Human Rights and Globalization

by Tony Addison

Economic Development underpins Democracy and Human Rights

Democracies have now replaced authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world. In the last two decades of the 20th century, 81 countries moved into democratic governance: 29 in sub-Saharan Africa, 23 in Europe, 14 in Latin America, 10 in Asia, and 5 in the Arab states (information from UNDP). Although new democracies are often fragile, this is a welcome trend both for human rights – freedom of expression and freedom to choose one’s government – and for economic development (authoritarian regimes in developing countries have a poor record in delivering improvements in living standards, especially in Africa). And democracy provides the political space in which to press forward on achieving equal rights for women and minorities.

However, for democracy to be sustained and deepened it is essential for economic development to occur. This is because democracies have a poor survival rate in low-income countries. When per capita incomes are low and falling, people resort to violence as a livelihood, states fracture, democratic principles are undermined, and gross violations of human rights occur. Moreover, lack of progress in development undermines popular support for democracy. A recent UNDP survey finds that only 43 per cent of Latin Americans fully support democracy, and more than 54 per cent of people polled said they would support an authoritarian government if it improved the economy. Given the gross human rights violations committed by past authoritarian governments in Latin America, this is a worrying trend.

In summary, economic development is crucial for underpinning democratization and thereby plays a vital role in supporting the expansion and consolidation of human rights and their protection.

Education: a crucial human right. © UN Photo/152390
Education: a crucial human right. © UN Photo/152390​
Globalization, Economic Development and Human Rights

Unfortunately, the global economy is not working well for poor countries or for poor people. Despite the rapid and large increase in flows of trade, finance, and technology across the global economy – the three key elements of the globalization process – most poor countries have very limited access to the finance necessary for economic development. Foreign direct investment is highly concentrated on a narrow range of countries, and official aid flows have been stagnant and declining in recent years. Lack of finance limits the ability of many countries to invest to diversify their trade, access new technologies, and achieve poverty reduction. At the same time, poor countries face richcountry protectionism, particularly in key agricultural markets such as cotton and sugar. Progress on trade liberalization under the WTO’s auspices has stalled.

Despite success in the larger countries (notably India and China), the smaller countries remain highly vulnerable to world economic turbulence and many sub-Saharan African countries have per capita incomes below their levels at independence and are experiencing an alarming deterioration in their human development indicators (literacy, health etc.). Violent conflict has worsened their situation, and is itself an outcome of poor economic performance. As already noted, disappointing economic performance in Latin America is not conducive to democratization, and in North Africa and the Middle-East the failure to achieve economic development is encouraging elements in their very young (and disenchanted) populations to turn to terrorism. And economic distress at home is fuelling flows of people desperately seeking better lives in the rich world, and is encouraging human trafficking, particularly of women.

Progress in human rights will therefore stall unless the poorer and more vulnerable countries start to participate in the global economy in a meaningful way. What action must be taken? The rich world must move away from its present narrow perspective on trade and finance, which in many cases is driven by short-term national interests without due consideration to the longer-term, and more powerful, benefits arising from a well-functioning global economy that works for poor countries and poor people. These larger benefits apply to everyone, both rich and poor (for example, the reduction in violent conflict that will occur if economic development is secured, and the associated decrease in terrorism, forced migration, and asylum-seeking). Specifically, this means a greater willingness to foster the interests of poor countries in trade-negotiations, to expand the flow of official development finance (which works well in countries with the rule of law and good economic policy), to encourage flows of private capital to the poorer countries, and to take immediate action on global climate change and other environmental challenges.

In conclusion, the promotion of human rights cannot be seen in isolation from the wider economic situation of the developing world, since this provides the soil in which human rights will either flourish or wither. Today’s global economy offers unprecedented opportunities for accelerating the development of poor countries and poor people. But unless the developing world receives more help, darker forces will take control of their destinies, progress in human rights will be set back, and minorities will be amongst the first to suffer.

Tony Addison is Deputy Director, World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University. This article is based on evidence given to the Foreign Affairs Committee, Finnish Parliament, 27 April 2004.