From Wall Street to Main Street to No Street, money talks. Can we make it listen? Human rights may be the answer

Ten years ago, our leaders’ failure to recognize let alone address the human rights implications of an economic calamity was truly remarkable.

David Kinley
16 December 2018
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US President George W. Bush waves goodbye to journalists after Washington Financial Summit leaders (G20) discussed consequences of the global financial crisis, Nov. 15, 2008. A3464 Rainer Jensen/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

November 2008 was notable not only for the potentially game-changing midterm congressional elections: it also marked the 10th anniversary of a momentous G20 meeting on November 15, in Washington DC. The global significance of each can hardly be underestimated, not least because both shared hallmarks of myopia and miscommunication, and their ruinous consequences. 

Signalling the severity of a global financial crisis that was fast becoming a global economic one, the 2008 summit comprised for the first time in the group’s history, the leaders of the G20 nations. But with the finance horse well and truly bolted, expectations were low that the world’s most powerful leaders would be able to find the stable door let alone shut it. 

Still, the resultant communiqué did its best to rise above the normal vacuity of diplomatic speak. It pointed the blame finger at policy-makers, regulators and financial institutions; it lauded free market principles as the vectors for economic prosperity that have “lifted millions out of poverty and significantly raised the global standard of living”; and committed global leaders to a series of immediate and medium-term actions for restoring “stability and prosperity to the world economy.” “Not a bad week-end’s work,” as The Economist smugly put it at the time.

However, it was what was not said that really stood out. In the communiqué’s 3,582 words, “human rights” figured not at all. The world’s most powerful leaders gather to sweatshop the most significant global economic event in a generation, with widespread and manifest social implications (job losses, homelessness, poverty and welfare cuts), yet the crowning achievement of post-WWII international law warrants nary a mention. 

At least as shocking was the fact that no one seemed to notice. Indeed, far beyond the G20, human rights considerations were conspicuously absent from nearly all diagnoses and prescriptions that followed the crisis. 

Maybe we’ve become too complacent, or our capacities to learn from history have failed us (again), or probably both. But with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights just a month shy of its 60th birthday that day in DC, our leaders’ failure to recognize, still less address the human rights implications of an economic calamity was truly remarkable. All the more so because of the ready invocation of human rights to justify so many other international crises, whether military interventions, trade embargoes, political lambasts, or the rendering of humanitarian aid. 

So, what is it about financial crises and their economic progeny that inures politicians, policy wonks and the rest of us from seeing the relevancy of rights? Well, commonplace perceptions of finance’s complexity and detachment from ordinary life (or the lives of the ordinary) certainly has something to do with it. What John Lanchester in How to Speak Money characterizes as “elaborate language and ritual, designed to bamboozle, mystify and intimidate” shrouds the financial world from the view of many of us.

The human rights industry also tends toward esotericism. More importantly it is guilty of shirking the twin tasks of decrypting finance and engaging with financiers on their own terms. The reason why the language of human rights is missing from financial debates, in other words, has much to do with rights advocates not making the case for its relevance clearly and convincingly. Denouncing the venality and vice of finance is all well and good, but that alone won’t open many bankers’ doors. 

On that score, it’s no good pointing to the rafts of international human rights treaties and declaring, hands on hips, that they provide a blueprint for how financial policy should be designed and implemented. They don’t. True, the rights contained in such treaties are backed by legal obligations (on states), but they are expressed as aspirational goals and hedged with permissible qualifications, both economic (available resources) and political (where necessary to maintain public order or national security). Policy prescriptions they are not, no matter how fervently one might wish it otherwise. 

There is no avoiding the fact that a heap of heavy lifting is needed to translate rights rhetoric into practicable tools for a trade like finance. And while we must categorically demand that financiers do more to recognize, and take responsibility for, the social consequences of their actions (they work in a ‘service’ sector after all), the task of making clear the human rights implications falls to the human rights community itself.  

Human rights are what make human lives worth living

In the same way as the machinations of Wall Street impact the economic fortunes of Main Street and No Street, so they effect good and bad human rights outcomes at the same addresses. Our abiding task, therefore, as Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the indefatigable UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights, argues, is to “reconcile financial obligations with economic and social rights.” But what does that mean in lay terms?

‘Human rights’ are in fact the features of your everyday existence and mine that make our lives worth living - safety and security, health and welfare, being treated with respect and as an equal, and exercising our basic freedoms to speak, associate, practice and learn as we choose.

These are the staple ingredients of the good life. Which of them we enjoy and in what quantities are determined very often by our financial capacities as individuals and communities to secure them. And in this, it is finance’s very own commonplace features of offering security, flexibility, convenience and choice that can help build wealth and make the difference between sustaining people’s human rights and their neglect.

Put in this way, one is impelled to ask: what else is finance for if not to help us secure these essential ingredients? Sure, there remain the eternally thorny questions of apportionment – who gets to lead a good life, how good, and at whose expense? Finance alone cannot be expected to answer these questions, but at least this vernacular approach ensures that the two worlds of human rights and finance are reading from the same cookbook. 

John Maynard Keynes recognized the importance of their proximity when, in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of his generation, he declared that the political problem of mankind is to reconcile economic efficiency with social justice and individual liberty. Nearly 90 years on, and ten years after the defining financial crisis (so far) of our own generation, the gauntlet Keynes threw down still lies before us.   

Accountable capitalism

We’ve made up little of the ground missed by our G20 leaders, despite repeated entreaties for them to recognize the economic as well as the political relevance of rights during their now twice yearly G20 meetings. Even debates over elemental questions of “what corporations are for and whose interests should they serve”, as posed by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent Accountable Capitalism Act, are bereft of concerted human rights input. Indeed, the inventory of ships passing in the night is long.

The Group of Thirty (comprising many former central bankers and other leading financial figures) has been scathing of the sector’s prevailing culture of narcissism and has lengthily urged banks to respect their “broader responsibility to society”: but all without a single reference to the human rights upon which societies are built.

The EU’s long gestated Financing Sustainable Growth Action Plan, published in March this year, defines the “social considerations” it champions as essential to sustainable investment entirely in economic terms (human capital is important for sure, but “inequality” and “labor relations” are human rights too). 

Despite shedding the sharpest elbowed of its neo-liberal prescriptions, the IMF is still criticized for window-dressing its social conscience. Its support for social protection programs, argues Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, is borne of ideas of charity, rather than obligation as international law demands. 

Even apparently well-intentioned efforts to cross the Rubicon collapse for want of real commitment to the cause. The Thun Group of leading European banks’ efforts to engage with human rights responsibilities by quarantining them as far from its members as possible have been ham-fisted and naïve. And visionary finance commentator and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller is no less intellectually klutzy when pronouncing in his Finance and the Good Society that “the rights of man are set down in financially inconsistent ways.” 

What? The line of reasoning travels in exactly the opposite direction. It is finance that must surely bend to the reality of the needs of human rights.

Evidently, there is much work yet to be done on both sides of the gap before it can be successfully bridged. The cardinal principle that the betterment of the human condition, including by protecting and promoting human rights, is or ought to be a core object of finance has yet to be fully understood, let alone widely accepted. 

Finance watchdog BankTrack, notes the growing number of top bankers swearing fealty to ‘international human rights standards’, yet walking the talk is proving much more difficult. Just last month, for example, in a dispute involving forced evictions, child labour and workplace deaths at a sugar plantation in Cambodia financed by ANZ bank, an OECD inquiry found that when measured against the bank’s own stated human rights standards “it is arguable that most (if not all) of them would not be satisfactorily met.”

Finance is a foundational public utility

I believe that by adopting a more prosaic approach to explaining the relevance of human rights to finance (and vice versa) we might help build a bridge that actually meets in the middle. To call out the benign as well as malign effects of finance in the vernacular of daily existence. Our feeding of hopes and quelling of fears wrapped up in the mundane of how we work, play, socialize, and pay the bills. That’s the context in which we must discuss the relationship between finance and human rights debate, and thereby understand its true significance. 

It is way beyond time – a decade, at least – that we stopped pussy-footing around the fundamental question of what finance is really for. Finance is a foundational public utility, not a sheltered workshop for the wealthy, or a gambling mecca for alpha thrill-seekers. The base human rights goals of security, welfare and respect that finance can help realize are the very same properties that can help rescue finance from the ignominious and trustless hole it’s dug for itself in recent times. By serving human rights, finance therefore can revitalize its own legitimacy.

The relationship is as essential as it is inexorable. Like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, the pair’s destinies are tied, whether or not they know it or like it. But for the marriage to succeed both parties must loosen their pride and prejudices, talk to rather than at each other, and realize the good they can do together.

And where once the proposition of such a union might have seemed fanciful, it is a sign of our times that compared to the yawning chasm that rends the political landscape of democracies today, its brokerage looks possible. Indeed, its pursuit might even help return politics to matters of meaningful policy rather than craven populism. 

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