concurrent existence of gross inequalities of income at both the national and the international level.

Within democratic countries (developed or developing), the needs of the poor or less rich cannot always be ignored with impunity by the government or the ruling class. Even in dictatorships, the rulers do find it necessary to respond to strong protests from their people. The same is true within a community of nations; if the community is to survive, the need for some kind of consensus among rich and less rich member nations gives some leverage to the less rich members.

In the world at large, however, there is neither international democracy nor any clear centre of power at which the poor can direct their protests. For example, when the world price of copper falls by 50% in a week, the national income of Zambia drops like a stone; its workers will protest (perhaps violently). But they direct their anger at the Government of Zambia, which has no power at all in this matter. What else can the workers do? They cannot affect the decisions of this vague thing called the international 'market', even though what poor Zambia has lost, some wealthy countries have gained. The poor of Zambia are without influence in this matter. But the Government of Zambia has no influence either. The wealthy countries which have gained from the changed price of copper go on their way rejoicing - and without anyone in a position to make them pay a price for their gains.

When the value of the Indonesian rupiah tumbles down for reasons totally unconnected with the fundamentals of the Indonesian economy, the anger of the people is directed at the Government of Indonesia. The faceless international financial market which triggered this process bears no blame!

It is worth remembering that governments of the South are not always overthrown because they do not care about the plight of the poor in their countries. Very often, popular protests which lead to the resignation (or overthrow) of a Southern government are IMF-induced. We used to call them 'IMF bread riots'; people are condemning their government because it has been unable to resist demands from the IMF either to fulfil some universal standards established by the rich North, or to cut the living standards of the poor still further. The representatives of the IMF who bring such policy demands - and the accompanying threats of further sanctions against the country - take care to have returned to their headquarters base before the policies they demand are implemented. It is their government upon whom the people vent their anger, and in so doing further worsen their living standards!

The rich and powerful countries of the world preach democracy to the poor nations and when it suits them, they are liable to apply sanctions against those countries which they designate as undemocratic or acting against human rights. But those preachers of democracy at the national level fight actively against any kind of democracy at the international level.

For that reason, the international organisations or institutions where the principle of one-country one-vote is applied are denied any power. The organisations and institutions which have power are those where the principle of one-dollar one-vote operates. Hence the powerlessness of the General Assembly of the United Nations and UNCTAD and UNESCO; and hence the overwhelming power of the Security Council of the United Nations, of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO where there is no pretence to democracy.

The reality is that universal social standards are not possible, and certainly would not be compatible with justice, unless they are linked to, and are conditional upon, the parallel implementation of a deliberate, coherent and internally consistent anti-poverty programme - both nationally and internationally. They are not possible unless all human beings - men and women - are accorded equal respect and equal dignity through the workings of all economic, social and political structures.

Further, before there can in justice be any question of having 'universal social standards' (however defined), the equality of all sovereign nations must be recognised, not just nominally and theoretically; but it must be the actual basis for all economic, social and political relations between states. And from recent events, it is quite clear that universal social standards will not be possible while international financial movements remain chaotic and unregulated. Indeed, universal social standards are not compatible with unfettered competition in the global market.

For if there is no effective restraint upon the rich and strong, then their interests will prevail, regardless of the needs (let alone the interests) of the poor.

In this fact lies the almost unanimous Southern hostility to the proposal that 'Trade-Related Social Standards' be brought into the orbit of the WTO rather than (or as well as) the ILO. For compared to the WTO, the ILO is democratic in structure, and it does not seek to usurp the national sovereignty of any state.

Developing countries see no need for further international intervention beyond the existence, and the present powers of, the ILO. Furthermore, past experience in other areas has demonstrated that if the WTO is given powers to apply sanctions on this matter, they will be used exclusively against the developing countries - and even then not with any consistency. They will become another stick to use against a developing country (democratic or otherwise) which tries to determine its own domestic policies in any area, and to implement them. It does not take much imagination to see how such powers in the hands of the WTO could be used by the USA against Cuba; it takes a great deal of imagination, however, to believe that such power would be used against the USA on any grounds whatever!

Mr Chairman: A word on solidarity.

In this struggle against the injustice of poverty and the powerlessness of the poor, the solidarity of people in the North - including people of Switzerland - is essential for ultimate success. Indeed, the poor in the developing countries will not be able to achieve decent living conditions for themselves without active solidarity from people in the North who believe in justice and equality but are themselves not necessarily poor, and who do have some power in their own countries. These are the people who have access to the media of the North, who have democratic power to influence the policies of their governments, who can influence the actions of transnational corporations based in the North.

This Conference of non-governmental organisations in Switzerland is an encouragement and a support to the poor of the world. I ask you to continue the work you are doing, and to intensify it. For the world is One. Globalisation is a fact of modern life. Together, we can change it into a force for good -for the good of all the peoples of the world. IT CAN BE DONE. PLAY YOUR PART.  (Third World Resurgence No.95, July 1998)