People-centred Development: What the Arab Spring taught us

True development is not about economic growth; it is about the constant improvement of the wellbeing of people, including through productive investment, the creation of decent jobs and the fair distribution of benefits, without discrimination.

It is a lesson that has been brought home by the Arab Spring.

“Despite the good growth track record, the Tunisian economy has not generated sufficient jobs to employ the growing and better educated labor force,” observed a World Bank document prepared on 17 December 2010. On the same day, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, frustrated by the lack of a decent job and constant harassment, denial of the right to work and extortion by government agents, set himself alight sparking off the Arab Spring that engulfed North Africa and parts of the Middle East.

The challenge of ensuring that economic growth benefits everybody, especially the poor, was the subject of an annual high level meeting of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in New York on 12 – 13 March 2012.

Speaking during the thematic debate “Promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, job creation, productive investment and trade,” Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović, underlined the all important but oft-neglected dimension of human rights.

“Human rights set minimum standards to encourage better decision-making and pro-poor outcomes – and can promote sustained, inclusive and equitable growth, investment and trade,” he said.

“Human rights are good for business,” he asserted. Some business and investment actors are now keener on human rights to mitigate the risks and large financial costs to business arising from ignoring human rights; reputational risks; legal risks; and risk of disinvestment.

Šimonović called for “human rights based policy coherence” in development cooperation, which means supporting authorities that shape business practices to be compliant with the international human rights norms and standards.

“The response of the UN family on economic and social challenges must be both credible and coherent, with human rights as our baseline” he said.

Recalling the Arab Spring, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed that poverty, discrimination and violence feed on each other.

“We urgently need policies that generate jobs.  Decent jobs which pay enough for people to survive and thrive,” he said, adding that sustainable development means nutrition for poor children, safe drinking water and health care in communities.

Martin Rama, the lead author of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2013, argued that jobs are conducive to social cohesion; thus jobs and workers should be protected from human rights and gender perspectives.

Inclusion and participation are essential to development. The Arab spring was not only about lack of jobs, but also imbalances in wages in places where economic growth was high, explained Heiner Flassbek, director of globalization and development strategies at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

The head of development policy at the World Trade Organization, Shishir Priyadarshi, concurred, arguing that an effective development policy must promote human rights and include sustainable, equitable and inclusive growth, as the economic, social and human dimensions of development all fit together.

During the meeting, the UN Human Rights office co-sponsored with the NGO Social Justice in Global Development a side event on “People-centred development: Creating an enabling environment for productive investment and decent jobs”.

The event argued for a shift from merely financial or economic-driven investment to investment in people-centred development. It called for the integration of all human rights, including the right to development, and the principles of participation, accountability and non-discrimination, into development financing activities.

27 March 2012

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