Human rights pave the way to global prosperity

Denmark, Economic & Social Rights, Op-ed

In an editorial published in Danish media, EuroMed Rights calls for Denmark to join the UN’s proposal for an international fund for social protection.

Denmark has much both to gain and to give by joining the UN’s recent initiative for an international fund for social protection. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has quietly broken with decades of minimal state thinking and created global momentum for a number of policies that have traditionally characterised the Scandinavian welfare model. We have seen it in how states around the world have been willing to accelerate borrowing to withstand the effects of the pandemic, and echoed in a number of emergent new policy initiatives. The latest example is a proposal for the creation of a Global Fund for Social Protection that the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, presented to the Human Rights Council on 30 June. The fund would assist the world’s states in providing financial support to their citizens who are affected by social or economic setbacks in cases of illness, disability, pregnancy, work injury, unemployment, old age or death in the family. The proposal is therefore based on the human rights conventions’ principles that economic, social and cultural human rights apply to everyone. The fund is intended to provide technical expertise as well as financial assistance to strengthen the capacity of states to generate public resources to meet these costs through, inter alia, fiscal policy, the fight against corruption, tax reform, international debt relief and social investment.  

The idea for a global fund addresses a massive global need. While public investment in Scandinavian countries has shielded most inhabitants from the worst economic consequences of the pandemic, the situation is very different in many other national contexts. According to the UN, 2.7 billion people have not received aid to see them through the pandemic, despite millions having lost their jobs. A challenge is that large parts of the global workforce operate without formal employment. According to UN estimates, 61% of the global workforce is in precarious or informal employment, and over half the world’s population – some 4 billion people in total – is without any form of guaranteed social safety net. This has contributed to some 115 million people falling into extreme poverty during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 alone – and the UN estimates that another 35 million are at risk of following suit before the end of 2021.   

These problems are not only visible in developing countries. Europe’s southern neighbours, the Middle East and North Africa, are home to some of the world’s most unequal societies. A woman in a Middle Eastern or North African country earns on average 40% less than a man. And in the world’s most unequal region – the Middle East – the richest 10% of the region’s population account for as much as 56% of national income. By comparison, the richest 10% of Europe’s population account for 35% of national income. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated these inequalities. In many cases, policies and institutions to help those who lost their income during the crisis have been lacking. With a few exceptions such as Jordan, Tunisia and Algeria, coherent social protection policies are non-existent in the region, with the consequence that less than 10% of the population is formally socially insured (as compared to around 84% of the population in Europe).  

It should consequently be clear that Denmark should strongly support De Schutter’s proposal for a global social fund. What began as a Social Democratic idea, subsequently incorporated into almost every Danish government’s policy throughout the second half of the 20th century – that the welfare state and its social policies should progress- is a living success story. International research has time and again shown that investment in minimum social protection at the household level has a range of benefits:  families invest more in their children’s education, health and access to food is increased, and child mortality is reduced.  Social welfare also drastically reduces inequality, a phenomenon which Danish researchers have also highlighted the adverse effects of: among other things, inequality has significant negative effects on economies and economic growth, and is inextricably linked to conflict, albeit in complex ways. As we have seen in Denmark, social welfare is an investment in society that better equips people to educate themselves, find work and support themselves, and thus reinvest in society. Social protection also plays a stabilising role in times of economic downturn because of its poverty-reducing effects and its ability to increase the consumption levels of low-income households. Thus, households can increase their savings, protecting them from having to sell land, productive assets or other income-generating assets in times of crisis.  

This is precisely why the idea behind the Global Fund is, furthermore, an interesting alternative to the thinking that drives the Danish government’s asylum and immigration policies. Rather than undermining international cooperation on migration and asylum with initiatives that threaten to trample human rights, it expresses a visionary and constructive belief that the Danish and Scandinavian welfare model is the way forward globally. Instead of fencing ourselves in and introducing risky instruments which graze  the edge of international law, such as the much-discussed plan to outsource Danish asylum processing to third countries,  a fund of this kind shows a path by which  Denmark can purposefully use its decades of experience to help lift up the rest of the world’s societies – all the while supporting a border and asylum policy that is safely anchored in international cooperation as well as  human rights and international law.  

This is not a pipe dream. The UN’s labour organisation, the ILO, estimates that the world’s low-income countries currently have a financing gap of around $77.9 billion. Of this, some $41.8 billion is needed to ensure  the health of 711 million people. The Global Fund for Social Protection will not create new dependency. Instead, the plan will allow countries to gradually increase their own funding levels for social protection – just as Denmark has done domestically throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The Fund will  help both to find new sources of domestic revenue and ensure sustainable levels of support for countries requiring assistance. In this way, the aim is to make the fund itself redundant over time, and it is envisaged that it will be phased out as recipient countries improve their capacity to raise taxes gradually and provide universal social protection. The Danish government should seize the increased opportunities to secure support for global welfare created by the COVID-19. With more than 100 years of experience, Denmark can become a major player in such efforts. Root causes of migration can be addressed in sustainable ways, and Denmark can hopefully regain the respect it has commanded internationally over the past decades for its ability to ensure social protection for all. 

Ramus Alenius Boserup, Executive Director at EuroMed Rights and Frederik Johannisson, EuroMed Rights’ Economic and Social Rights Officer  

This editorial was first published in Danish media Courtesy translation into English.

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