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UN body proposes new social contract

- Wits University

A new eco-social contract is necessary to create a sustainable and just future, responsive to multiple and intersecting crises.

This contract hinges on a reimagined development model with economic, social and climate justice as foundations. Such a vision is at the heart of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development’s (UNRISD) 2022 flagship report, Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract. Leading authors Katja Hujo and Maggie Carter were hosted by the Wits’ Pro Vice-Chancellor for Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, Professor Imraan Valodia, to present the report’s critical arguments.

“It is not possible to address the implications of climate change without addressing global and local inequalities,” said Prof. Valodia. He noted that the UNRISD report has come at a critical juncture in the climate change conversation, particularly as it provides guidelines for responding to intersecting ‘polycrises.’

Crises of Inequality: Shifting Power for a New Eco-Social Contract

Katja Hugo, Senior Research Coordinator in the Social Policy and Development Programme at UNRISD, explained that the report purposefully drew insight and contributions from scholars in the Global South, as the multiple crises have significant implications for developing countries and threaten the Sustainable Development Goals.

The new eco-social contract requires significant political backing, and proposes alternative economies, transformative social policies, reimagined multilateralism, and strengthened solidarities.

The key messages in the report show that inequality is a driver of these crises

Inequality is a driver, an amplifier and a consequence of multiple crises. This creates a vicious cycle, resulting in vulnerable and marginalised groups falling further behind, while elites can shield themselves and often exploit crises for their own gain.

These are two of the key messages in UNRISD’s report, which underpin the thrust of the argument: the social contract is broken and the world is fractured. But, “we can create new pathways towards a social contract based on visions of justice, equality and sustainability,” said Hugo.

The pathway hinges on a completely different development model.

Power structures need to be rebalanced and new alliances formed. Importantly, these new alliances should have a plethora of voices across the civil society and community spectrum, leading to the just implementation of an eco-social vision.

“The global trends highlighted in our report – globalisation, tech change, ageing, migration, shifting global powers and urbanisation – are not ‘bad’ in and of themselves, but the way the policy environment shapes them creates the problems,” said Hugo.

The global system is designed to favour elites

Senior researcher at UNRISD Maggie Carter noted the global economic crisis of 2008/2009 was a case in point in how the system safeguards only a small sub-set of the population.

“Instead of ensuring greater access to public goods, 114 countries contracted social spending as an austerity response. Policy responses favoured bailing out large corporate players. There is inbuilt inequality. Indeed during Covid, 124-million more people were pushed into extreme poverty, while the richest 10 people on earth became richer. There is a clear affluence bias,” said Carter.

Unpacking the ‘social contract’

There are numerous examples of social contracts, but in essence, it is the explicit and implicit agreements between states and citizens defining rights and obligations to ensure legitimacy, security, the rule of law and social justice.

“However these social contracts are often seen as a defacto elite bargaining tool and thus heavily criticised. The 20th century welfare states in developed countries are linked to economic structures and are an implicit bargain between economic imperatives of growth and productivity and the social imperatives of redistribution, and social protection. The thing is that we need an inclusive and comprehensive social contract to guarantee equality, human rights and the rule of law,” said Hugo.

She drew on other philosophies which focus on horizontal social relations and communitarian responses. These include the notions of Ubuntu, Buen Vivir, and Ecoswaraj. “These could serve as inspiration to rebalance a range of relationships, including those between societies and governments, the global north and south, capital and labour and economies and nature.”

The speakers discussed the seven (7) principles for building a new eco-social contract, including human rights for all, progressive fiscal contracts, transformed economies and societies, a contract for nature, historical injustices addressed, gender justice and solidarity. Reforms in gender parity would include integrated care systems that protect both providers and recipients of care.

A new green deal must rebalance power relations

A new green deal should address power asymmetries and must be beneficial for all. “Alternative economic models can be implemented on a smaller scale and can be based on fair trade and cooperatives. Currently, the economic models are market-driven and dominated by big corporations. Commercialisation and privatisation have led to a fragmented and dualistic system out of reach for a large part of the world’s population,” said Hugo.

Can we be successful in creating an eco-social contract in a polarised world?

There are examples where eco-social contracts are already in play and which prize egalitarian outcomes. “In these organisations and models, ordinary people are seen to have a range of resources and creative potential to influence the contract. Their creative agency, bargaining power and leadership must be strengthened,” said Hugo.

The speakers acknowledged that forming a new eco-social contract is incremental and is a long-term vision. Sceptics would argue that there have been numerous attempts at such a contract, but the processes have been slow, cumbersome and ineffective.

“These contracts already exist though and we need to see how they can be expanded and scaled and what policy frameworks could facilitate the just transition. Yes, it may take time. But the beauty of the report is that it maps a clear pathway,” said Hugo.

The report can be accessed here.