Beijing Forum 2011

Justice matters in global economic development

Daniel Little
University of Michigan-Dearborn
Beijing Forum 2011
November, 2011

Little, Daniel. 2011. "Justice matters in global economic development." Beijing Forum 2011, Beijing: Peking University, November 2011.

Opening remarks

It is an honor to have the opportunity to address you today. My subject is the role of ethical principles in the conduct of economic development planning and strategy. Bluntly, what does just development involve, and why should policy makers care?

The field of "development ethics" has been around for at least fifty years, since the publications of Gunnar Myrdal (Myrdal, 1968). But it has received more focus and attention in the past thirty years, led by the brilliant work of Amartya Sen. Sen has many qualifications for theorizing about the ethics of development. He is a Nobel prize winning economist, he is an Asian by birth, and he has a penetrating mind when it comes to issues of the greatest importance – famine (Sen, 1981), the treatment of women in developing countries (Sen, 1990), and the nature of wellbeing (Sen and Hawthorn, 1987), to name several.

It is sometimes thought that the study of ethics is not very "practical". It is thought to be too theoretical and general to offer guidance in real-world dilemmas, it is perhaps too Eurocentric, and it perhaps depends on assumptions that are highly debatable (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, ...). And, most damning, it might be thought that ethical theories ultimately don't give clear guidance in the most important areas of action. Perhaps some of these concerns are legitimate. But I am here to argue that none of these failures create much difficulty when it comes to topics concerning just economic development (Little 2003).

Because really, almost all of us can be brought to agreement about the fundamentals of human wellbeing and equity. We don't need a highly technical philosophy of justice to arrive at a very robust set of principles to guide our thinking. The greatest challenge we face is not that justice is hard to discover. Rather, it is that powerful interests in the world have purposes that are flatly contrary to the requirements of justice. So the real challenge for us is to find ways of improving the justice of our global society in the face of powerful countervening pressures.

I will argue, further, that addressing this challenge is of the greatest importance to humanity. Injustice is a causal force in the world, and it is a force that leads to conflict, violence, and human destruction. Rightly understood, injustice is a tectonic force that leads eventually to powerful earthquakes. But unlike plate tectonics, we can do something about the social forces associated with injustice. And we must, if we are to help our planet evolve to a more peaceful and harmonious condition. And this is, after all, the topic before us at this Beijing Forum.

The current reality

Critics of globalization have emphasized several central themes in recent years.  Does globalization inevitably involve the exploitation of poor countries by rich countries?  Do multinational corporations acquire too much power in an increasingly globalized world?  Does the pace of globalization create economic processes that lead to environmental harms—perhaps disproportionately in poor countries?  Do these processes lead to conditions of labor throughout the world that are inconsistent with reasonable standards of human development and well-being?  And does the process of globalization lead to intensification of inequality, both between rich and poor countries, and within developing countries themselves? 

The facts about poverty and inequality in the developing world are well known. Poverty is endemic and debilitating in many parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. There has been some progress on poverty, not on inequality in the past decade, and much of the progress on poverty has occurred in China. There is famine in Africa and North Korea and substantial food insecurity in many countries in Asia and Africa. There remains a very serious power imbalance within and across countries, leading to mistreatment of the poor as individuals and as populations. There is endemic predation of resources by powerful insiders in many countries -- Myanmar, Brazil, and even India, for example. And there are all too many examples of governments that trample on the rights, wellbeing, and dignity of their own populations, and of powerful outsiders taking advantage of weaker countries for resources -- agriculture, water, minerals.

These current realities have major implications for justice. They imply relations of exploitation, based on superior power. They imply deprivation of some populations of the resources needed for a decent life. They imply a suppression of basic human freedoms, like the freedom to make choices for him/herself or the freedom to express opinions and participate in a public form of decision making.

Basis for a theory of justice in development

There is a clear and reasonably uncontroversial basis for a simple theory of justice that all nations and cultures can accept. This is grounded a few core values about human development and is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Millennium Development Goals, and other founding documents of the United Nations. This conception emphasizes several key values:
  • equal worth of all persons
  • value of freedom
  • value of democracy and self-determination
  • the injustice of hunger, lack of education, lack of healthcare
  • the injustice of capricious arrest and state violence (illegality)
The equality of worth of all persons is an essential moral fact. All persons are equally deserving of attention. And much follows from this fact. The extreme inequalities of life prospects between citizens of the north and the south are inconsistent with this principle. The persistence of anti-democratic and authoritarian regimes throughout the developing world is inconsistent with the equal rights and worth of the citizens who suffer under those regimes. And the inequalities of voice that are present in current international institutions represent an affront to the moral equality of all persons who are affected by those institutions.

These values provide a basis for steering our core institutions and practices in the direction of greater justice: whenever it is possible to reform institutions and practices in ways that enhance one or more of these factors, we should do so.  Policy makers and legislators can ask the question, how will this or that change to a set of institutions affect the well-being of individuals and populations affected; how will the change affect the freedoms and opportunities for self-determination of the people affected; how will it work to increase the effective scope of law within various societies?

We can turn these observations of the contemporary world into components of a theory of global justice. Political and economic institutions need to create conditions in which citizens enjoy --
  • Freedom from exploitation
  • Effective rule of law
  • Freedom from violence and coercion
  • Freedom from poverty and hunger
  • Access to the necessities of human development: education, healthcare, housing, and nutrition
Sen's capabilities approach

Are there philosophical principles that would provide a secure foundation for these commonsensical ethical ideas? There are. Here I will focus on the insights that Amartya Sen has provided within economics and development theory on the subject of global justice and the ends of development. Sen's most recent work on global justice topics is his The Idea of Justice (Sen, 2009), in which he offers an alternative to John Rawls's approach to the problem.  Here he gives primacy to the value of full human development as a benchmark for global justice, and he advocates for the importance of piecemeal, practical improvements for the condition of the disadvantaged. His whole career, however, lays the basis for his current thinking about global justice.

So what does global justice require? A society is more just when it does a better job overall of enabling its citizens to realize their capacities and freedoms. Sen argues that the fundamental goal of development should be to create social and economic institutions within which every individual is enabled to fulfill his/her capabilities and to realize the functionings of a full human life (Sen, 1999).  And Martha Nussbaum extended this idea with particular emphasis on the ways in which gender inequalities in development have deeply harmed women in the developing world (Nussbaum, 2000).

Sen's writings have done much to clarify the human reality of economic development. His special contribution has been to establish the linkages between the philosophical theories and ideas in this tradition, on one side, and the practical exigencies of economic development planning, on the other. He argues for the importance of creating conditions in which people can fulfill and actualize their human capabilities. In his lectures on the standard of living, Sen distinguishes between a commodity-based definition of the standard of living and a "human functioning" view of well-being (Sen and Hawthorn, 1987). His seminal insight is that we are centrally concerned with the human being in possession of a bundle of capabilities that can be either realized or impeded through the economic and social environment in which the person is located. Living well means having the opportunity to fully develop one's capabilities, to formulate a satisfying plan of life, and to have reasonable freedoms and opportunities to carry out one's life plan.

What has turned out to be enormously important in Sen's framework of capabilities and functionings is its relevance to the topic of economic development.  We want economic development to lead to an overall improvement in human happiness.  But how should such a goal be assessed and measured?  By offering a concrete theory of functionings, Sen lays a basis for attempting to empirically measure changes in functionings over time.  Literacy, for example, is an important functioning for the human being.  Extremely poor societies invest very little in formal education, and literacy in the population is low.  We can make a very concrete argument that a given strategy of development is improving human well-being if we can demonstrate that it is leading to a higher level of attainment of literacy.  Health itself is a complex functioning for the human being; here too, it is possible to measure progress in health achievements in different societies.  So the functionings approach provides a concrete way of trying to assess progress in economic development processes.  The approach is a great improvement over the "average GDP" approach, since Sen demonstrates in numerous places that average income implies something about access to commodities, but it has only a weak connection to the functionings that the population is able to realize.
The Human Development Index championed by the United Nations Development Programme takes advantage of the insights contained in the capabilities approach (United Nations Development Programme, 2011).  HDI includes three measures: life expectancy, literacy, and per capita GDP.  A very powerful argument can be made that societies that make the most progress in improving their HDI levels have made more progress in improving human well-being than those that increase GDP but fail to improve factors like literacy and health.  It will not surprise the reader to learn that Sen's writings and advocacy played a crucial role in the design of the HDI.
The workings of the HDI within the UNDP and the international community provide a marvelous example of the central argument of my talk today: thinking about justice matters, and good ethical reasoning can have material effects towards improving the well-being of the world’s population. The links from the philosophy of well-being to the formulation of a set of United Nations measures of development to changes in the behavior of national governments to improved outcomes for the world’s poor are particularly clear in this case. Here we see a “ratcheting” of better outcomes through design of policies and measures that conform to good ethical thinking.

Why honor justice?

Most people would probably say they would prefer to live in a more just world to a less just one. There is a strong moral basis for preferring justice. But is this a consideration that states and large international organizations need to take into account as they design their strategies and plans for serving their present and future interests? Do national governments have good practical reasons to think about the consequences their policies and actions may have on the circumstances of justice in the world? What about policies and actions through which states attempt to secure their future economic wellbeing -- do policy makers need to pay attention to the social justice consequences of these actions?

There is a strong empirical and historical case for thinking that the answer to this question is "yes." Injustice is a source of resentment, indignation, and conflict. In the long run, the victims of injustice will not be ignored. Justice is a security issue for states and supra-national organizations, and simple prudence demands that policy makers take it into account. To put a simple label on this idea, justice is a security issue.

What are the theoretical and historical arguments for this conclusion? Here are several.

On the side of theory, several points are well established. Chronic and unrelieved poverty leaves people with low attachment to their own societies and less for the global community. The frustration of very basic human needs is bound to fuel indignation and resistance. So poverty and deprivation are causes of resistance. But there is also evidence that inequality itself has negative consequences for a society's health; this is the central finding of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010). Finally, the social psychology created by a system that is perceived to be unfair and exploitative is likely to breed resistance and lawless action. Barrington Moore, Jr. was right when in Injustice he wrote:

Without strong moral feelings and indignation human beings will not act against the social order. In this sense moral convictions become an equally necessary element for changing the social order, along with alterations in the economic structure. 469

So there are good empirical reasons, based in social psychology and the study of contentious politics, for expecting that injustice breeds conflict.
Are there historical demonstrations of the consequences of injustice for disorder? There are. We have the examples of slave revolts throughout the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries; anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia following World War II; the sustained resistance of the Burmese and East Timor peoples to dictatorship; and the sustained struggle for equal rights in the United States by African Americans, sometimes punctuated by major urban riots. In each case a set of social institutions had been created that were profoundly unjust for a sizable population, and this population gathered resolve and courage in opposing those arrangements.

So the conclusion seems clear. If we want to have a world in which there is a sustainable level of the rule of law and a low level of social conflict, we need to invest in justice. We need to work to create a system in which all peoples can satisfy their most basic human needs; where everyone can feel that he/she is respected in her humanity; and where no one judges that the basic structure of social life is exploitative.

In other words, states are well advised to actively include the basic requirements of justice in their plans for the future. Otherwise they are simply creating the tinder for future conflict.

Global civil society

Let us conclude by considering what a just global community might look like. Here I will discuss the idea of a “global civil society.” A civil society is one that is characterized by multiple associations, free activities and choices by individuals, and a framework of law that assures rights and liberties for all citizens. It is a society with multiple forms of power and influence, minimizing the potential for exploitation and domination by powerful elites or the state. And it is a society in which citizens have developed a sense of mutual respect and consideration for each other. The fact of civil association serves to enhance the strength of collective identities among citizens, by building new loyalties and affiliations. Citizenship and unity are built through association with other citizens and the knowledge that they can pursue their interests and values through their associations. But we can emphasize as well the importance of civil associations as a counterweight to the power of the state. Citizens have greater security when they can be confident that the state cannot act against their interests with impunity.

What is involved in sustaining a civil society? There are several factors that are particularly important. There is solidarity—a degree of shared identity among the individuals who make up the society as groups with interests in common. There is a sense of justice—confidence that the basic institutions are fair to all. There is confidence in the future, that one’s children will have reasonable (and improved) life prospects. There is a sense of dignity—of being treated with human dignity, of being assigned equal human worth. And there is a need for stable, fair, and predictable institutions that give citizens the confidence that they can pursue activities, form associations, and engage in civil discourse without fear. When these conditions are satisfied we can have the greatest confidence in the stability and flourishing of a civil society.

Is there any meaning we can assign to the notion of a global civil society? This would be a world in which all persons recognize and respect the human reality and worth of all others—near and far. It is a world in which people are tied together through cross-cutting civil associations—local, national, and international.  These may include labor organizations, women’s organizations, environmental organizations, or religious groups. It is a world in which persons share a sense of justice—they share a basic agreement on the essential fairness of the institutions that govern their lives. And it is a world in which all people have grounds for hope for the future—that there are opportunities for them to improve their lives, that they will have fair access to these opportunities, and that their children will have better lives than they themselves have had. Such a world has every prospect of sustaining stable, peaceful, and civil social life—both local and international.

How does this vision relate to a theory of global justice? The connections are profound. Justice requires an urgent commitment to ending poverty throughout the world. It requires a commitment to democracy and human rights—and the effective legal institutions that can secure both. It entails adherence to the values of fairness and human equality, and the importance of reshaping international institutions with these values in mind. And these are precisely the values that are needed to establish the basis of peaceful civil society. If these values are genuinely and deeply embedded in our planning for the future—and if the people of the developing world become convinced that these are real, guiding priorities for the people and governments of the wealthy world—then the potential bonds of international civility will be established. And at the country level the positive institutions of law, democracy, and economic opportunity will reinforce the values of civility and mutual respect.

So the important values that pertain to just global development are arguably critical to a decent future for humanity. A world order that is not grounded in a permanent commitment to human dignity and justice is not only criticized from the perspective of morality. It is likely to be an increasingly unstable and violent arena for deep and desperate conflict. So for our own sakes and for the sake of future generations we need to commit ourselves in practical and enduring ways to the establishment of global justice, an end to poverty, and the extension of effective democratic and human rights to all persons in all countries.


Little, D. (2003). The paradox of wealth and poverty: Mapping the ethical dilemmas of global development. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Myrdal, G. (1968). Asian drama; An inquiry into the poverty of nations. New York, Pantheon.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2000). Women and human development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, Cambridge University Press.
Sen, A. (1990). "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing." New York Review of Books 37(20).
Sen, A. K. (1981). Poverty and famines: An essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford; New York, Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press.
Sen, A. K. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, Knopf.
Sen, A. (2009). The idea of justice. London, Allen Lane.
Sen, A. K. and G. Hawthorn (1987). The standard of living. Cambridge; New York, Cambridge University Press.
Wilkinson, R. G. and K. Pickett (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York, Bloomsbury Press.