The world is facing the deepest economic recession since the 1929 Great Depression, and countries are now rediscovering social protection after decades of neglect. In my new report, I argue that economic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic must hold up to human rights scrutiny.
Instead of repeating the well-known message of overall poverty increases as a result of COVID-19, this report surveys new social protection measures issued by almost 30 countries to support the finding that they are utterly inadequate to address poverty in the current economic recession. Countries reviewed include Brazil, India, Argentina, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Japan, South Africa, Chile, and many more. The report identifies a number of gaps in the measures adopted so far, many of which are short-term, provide insufficient levels of support, and leave important groups out. The measures are often inattentive to the realities of people in poverty, and they do not respect the rights to participation, transparency, and accountability as they should.
I urge us to consider what happened during the global financial crisis of 2008: initially, countries also ramped up funding for public services, only to pass massive budget cuts two years later, and then again in 2016. We must remain vigilant. International financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have already announced that “structural reforms” (codeword for austerity and privatization of public services) are needed in the over 100 countries they are supporting with loans. If that materializes, there is a very serious risk that people in poverty will end up paying themselves for the meagre assistance they have received from their governments. This would be entirely unacceptable.
Equitable financing and climate justice must be at the heart of economic recovery packages. Equitable financing means relying on fair, sustainable, and diversified taxation systems to ensure “universality of protection, based on social solidarity,” as pledged in the Social Protection Floors Recommendation No. 202. Loan conditionalities — including fiscal balancing, trade liberalization and foreign direct investment, privatization, and external debt management, but also more subtle processes such as technical assistance, training programs, and policy learning– are at odds with the principle of equitable financing when they reduce fiscal space in beneficiary countries, and they can constitute violations of economic, social, and cultural rights if they lead to retrogressive measures. Climate justice must equally be at the core of country’s recovery strategies, and any support to companies contributing to climate change must be conditional on zero-emission plans.
We started this pandemic poorly prepared, with public healthcare systems and social services massively underfunded, care work devalued and precarious, and with extreme levels of inequality due to extreme wealth concentration. Released at the start of the UN General Assembly 75th session, this report is a warning that we must not go back to the failed austerity recipe, proving with new data that this would not only be a policy mistake; it would be a human rights violation.
For more information on the process we followed, and executive summaries in French and Spanish, see here