2015 marks both the target date for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the 20-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). As governments discuss progress made on the MDGs and the BPfA and make commitments on international development and women’s rights for the coming decades, what kinds of financial and fiscal policies are needed to achieve human rights, sustainable development, and gender equality in the post-2015 global development agenda?
In order to contribute to a deeper understanding of progress and limitations in the achievement of the MDGs, UN Women, in collaboration with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), organized an Expert Group Meeting on “Structural and policy constraints in achieving the MDGs for women and girls” in Mexico City in October 2013. The meetingwas co-chaired by Radhika Balakrishnan from the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University in the United States and Valeria Esquivel from Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento in Argentina. Below are some insights and recommendations from the “Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Structural and Policy Constraints in Achieving the MDGs for Women and Girls.”
Within the prevailing macroeconomic model, growth is championed as an unproblematic panacea for poverty, unemployment, and virtually all economic problems. This comes at a heavy human and environmental cost. The environment and natural resources have been commodified and treated as unlimited production inputs. Tax cuts for wealthy corporations and individuals and military spending have been prioritized over budgets allocations for health services, education, infrastructure, public spaces, and social services. Additionally, despite their vital catalytic role in realizing women’s rights and gender equality, women’s rights organizations and movements have seen their funding diminish.
As participants at the meeting emphasized, new structural and policy constraints have emerged since the MDGs were adopted in 2000. Although the expansion of economies such as the BRICSBrazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa– has helped reduce poverty and increase aid from these countries, the international political economy in recent years has also been characterized by insecurity. In particular, the global financial crisis has increased the vulnerability of marginalized groups and deepened inequalities, both within and between countries.
International financial and trade institutions have imposed neoliberal macroeconomic responses to the crisis such as policies of economic austerity, fiscal conservatism, open markets for capital and commodities, the externalizing of natural resource use and environmental degradation, privatization of services, and a greater role for the financial sector. These policies have eroded the role of the nation-state and undermined its capacity to realize all human rights, especially economic and social rights, as well as sustainable development.
Create an Enabling Environment for Achieving the MDGs and Realizing Human Rights
Human rights are a core part of the Millennium Declaration and provide the necessary framework and ethical basis for the achievement of the MDGs, yet the MDGs sorely lack a human rights-based approach.
Human rights are interconnected and indivisible, and they require substantive rather than merely formal equality, which entails the transformation of unequal power relations. Key human rights principles include: non-retrogression,progressive realization,maximum available resources, minimum essential levels/minimum core obligations,non-discrimination, and accountability, participation and transparency. At its core, a human rights framework privileges redistributive interventions that emphasize the provision of public services and infrastructure and prioritize the rights of the most marginalized groups.
Whether states are complicit with non-state actors or coerced by them, they can no longer be considered the only duty-bearers when it comes to realizing human rights and sustainable development goals. Other critical actors such as international donor organizations, international financial and trade institutions, transnational corporations, and civil society actors must also be held accountable to global commitments on human rights and development. International financial and trade institutions and markets should be effectively regulated to prevent economic crises, and financial regulation must also occur at the national level. Further, considering the interdependence of countries in trade and aid networks, other states, such as trading partners and donors, have extra-territorial obligations to uphold human rights.
Rather than being imposed as a condition for aid while aid frameworks themselves preclude their realization, human rights must be applied as an ethical and normative lens to evaluate whether financial and fiscal policies enable all duty-bearers to respect, protect, and fulfill all human rights and to achieve sustainable development.
All states, irrespective of income status or perceived human rights successes, must mobilize maximum available resources through progressive forms of taxation to finance effective, appropriate, and consistent actions for gender equality and women’s human rights. This includes allocating funds to support women’s collective action, voice, and participation at all levels; to respect, recognize, and fulfill the right for women to engage in paid employment, while operationalizing and enabling “decent work;” to recognize, redistribute, and reduce unpaid care work through investments in public infrastructure; and to enable girls to enroll and complete cycles of secondary and tertiary education. It also entails budgeting financial and other resources to address violence against women and girls, to ensure sexual and reproductive rights, and to address the most common underlying drivers of conflict and insecurity, including lack of fair access to basic services such as justice and security and lack of inclusive and accountable governance, as well as global factors that lead to conflict such as environmental degradation and illicit financial flows. Policies that lead to retrogression should not be adopted.
Ensure that Fiscal and Financial Policies Realize Human Rights and Sustainable Development
Achieving sustainable development and upholding human rights require targeted financing for gender equality and women’s rights, with policy-makers using maximum available resources to support gender equality and to fund gender-sensitive measures. It is critical to challenge the pervasive claim that there are insufficient public funds available for gender-equitable sustainable development and that the private sector needs to step in to fill this alleged gap. Funds are available, but how policy-makers choose to allocate them reflects their political will and their ideological priorities. For example, reducing military budgets or increasing taxes on corporations can allow states to redistribute funds to infrastructure and social services that are key to realizing all human rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights.
Further, a human rights framework necessitates an analysis of power dynamics. Thus, donor and aid recipient countries have a shared but differentiated responsibility when it comes to fiscal and financial policy that enables the realization of human rights and sustainable development.
Gender-responsive budgeting should become systematic. Even in times of austerity and fiscal constraints, States should generate adequate public international and domestic resources to fund gender-sensitive sustainable development. For instance, states can increase domestic resource mobilization through progressive tax reform by raising taxes on capital gains, wealth, land, and high incomes and lowering taxes on wages and basic consumption items. States can also ensure that they have sufficient revenues by reducing illicit money flows and corporate tax evasion, and abolishing harmful subsidies, including for fossil fuel-based production and trade-distorting agricultural exports from the Global North.
In addition, innovative financing instruments such as a regional or global Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) would also benefit sustainable development by stabilizing the global financial system. Finally, donors should set up accountability mechanisms for funds allocated, disbursed and implemented, and provide data on the impact of their financial support on social, economic, cultural and political rights.
Nathalie Margi is Economic and Social Rights Consultant with the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL).