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04

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2007

Economic Sharing: A Shift in Global Values
Thursday, 04 October 2007 21:24
by Rajesh Makwana

A growing body of progressives within the global justice movement, including environmentalists, economists and policy makers, broadly agree that a significant overhaul of the world’s economic and political systems is long overdue, and that without significant restructuring our most pressing problems will never be tackled.

Whilst financial wealth soars to new heights for the few, the majority world are growing relatively poorer in the face of unfair trade, debt-based finance and grossly insufficient international aid. At the same time, developing countries have to endure the harsh environmental consequences of the industrial growth that fuels the skewed generation of wealth. Instead of being given the tools to end poverty they find themselves forced to systematically abdicate democratic control over their economies and resources to economically dominant countries and corporations.

Whilst economists and policy makers of the G8 nations remain comfortable in their runaway train of neo-liberal policies, we cannot rely on governments to instigate change until after the train collides. Their systematic prioritization of competition, self-interest, market forces, economic growth and the blatant subsidizing of corporate activity has created an unsustainable, commercialized society and has distorted the very meaning and function of economics. In a world where 2.7 billion people live on less than two-dollars-a-day and 50,000 people die as a result of poverty each day, economic practice can no longer claim to ensure the efficient distribution of resources for all, but rather the maximization of wealth generation without regard for consequence.

It is clear to many that the rogue train is on a collision course with environmental devastation and global economic and financial instability . If that isn’t enough, old Cold War divisions from renewed competition over resources and resentment from marginalized communities throughout the world present themselves as security threats, which are potentially catastrophic in a nuclear age.

It is time for a significant re-evaluation of global economic and political values and the creation of an economy that serves the needs of the global community as a whole, within our environmental limitations. It may seem a vein hope that policy makers will wake-up before the collision, but we can at least be sure that they will take heed once they emerge from the wreck.

Amongst the many fundamental flaws of the global economy are the rapidly globalizing market forces which hold self-interest and competition at their heart. To fuel these forces, there is the unending privatization of resources for the sake of security and profit, and the propagation of economic growth as the panacea for development. This all rests within a corrupt and unstable global financial architecture based largely on speculation and bearing no relevance to the lives of most people. Within this structure, multinational corporations have thrived and shaped the thwarted ideals of consumer society, ensuring grave environmental neglect through overconsumption. In the meantime, the scourge of mass poverty has been neglected and left to commerce and damaging export-oriented trade and agricultural practices that prioritize profit over food security.

With climate change, financial instability and political and economic competition between nations, humanity finds itself at the edge of a dark abyss. Fundamental change is inevitable, and a just and sustainable economy is required at the very least to secure basic human rights and needs for all people everywhere as a priority, ensuring that corporate enterprise serves the public good and that all economic activity occurs within ecological limits and a strict framework for emission reductions.

An effective and uniting global framework for economic and political activity must supersede the restrictive and often divisive prescriptions of socialism, communism and capitalism. Once we overcome such ideologies, many comprehensive and inclusive solutions to these problems present themselves through the work of individuals and institutions around the world. Proposals by ‘green economists’, the International Forum on Globalization, proponents of ‘localization’ and others propose generally to root economic activity in local communities as a way of reducing CO2 emissions, reducing corporate power and reinforcing participatory democracy.

What is missing from these and other proposals, which have at times been interpreted as protectionist and regressive, is an overarching concept for how the global community can continue to operate in an interdependent and globalised capacity, in line with the observable cultural shift towards international unity. The more basic question is how can the outdated values of privatization, self-interest and competition - which drive economic globalization - be fundamentally transformed to reflect principles that more accurately embody our humane nature?

Shifting Economic Values

Privatization, or the enclosure of the global commons for the sake of marketable and profitable commodities, is (and has been since the Middle Ages) the process at the very heart of our individualistic and competitive economy. For centuries, various forms of privatization have allowed corporations to proliferate and amass wealth and influence at the behest of dominant governments and to the advantage of the minority world. Both the commercial drive for profit and the increasingly hostile relationships between many countries stems from this same urge to secure and protect ones national interests. If these selfish drives are not directly transformed as part of any new political and economic framework, any restructuring will be superficial and a return to current geo-political tensions will be inevitable.

Common ground must be established and humanity’s common needs acknowledged; cooperative global interests must replace competitive self-interests. On an individual basis, within families and communities, people have established this sense of unity through the simple act of sharing what they own. Sadly, the process of sharing has been neglected at the international level where it can ensure that the basic needs of all are secured. Sharing, as a simple economic process, cuts to the heart of international relations and has the potential not only to unite, but to transform the driving values which underpin the global economy and thereby guarantee the permanency of political and economic reform.

Ensuring that those resources which are essential to life are no longer owned by corporations or controlled by nationalistic governments is a crucial step in creating a sustainable world economy which does not segregate or disenfranchise, but guarantees to secure the basic needs of all stakeholders. The global cooperative ownership of resources such as basic food, clean water, energy and medicine will involve the transformation of a variety of institutions and the creation of an international trust which can manage these resources on behalf of the global community.

The positive ramifications of identifying and sharing essential resources are manifold and will address many of the key problems presented above, including a significant reduction in corporate power, corporate trade and commodity speculation as essential resources are removed from commercial activity.  The prioritization of local economies, food security and the rapid distribution of the necessary resources needed to achieve this will also lead to a rapid relief from poverty, reduction in inequality, and the end of inadequate aid mechanisms which are often ‘tied’ to benefit donors.

An international commitment to equally sharing our right to the atmosphere, and our right to pollute it, alongside strict targets for emissions reductions, will go a long way to ensuring the viability of life on earth for future generations. The contraction and convergence mechanism works in line with the principle of sharing and provides the necessary framework for CO2 sustainability.

Most importantly, sharing the world’s resources will necessarily internationalize and reinforce economic and political cooperation, thus encouraging peaceful relations between nations. This can pave the way for renewed international agreements on disarmament and non-proliferation, and help end regional, national and sectarian conflicts over resources such as land, water and minerals. With the basic human needs of all people secured, the reasons for disenfranchisement are directly addressed and the threat of terrorist activity greatly reduced.

It should be reiterated that the goal of implementing a system of sharing is twofold. Firstly to rapidly prioritize the needs of the majority world, who presently go without essentials such as adequate food, clean water and basic healthcare; and secondly to ensure that political and economic reform penetrates the very heart of the ‘the system’, transforming the values upon which it is built and not just its operation. Unlike existing theories such as socialism, Marxism or capitalism, sharing cannot be perceived as a divisive ideology by anyone.  Economic sharing is a simple and familiar human process which recognizes the inherent unity of all nations and has the potential to secure basic needs and establish a sustainable world through the global common ownership of essential resources by the global public.

Proposing a System of Sharing

In proposing a possible framework within which resources can be efficiently shared across the world to secure basic human needs, it must be emphasized that this ‘proposal’ is not meant to constitute the definitive method for establishing such a system, but merely presents a possible and logical skeleton for consideration that can be amended over time as further research is undertaken. Ultimately, global economic reform and the establishment of any system of sharing will only be possible after extensive dialogue at the international level, quite probably under the auspices of the United Nations.

This proposal presents campaigners and activists with a viable structure for reform to be considered and debated, and is aimed at clarifying and substantiating a global call for sharing the world’s resources by seeking to answer the question ‘how can sharing be implemented in the global economy?’

It is unlikely that the necessary changes will occur until there is a dramatic turn-around in the thrust of international policy objectives, which may be most likely to occur after significant economic or environmental crises, both of which are likely to occur in the near future as economically dominant nations and multinational corporations maintain the attitude of ‘business as usual’. It is inevitable that, sooner or later, policy makers accept that excessive consumption, fuelled by the liberalization of market forces and short-sighted profit maximization, is the direct cause of climate change, and that these same commercial forces have created an unstable global economy based on speculation and sustained by governments pursuing economic growth at all costs.

If not before, then it will be at this point of crisis that proposals for far-reaching reform will be considered, and a recognition established that we must work together as a global community if we are to create a fairer and sustainable economy. Implicit and fundamental to such thinking must be the recognition that securing the basic needs of those who live in poverty must be the primary objective of any economic system.

Any attempt to redistribute resources more equitably will require global consensus for action and the transfer of economic power away from multinational corporations to a council of governments as they organize a framework within which essential resources, production and services can be re-directed to prioritize the securing of basic human needs.

International discussion is likely to centre on the United Nations whose vast humanitarian experience places it in good stead to coordinate reform, despite its many flaws.

The United Nations

Given its international membership and humanitarian charter, the UN system is clearly the only international body with the experience and resources to address global economic reform. In its current state, however, the UN is far too handicapped to initiate such change. Over the past 20 years, the US in particular has undermined the UN’s effectiveness by withholding pre-agreed and essential funding. The main reason for this is self preservation, as US economic hegemony is not compatible with the UN’s humanitarian principles. Instead, funding has been diverted to the largely undemocratic international financial institutions that favor America’s economic ideologies – The WTO, World Bank and IMF.

The UN system must be restructured and revitalized, firstly to ensure that the democratic power to make and act upon decisions resides within the General Assembly. It should be also provided with all the resources necessary to fulfill its original mandate of regulating global economic affairs, strengthening international cooperation and promoting peace. The UN must be allowed to live up to its charter, in particular Article 55.

International dialogue for reform must be centered on these principles, alongside the principle of sharing as the appropriate value with which to secure these universal rights. Once sharing has been accepted as the guiding principle for a reformed economic system, it would be necessary to create an additional, fully representative and accountable body within the UN responsible for organizing a global framework for sharing and thereafter to coordinate the global redistribution of resources. For the time being we can call such a body the ‘UN Council for Resource Sharing (UNCRS)’.

A United Nations Council for Resource Sharing (UNCRS)

All participant countries should be fairly represented in the UNCRS, and all members would subscribe to a declaration of mutual benefit and equality. At all stages, the process should be transparent and directed by member countries representing their citizens’ needs.  The activities of the UNCRS would be strictly in the interests of the global community, would be free of any national political or commercial gain and would eventually replace existing international aid, development and poverty reduction strategies.

Sharing essential resources would naturally create a more manageable international trade and finance framework, under which existing international financial institutions (such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO) would be rendered broadly redundant and could be progressively dismantled. Established agencies, such as the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), are well equipped to take over as the arbiters and overseers of the remaining international trade, finance and development mechanisms.

An international strategy to rapidly alleviate extreme poverty and to ensure that essential resources are shared in the longer term will require the UNCRS to initiate two programs of reform. In the short term a United Nations Emergency Redistribution Program (UNERP) – to end needless deaths from extreme poverty, and in the longer term a global system for sharing essential resources – The Global Sharing Network (GSN) – to ensure an ongoing sharing of resources that can create a more sustainable economy. 

The United Nations Emergency Redistribution Program (UNERP)

A similar program to transfer essential resources from 'north to south' was first proposed in the Brandt Report (1980) but, despite widespread approval, the necessary political will to implement the proposals was sadly lacking. Humanity cannot afford this level of political complacency again; not to act is to condemn millions of people to needless hardship and death.

The process of an UNERP would be structurally and ideologically different from existing aid mechanisms, and the goal would be to prevent the deaths of the 50,000 people who die each day from poverty, within a three year period. This would be achieved through the universal provision of essential resources, regardless of cost implications. The emphasis would be on the redistribution of existing material resources, outside of the market system, and not simply the pooling and redirection of patronage aid. Necessarily, countries with the greatest surpluses of each individual resource would be first in line to share their excess, a responsibility that would naturally fall on the shoulders of more affluent and productive countries.

The UNCRS would utilize existing sources of data from UN agencies, the World Bank and NGOs for these figures. Where there is insufficient or disputed data, the UNCRS would turn to member country governments and where necessary conduct local surveys within countries. This information would form the basis of a global network for sharing resources (as detailed below) as part of a more comprehensive system of sharing.

Any such program would require calculating the most urgent national and global requirements, which would include basic food, clean water and essential medication. Available data would enable the UNCRS to determine the quantities of each of these provisions that donors must supply, and determine which countries are best placed to supply them. The UNCRS would then coordinate international efforts to redistribute these essential resources to where they are most urgently required. It is feasible that the army, navy, air force, other military bodies as well as members of the public around the world would be involved in the redistribution effort.

The UN Emergency Redistribution Program (UNERP) differs significantly from existing development structures as most of the ‘aid’ or redistributed resources will not be channeled through governmental bureaucracies, but mobilized directly on the ground where it is required in the form of food, water and medicine. The resulting self-sufficiency and direct access to resources will end the dependency that developing countries have on systems of aid, which will in turn bring an end to the existing aid mechanisms which are grossly insufficient and often corrupted by political, economic or commercial interests, or nation-specific foreign policy objectives.

Restructuring the World Economy and Sharing Resources

Reform of the world economy and the establishing of a wider system of sharing should begin as soon as the UN Emergency Relief Program (UNERP) has gained momentum. Whereas the UNERP is a tool for the immediate relief of those in extreme poverty, a parallel restructuring of the global economy would be necessary to ensure that the wider basic needs of the global public can be met in perpetuity. This includes the right to healthcare, education, housing and clothing.

Since the world economy is largely capitalistic at present and based on production and consumption for the sake of wealth accumulation, the aim of reform would be to mitigate the prevalence of market forces and commercialization. In order to correct the unequal distribution of resources around the world, to end poverty and to highlight the commonality of nations, those resources which are common to all people and necessary for life must be made universally available. Re-establishing the stake that humanity has in the world's natural resources, produced goods and services will necessarily involve government intervention to minimize corporate and nationalistic control over them.

The management, production and distribution of essential resources must be organized to ensure that only after the basic human needs of all people are satisfied can they be made commercially available to other economic entities for the purpose of profitable production or consumption. This must occur within a reformed commercial framework which benefits local communities and ensures that resources are made available for all nations to become self sufficient and productive to the best of their capabilities.

Broader political and economic reform on a global scale will also be necessary if sustainability and economic justice is to be permanently established. Complimentary measures include implementing the principles of economic localization and subsidiarity to significantly reduce corporate influence, regulate corporate activity and strengthen local economies, production and food security. Implementing the contraction and convergence model of global carbon emissions reduction and encouraging energy efficiency would, alongside many other measures, also be crucial. Many other suitable measures for global reform have gained wide support amongst progressives, activists and alternative economists worldwide and cannot be discussed here.

Comprehensive reform can ensure that the selfish interests of economic entities, whether they are countries or corporations, will be superseded by the combined interests of the global community. A true internationalism which can foster peaceful relations between nations and the cooperative advancement of humanity can then be established. Clearly many of the above measures are interdependent. For example, by encouraging the local production and consumption of resources, the inefficient and carbon heavy practices of international freight transportation of many resources will be significantly reduced, making it easier to achieve stricter emissions targets.

In order to institute a broader system of sharing it will be necessary to determine more comprehensively what constitutes ‘essential resources’, and therefore come to a global consensus regarding levels of need and consumption. It will also be necessary to create a framework to safeguard these resources and to establish a global network to facilitate their international distribution. Each of these issues is considered in more detail below.

Determining Essential Resources and Needs

Implicit in any such system, however, is the need for affluent countries which currently over-consume resources to consume less and learn to live sustainably within global ecological limits. Reducing over-consumption and preventing unnecessary waste would ensure that sufficient resources are available globally to meet all citizens’ needs.

Rampant and unnecessary commercialization can be addressed through measures to regulate corporate activity; energy consumption can be reduced by cutting back on inefficient corporate trade structures and lowering food miles; and economic localization and sharing resources according to need can help further develop distributional efficiency. A gradual contraction and convergence method, similar to that applied to emission reductions by the Global Commons Institute, would have to be employed in relation to general consumption around the world.

In order to consider how the ownership and management of key resources could be organized, it is useful to group them according to type. There are three general categories: 

  • Naturally occurring resources – e.g. land, water, oil, gas and mineral ores
  • Produced goods – e.g. agricultural produce, medicines, building materials and machinery
  • Services – e.g. utilities, healthcare and education
The management of each of these types of resources would have to be structured differently at the international level, which will require an invigoration of some existing international bodies and the creation of certain new mechanisms, as outlined below.

Holding Natural Resources in Trust - A Global Commons Trust

To reverse the insidious and selfish enclosure of the global commons, the right for all to have access to and benefit from common resources must be returned to world citizens. Only through responsible trusteeship divorced from the profit motive can we be sure that the world’s natural complement of resources can be managed sustainably to secure the urgent needs of current and future generations. Common resources could include land, water, the atmosphere, oil, gas, coal, iron, bauxite, copper and other essential minerals and metals.

A trust is a suitable legal mechanism to ensure that essential resources are managed in the interests of the global community. Internationally identified common resources can be written into a ‘Global Commons Trust (GCT)’. The beneficiaries of the trust would be all world citizens, whilst the trustees would be a fully representative and international body – the UN Council for Research Sharing (UNCRS). The trust would be created on the premise that the specified common assets must be utilized in a manner that prioritizes securing the basic needs of humanity.

Producing Essential Goods

Where it makes sound ecological and economical sense, the production of goods from raw materials should be sited near to where the resources are naturally located. Governments, working in cooperation with the UNCRS, would then be responsible for organizing production to ensure that global needs can be secured. Depending on the country of origin, levels of local need, aggregate global needs and other factors, a proportion of produced goods would be allocated for global redistribution, whilst a portion would be made available for local consumption.

Within the context of the wider reforms mentioned above, governments would have a range of options open to them for how to organize the production of goods such as basic agricultural produce, essential medicine, and much-needed building materials. They could establish national production facilities for goods which suit their national compliment of resources through a process of full or part nationalization of existing industries. However it may be more efficient, especially in the early stages, to make use of the existing productive facilities owned by multinationals, for example existing producers could be mandated to donate a suitable proportion of their goods to help secure global needs. Another option is that larger corporations are broken down into their smaller components for local communities to organize cooperative production facilities, as has been the case in some Latin American countries such as Argentina.

Providing Essential Services

Currently the World Health organization (WHO) leads the field in facilitating international healthcare and has detailed research on where and which types of healthcare services are required. Similarly, the United Nations Educational and Social Council (UNESCO) is at the forefront of the ‘Education for All’ movement and has information regarding how and where programs should be implemented and which resources are necessary to secure universal education.

Apart from various awareness-raising and monitoring NGOs, however, there is no global agency which is directly involved in overseeing the provision of utilities such as water or energy. Increasingly, these services are not even managed by governments but are in the hands of private corporations.

Once the right to energy and water is internationalized through a Global Commons Trust, a new World Utility Organization can begin to coordinate the provision of essential utilities and engage in research activities to ensure that relevant and up-to-date information is available where required. Such an organization could coordinate local groups, non-profit companies and cooperative organizations to manage the provision of utility services. It may also be possible in the short term for existing corporations, under international mandates, to lend their expertise and resources to these projects.

A Global Sharing Network (GSN)

In order to practically establish a system of sharing within the global economy, the UN Council for Resource Sharing (UNCRS) would set up and coordinate a Global Sharing Network (GSN). The GSN would measure the changing levels of excess production in each country, then calculate how much of any resource a country is able to redistribute to another and ensure that excess resources are shared efficiently and with minimal impact on the environment, by ensuring that goods travel the shortest possible distance at all times.

The UNCRS would provide logistical support in the creation of networks within countries to ensure that correct information is fed back to the GSN. Such networks are likely to comprise of civil society groups which monitor resource levels locally and regionally, and a governmental body which coordinates and collates this information to feedback to the GSN. Members of the community would be encouraged to form local and regional assemblies to ensure that the basic needs of the public are accurately represented. They would also assist in the distribution of resources received from other regions or countries.

The process of sharing basic resources in this way is essentially a democratic and direct route to economic development. The method would ensure a ‘bottom up’ development controlled by those most affected, and not an imposed ‘top-down’ process. Local and regional assembly structures of this kind would also enable genuine political participation to become a reality.

How Sharing can Transform the World Economy

In a global economy where essential resources are shared, the primary objective would not be commerce, trade liberalization or economic growth, but the production and global distribution of all resources that are essential to life. Adopting a system of sharing will mean that the majority of commodities and goods that are currently traded would instead be cooperatively owned and distributed by the global public through the UN Council for Resource Sharing (UNCRS). As a result, international trade in commodities and their derivatives will be significantly reduced and confined to non-essential goods, and commercial interests would have no direct influence on economic sharing. Corporations would operate within this new global framework to serve the remaining economic, industrial and technological needs of society.

Sharing would ensure that essential domestic needs are largely met at the local level, thereby reducing dependency on foreign imports of essential goods. As a consequence, there would be less need for developing countries to agree to prohibitive trade agreements, whether multilateral or bilateral. This would free the population to develop their own industry and economy, making it eventually possible to decommission the WTO. Divorcing essential resources from financial markets will dramatically reduce the amount of stock and financial derivatives related to the stocks that are speculated upon and traded. This will help to reduce the global financial instability that many economists and analysts believe will, sooner or later, result in an international economic crisis and world stock market collapse.

Sharing resources would also mean that developing nations require less foreign exchange reserves as they will be purchasing fewer goods from abroad. This would reduce the need for developing countries to turn to the IMF for loans and accrue crippling debts. It would therefore be possible to eventually decommission the IMF.

Conclusion

A system of sharing should be implemented within a framework for wider economic reform once policy makers admit that economic instability and climate change are the result of unfettered market forces, commercialization and overconsumption. The overriding impetus for reform must be to create the necessary economic and political conditions for ending poverty, protecting the environment and creating a united world in which justice replaces inequality.  

The common ownership of resources, goods and services which are essential to life and their cooperative management by the international community goes further than existing calls for economic reform which include localization, subsidiarity and corporate regulation. Implementing the principle of sharing in world economic and political affairs replaces the values of competition and self-interest upon which these systems are based with the more humane values of cooperation and common interest. In this way, economic sharing ensures that fundamental issues such as the prevalence of market forces are addressed by removing key resources from commercial control, thereby reducing corporate power and influence and destabilizing speculative activity on financial markets.

Much more research and dialogue is clearly required at the international level before any program of international reform and economic sharing can be constructed. The above proposal, however, provides a starting point for further research and demonstrates that it is both necessary and possible for reform on this scale to be initiated if the world community seriously commits itself to ending poverty, mitigating climate change and creating a sustainable economy.

This is an edited version of a more detailed article which can be read here 

Rajesh Makwana is the Director of Share The World's Resources (STWR), an NGO campaigning for global economic and social justice. He can be contacted at rajesh@stwr.net

Copyright 2007 Share The World's Resources (www.stwr.net)
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