June 22, 2016
A Toast to the Right to Development
by Martin Khor
Many problems threatening the world can be addressed through the lens of the Right to Development – that should be celebrated on its 30th anniversary.
THE Declaration on the Right to Development is 30 years old. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1986, it has had an illustrious history, having great resonance among and giving a boost to people fighting for freedom and more participation in national affairs, as well as to developing nations striving for a fairer world economic order.
It has been invoked by the leaders and diplomats of developing countries on numerous occasions, when they try to convince their counterparts of the developed countries to show more empathy for the needs of the poorer countries.
It has a central place in the Rio Principles of the 1992 Earth Summit, and most recently it was mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
On this 30th anniversary, it is fitting to recall the important elements of this right to development. It is human and people-centred, an inalienable human right “to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.”
Politicians and policy makers should take human beings as the central focus of their development policies, and ensure they can actively participate in the process of development and development policy, as well as benefit from the fruits of development. (Article 2.3).
But the Declaration also places great importance on the international arena. States have the duty to cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development (Article 3.3).
And effective international cooperation is essential in providing developing countries with appropriate means and facilities to foster their comprehensive development (Article 4.2).
The right to development recognises that there are national and international obstacles to the realisation of the right to development, and it calls for states to take steps to eliminate these obstacles.
It is useful to identify some present global problems and how they affect the right to development.
First, the global economy in crisis. The economic sluggishness in developed countries has had adverse impact on developing economies.
They are facing low commodity prices, and reduced export earnings. They face great fluctuations in the inflow and outflow of funds, due to absence of controls over speculative capital flows and fluctuations in the value of their currencies due to lack of a global mechanism to stabilise currencies.
Some countries are on the brink of another debt crisis. There is for them no international sovereign debt restructuring mechanism and countries that do their own debt workout may well become victims of vulture funds.
Second, the challenges of implementing appropriate development strategies.
There are challenges in developing countries to have policies right in agricultural production, ensuring adequate incomes for small farmers, and national food security.
Industrialisation involves the challenges of climbing the ladder, moving from labour-intensive low-cost industries to higher technology industries and overcoming the middle-income trap.
There are the challenges to providing social services like health care and education and water supply, lighting and transport as well as developing financial services and commerce.
This policy-making is even more difficult due to premature liberalisation, some of which is due to loan conditionality and to trade and investment agreements which also constrain policy space.
In particular, many investment agreements enable foreign investors to take advantage of imbalanced provisions and shortcomings in the arbitration system that cause countries to lose a lot in compensation and also have a chill effect on their right to regulate and to formulate policies. A review is needed.
Third, climate change is an outstanding example of an environmental constraint to development and the right to development. There is an imperative to cut global emissions as sharply and quickly as possible. But which countries and which groups within countries should cut emissions, and by how much?
The danger is that the burden will mainly be passed on to developing and poorer countries and to the poor and vulnerable in each country.
The Paris Agreement of December 2015 was a success in terms of reaching a multilateral deal.
But it is not ambitious enough to save humanity, and it also failed to deliver confidence that the promised transfers of finance and technology will take place. Much more has to be done and within a few years.
Fourth, the crisis of anti-microbial resistance brings dangers of a post-antibiotic age. Many diseases are becoming increasingly difficult to treat because bacteria have become more and more resistant to anti-microbials.
The World Health Organisation Director General has warned that every antibiotic ever developed is at risk of becoming useless and that we are entering a post-antibiotic era.
The World Health Assembly in 2015 adopted a global plan of action to address anti-microbial resistance but the challenge is in the implementation.
Developing countries require funds and technology such as microscopes and diagnostic tools; they also need to have access to existing and new antibiotics at affordable prices.
Fifth, the challenges of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, which are closely linked to the right to development.
For example, Goal 3 is “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. One of the targets is to achieve universal health coverage, that no one should be denied treatment because they cannot afford it. But unless there are sufficient funds, this will remain an unfulfilled noble target.
The treatment for HIV/AIDS became more widespread only when generics were made available at cheaper prices, and since then millions of lives have been saved.
Many of the new cancer drugs and the new “biologics” are priced above US$100,000 (RM408,850) for a year’s treatment. Unfortunately, due to global patent rules, most patients have no access to cheaper generics.
For the SDGs to succeed, finance and technology have to be transferred to developing countries and some international rules on trade and intellectual property have to be altered if they are found to be obstacles to the right to development.
All the above global challenges have to be diagnosed as to where they comprise obstacles to realising the right to development, and the obstacles should then be removed.
That is easier said than done. But the Declaration has thrown light on the way ahead.
Martin Khor (email@example.com) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.