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Slowly, progressive social movements start to see the need for concrete social alternatives to the dominant system and for going beyond poverty reduction.

Discourses on debt auditing, on financial transaction taxes, on public banks and/or on alternative currencies, are making their way and are becoming acceptable while maintaining their utopian dimension. This does not mean these ideas are on the verge of being put into practice, but they are ready to be implemented whenever the time is ripe. Because we know that there are alternatives and that another world is possible.

Why not have universal social protection and why not declare poverty illegal?





At the level of social policies, two new ideas are being developed and perfectly fit within a broader coherent framework that deserves to be promoted.

The first one concerns the idea of a universal social protection system. Poverty reduction programs – from PRSPs to MDGs  - having failed and at any rate are largely insufficient to stop the growing inequalities in today’s world. They cannot be accepted any longer as worthy alternatives in a world with more than ten million ‘high net worth individuals’ and one billion and a half people living on less than 1,25 $ a day. This inequality is not only immoral and decadent, it leads to conflicts and political instability.

Several UN documents of the last years have pointed to the insufficiencies of the poverty reduction strategies. They have also pointed to a new feasible and affordable alternative: a universal social protection system at national levels. Indeed, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights speaks about an adequate standard of living, a right to health, to education and to social security. This has been translated into an International Covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, back in 1966. However, during the cold war, a distinction has been made between civil and political rights on the one hand, and these economic, social and cultural rights on the other, the former being considered as being ‘free’ and able to be introduced at once, the latter having to be introduced ‘progressively’, according to economic development of countries and their ability to pay the costs. Many scholars have proved this reasoning to be biased, since many civil and political rights are quite expensive to introduce – a right to a fair trial e.g. – while some social and economic rights do not cost anything – the right to unionize or to strike e.g.  Moreover, the progressivity of social and economic rights do not allow for any regressivity, while in reality many social protection systems have been dismantled.  In promoting their poverty reduction programs, some organizations explicitly stated that poverty should have the priority instead of social security. But by abandoning social security, more and more poverty is being created … In fact, we know by now that decent jobs, social security and public services are the best way to prevent poverty.

 It is clear that social protection systems of western European countries will have to be modernized. Societies and the economy have changed a lot in the past fifty years, the breadwinner’s model will have to be abandoned, women are participating in the labor market and deserve full and individual rights, too many people are working poor, flexibility and lifelong learning need a place in social security. Also, the concept itself of social protection needs to be re-defined, with social assistance and social security, but also with public services – water, health, education, housing … - and the major aspects of labor law. The decent work agenda of the ILO is a clear indication. Last but not least, social protection will have to take into account new rights which will have to protect people from climate change, like humanitarian rights, a right to water and to energy, etc.

Today, several UN organizations are reflecting on this new kind of universal social protection, which tackles in the first place the impoverishment processes and the growing inequality. These proposals deserve to be supported since they are an important step away from neoliberal dominant thinking. Their aim is not to have people participate in labor markets, but, as in the old days, to protect people against markets. In whatever economic, social or political system one lives, this protection is always necessary.

Declare poverty ‘illegal’.

A second proposal is fully in line with universal social protection systems. The University of the Common Good, founded by Riccardo Petrella, is now launching its proposal to ‘declare poverty illegal’ by 2018, the year the second UN decade on the eradication of poverty will end and the year of the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Its basic idea is very simple but very interesting: in the same way as humankind declared slavery illegal in the 19th century, now is the time to declare poverty illegal. This can become a very strong tool in the hands of people and social movements fighting for their dignity. Slavery and poverty are both phenomena which have nothing to do with an ‘original’ situation, but both have been created by humankind and by an exploitative economic and social system. Declaring poverty illegal does not make it disappear, but it points in the direction of stopping impoverishment processes, tackling inequality and protecting people with social and economic rights, labor law and public services.

The Common Good of Humanity

If both proposals could be linked to the proposal to have a UN Declaration on the Common Good of Humankind, as was discussed in the ‘Stiglitz Commission’ at the UN in 2009, we would have a strong framework for claiming social justice going hand in hand with environmental justice.

These proposals come in time to prepare the other world the 99 % of us are firmly fighting for. If some people are worried about the cost of it all, just think of what a just domestic tax system and a global financial transaction tax would yield, especially if they can work within a new financial architecture. On these points as well, the proposals are ready. We have an alternative.


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