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Food for a non equivalent thought


Human Rights Reader 308
[The time has come for some precisions. When talking or writing about human rights (HR), people too often indistinctively use the terms equity and equality. Let me embark with you in an in-depth analysis of these two concepts to set the record straight of which should be used in HR parlance].


As progress towards the MDGs is achieved, there yet is little evidence of results that are inclusive of people that are discriminated.


18. Despite the lack of data, the evidence of disparities, discrimination and deprivation is, in most cases, patently obvious. In spite of this being obvious, resorting to the legal system for redress has been and is practically impossible.


19. It has to be noted that there are members of discriminated disadvantaged groups though whose achievements may suggest that they do not experience inequalities. The issue here is to avoid using exceptional examples to hide the overwhelming reality* of adverse circumstances and of a lack of opportunities.

*: We live in a paradoxical  century. Chronicity does not allow us to judge reality for what it really is. Wars are acute crises: we all see them and repudiate them. (C. Sepúlveda)


The case of children


20. As noted earlier, children are particularly likely to experience inequalities, and are exceptionally vulnerable to their effects. Children are more exposed to economic inequalities than adults, if nothing else, by virtue of being over-represented in the poorest sectors of society. The struggle to balance household resources is very significantly played out by compromising children’s needs (and rights!). Any shock to household income will invariably affect children. The consequences of inequalities for children are profound. It is estimated that children being affected in these circumstances are actually twice as likely to experience inequality as adults. Besides the diminished capacities that are carried into adulthood, children are also more likely to die. Gender disparities for children of all ages are indeed significant.


Doing more for disadvantaged and discriminated people is not the same as addressing inequalities.


21. In the political domain, it is importantly the lack of information of citizens and a poor communication with them that undermines their participation and the expression of their voices. So much so, that disparities between urban and rural areas are often taken as a proxy for spatial inequalities. A closer analysis suggests that disparities within urban areas are becoming increasingly significant though.


22. Addressing inequalities in the long term ultimately depends on tackling structural barriers. Period. Significant progress in addressing inequalities requires broader and more strategic actions, at all levels. Strengthening the capacity of marginalized people to claim their rights is an integral and indispensable part of all actions geared to tackle inequalities. A fairer distribution of wealth (disparity reduction) should become the core business of human rights work and thus of the post 2015 agenda.


23. Improved access to decent, safe and fairly paid work is necessary to address inequality world-wide. Increased minimum wages, collective bargaining and stronger employment laws have a significant role in addressing inequality. Expanding the scope and scale of labor protection is also important as is supporting and reducing the gap between the formal and the informal sectors.


24. Tax policies that address inequalities need to be firmly progressive and need to ensure the financing of universal access to a comprehensive set of social services. A combination of targeted transfers and the public provision of social services are powerful tools for reducing income inequality. We must thus ensure that tax avoidance becomes politically and publicly unacceptable. The same is true for assuring increased domestic tax compliance, particularly standing up to the tactics of multinational corporations avoiding to pay taxes.


25. Key also is the support of an expanded provision for maternity leave. In general, actions towards social protection offer a powerful means to redistribute wealth, reaching excluded communities and disadvantaged groups. After many many years of experiencing multiple exclusions, people need to, de-facto, become claims-holders thus bringing the many and diverse positive effects of human rights to fruition.



Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate, has argued that most people greatly underestimate the scale of inequalities, diluting pressure for change.


26. The resolution of inequalities is contingent on the engagement, participation and empowerment of people who, for generations, have lacked the opportunity, freedom or capacity to engage. This is necessary for practical reasons, in order to bring to the fore the needs and priorities of those whose interests have previously been overlooked. More importantly, without voice, excluded groups cannot have influence and play an integral role in society; voiceless, they remain apart from mainstream citizenry. (“Nothing about us without us”).


27. A ‘quick-win’ approach can move national statistics relatively easily in the desired direction. The MDGs may be an example. Such an approach tends to improve outcomes strictly within existing structural relationships, without addressing the factors that determine and reproduce inequalities for disadvantaged groups; but the extent of disparity between the most and least privileged groups, does not show significant change.


28. Inequalities in both health and education are strongly related to persistent inequalities in social norms and attitudes (particularly with regards to gender). We know, for instance, that user fees exclude the poorest and most vulnerable people. Measures to address discriminatory social norms are important for the success of any attempt to address inequalities. These measures will have to address tenacious attitudes in families and communities, among service providers and among decision makers and leaders. Inequalities cannot be resolved without the state embracing its responsibilities to the people.


The role of human rights


The human rights framework offers the most comprehensive means of addressing inequalities in the new post2015 development era. (In fact, I would not even wait until 2015 comes around!)


29. Revisions of the existing legal frameworks are needed; they need to be based on the human rights framework which provides normative standards for the elimination of inequalities. The fulfillment of human rights universally and comprehensively requires urgent actions to address inequalities –and any measure to address inequalities is inherently concerned with the fulfillment of human rights! There are many examples of human rights failures and of inequalities in some of the richest countries as well (!), and some of the actions of rich countries directly perpetuate inequalities and human rights failures in poor countries.


30. Institutionalized inequalities are a substantial barrier to progress in human rights. In relation to political inequalities, the latter prevent people from both making claims from public institutions, as well as preventing the extension of popular participation in local and national affairs.


Equality is not a new priority, and indeed it is even more important now than ever.


31. Recapping: Equality means that everyone can realize their rights; it also means that duty bearers must fulfill their obligations to allow that realization. Rich nations have responsibilities that go well beyond the transfer of resources. Their actions too often actually just deepen global inequalities. Rich countries must fulfill the universal rights of their own populations in a non-discriminatory way and must provide assistance to other countries that struggle to do the same. This also means that they must halt actions and policies that result in human rights violations, no matter where and by whom under their control or jurisdiction.


32. Inequalities must be done away with (starting with discrimination when it is involved), or must be progressively reduced (applying equally to all HR violations). There must be a focus on spatial inequalities (e.g., rural/urban and informal/formal urban sectors) with disaggregation of data by wealth quintile and by disadvantaged groups. These should be monitored through nationally participatory processes that particularly focus on the groups that suffer discrimination.


33. Avoiding any reductionist tendency (as we saw in the MDGs era) while finding practical and viable approaches to the monitoring of inequalities lies at the heart of the challenge we face ahead. Accountability from the grassroots up is the name of the game.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City



Adapted from Social and Health Equity and Equality: The need for a scientific framework. A. M. Correa B., M. M. Arias V., J. Carmona-F. , Social Medicine (www.socialmedicine.info), Volume 7, Number 1, December 2012; and Report on the Global Thematic Consultation on Inequalities, UNICEF, UN Women, January 2013.



I write these lines and the reader reads; it is taken for granted that I write it to build a bridge to reach you… But a bridge is not really a bridge until people cross it; a bridge means somebody crossing it. [Tell this to all satisfied builders of five-year plans (or the designers of the post 2015 development agenda)]. (Julio Cortazar)

When all’s said and done
And all questions are answered
Who’ll have the last word?  (J. Koenig)

Aside from having four i’s
Keeps ones goals in sight.   (J. Koenig)



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