Mahbub Ul Haq
Is it a Compassionate Society?
State of the World Forum, November 4 - 7, 1997
Dr. Ul Haq is the Founder and Director of the Human Development Centre of his country, recently he has been instrumental in creating the Human Development Report, which is a wonderful tour for understanding the conditions of the human beings around the world.
My theme is that our global society is not a very compassionate society today. We are quite fond of describing ourselves as one world, one planet, one humanity, one global society. But the blunt reality for many of us who come from poorer lands is simply this: we are at least two worlds, two planets, two humanities, two global societies. One embarrassingly rich and the other desperately poor -- and the distance between them is widening, not narrowing. Can we really call it a compassionate society when the richest one fifth of the world consumes 80% of the world's nature resources, and when it commands an income 78 times as high as the income of the poorest one-fifth of this world?
Can we call it a compassionate society when there is so much wasted food on the table of the world's rich at the time when 800 million people go hungry every night and 160 million children are severely malnourished?
Can we really call it a compassionate society when 1.3 billion people do not have access to even a simple necessity like safe drinking water? When one billion adults are illiterates and 1.3 billion people survive in absolute poverty on less than one dollar a day? This is below any definition of human existence.
It is certainly not a compassionate society when 134 million children in South Asia alone, which is my region, work for over 16 hours a day in inhumane conditions for a wage of only 8 US cents a day. And when they loose their very childhood to feed the greed for higher profits from the indifferent employers, some of them the most powerful multinationals of the world who exist in your countries?
It is certainly not a compassionate society where over one half of humanity, the women of this world are economically marginalized and politically ignored. When their 11 trillion dollar contribution to household activity is simply forgotten in national income accounts. And when they contribute 50% of the work but they are only less than 10% of world's parliaments.
What kind of a compassionate society is it? The modern jet fighter are parked on the runways while homeless people are parked on city pavements. The many desperately poor nations spent much more on arms than on education and health of the people. Where the five permanent security council members supply 86% of arms to the poor nations giving handsome subsidies to the arms exporters. How brilliantly we have chosen the custodians of our global security.
What kind of a compassionate society is it? We have millions of land mines all over the world waiting for their unsuspecting victims -- where it takes only three dollars to plant a mine but over one thousand dollars to remove it. And where the treaty to ban land mines is ready but the U.S. simply refuses to sign it.
What kind of a compassionate society is it? Where we all recognize that nuclear weapons should never be used and yet our leaders refuse to banish them because they are so fond of playing global power games.
And what kind of compassionate society is it? Where a few powerful nations decide the fate of the entire world and the supreme irony is that the powerful democratic nations themselves rule out democratic governance and the running of global institutions; whether the World Bank, the IMF or the United Nations. The simple truth is that we are unwilling to face up to honest truth -- that we are far from the ideal of a compassionate society today.
But let us also be realistic. It is true
that we may never be able to create a perfect society,
it is true that we may never be able to eliminate all
social and economical injustices or to provide equality
of opportunities to all the people. But we certainly can
take a few practical steps to make a global society a
little more compassionate, a little more humane. It is
in this spirit that I would like to identify for you six
of those steps which can become reality if all of you
and all the institutions of civil society all around the
world organize themselves and create a pressure for these
In a compassionate society no newborn child should be doomed to a short life or to a miserable one -- merely because the child happens to be born in the wrong country, or the wrong income class or to be of the wrong sex. Universalism of life-claims is the cornerstone of a compassionate society. Equality of opportunities is it's real foundation, not only for present generations but for future generations as well. Now, in order to equate the chances of every newborn child let us take a simple step.
Let us treat child immunization and primary
education as a birth right of that child -- a right to
survive and a right to be educated. And let us persuade
national governments and international communities to
issue birthright vouchers to every newborn child that
guarantees at least these two investments in their future.
The total cost surprisingly will be very modest. This
education can be provided to every child along with immunization
at the cost of only 3 billion dollars a year. It can provide
a new social contract for our future generations and it
will certainly create a more compassionate society.
A "global compact" was reached in March 1995 at the World Social Summit in Copenhagen -- that the developing nations will devote at least 20% of the existing nations budgets and the donors will earmark 20% of the existing aide budgets to five human priority concerns: the universal basic education, primary health care for all, safe water drinking for all, adequate nutrition for severely malnourished children and family planning services for all willing couples. This was the famous 2020 compact. It requires no new resources, only a shifting of priorities in existing budgets. Such a compact will remove the worst human deprivations within one decade.
Now, here is a global compact already made.
Let us then insure that it is fully implemented, let us
get organized, let us monitor the progress of each nation
and each donor towards these goals, and let all of us
play a role. Let us embarrass those societies if they
do not reach these goals and keep pressurizing them --
to make sure this compact that was reached two years ago
is implemented and it will provide a social safety net
for all the poor in the world.
A practical way to empower people is to
provide them with micro credits so they can find self
employment, self respect. It empowers them and unleashes
their creative energies. Access to credit should be regarded
as a fundamental human right as Professor Yunas has so
brilliantly and so convincingly argued. The experience
of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh demonstrates that the
poor are good savers and good investors, that they are
eminently credit worthy, and that the banking system should
take a chance on the future creativity and potential of
the people -- and not on their past wealth. So let us
set up this micro credit institutions. That doesn't take
very much to do that and let us set them up in every country
and every community in order to empower people.
I believe it is time to establish a new code of conduct for arms sales to poorer nations. Today there are many punishments for drug trafficking and laundering of drug money, but not for arm sales. Yet arms kill no less uncertainly than do drugs. Why are generous export subsidies given by rich nations to their arms exporters. Why your money, your tax money is used to export death and destruction to poor lands?
Oscar Arias, who is a co-chair the State of the World Forum and Former President of Costa Rica and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has developed a sensible code of conduct for arms sales -- proposing a ban on arms sales to authoritarian regimes, to potential trouble spots, to the poorest nations. And this code of conduct has the support of many Nobel Peace Prize winners. He collected together about 15 of them. Yet the reality is that Oscar Arias has not been able to find a single member of the UN General Assembly, not a single member to sponsor such a code of conduct for arms sales.
Why are you seated so quietly? Why cannot we organize public pressure for sponsorship of such a code of conduct which is a responsible code of conduct for arms sales. And let us go further, let us persuade the rich nations to suspend, to abolish, to eliminate the export subsidies for arms sales to the poorer nations -- in fact this is your public tax money. Why shouldn't you ensure that it is not used for causes that you do not approve. It's no use coming here making brilliant, eloquent speeches and we are not willing to organize and take even simple steps. Your public tax money is being used today to give subsidies to arms exporters and these subsidies have increased in the last few years because the rich nations felt that these arms exporters, sitting in their air conditioned offices, could not make as much money since defense budgets were going down in the rich nations. So let us give them all subsidies to sell arms to the poorer nations.
We must generate pressure to suspend these
subsidies. Persuade the poorer nations whose responsibility
it is to start cutting their existing military expenditure
of 170 billion dollars a year, which they spend every
year on military, let us persuade them to cut it down
by least 5% a year. That alone will be enough to finance
the entire social agenda that needs no foreign aide if
they are willing to face up to the responsibility themselves
and if they are willing to invest in people rather than
in arms. That is what will make it a compassionate society.
Let us pledge that global poverty will be abolished in the 21st century -- much as slavery was abolished a century ago. Poverty is not inevitable. As Professor Yunas so eloquently reminded us just two days ago, poverty degrades human dignity, it does not belong in a civilized society. It belongs to the museum of history.
But let us recognize at the same time before we are carried away by too much emotionalism. Poverty is not a mere flu, it is a body cancer. It requires determined economic and political actions in the poor nations: including redistribution of assets and credits, provision of adequate social services, particularly education and health and generation of real, pro-poor growth. Growth that benefits the poor and does not only increase national income. It also requires a new model of development, a model in which we enlarge human choices -- we enrich human lives and not only increase GNP. Use a model whose central purpose is the development of people, for the people, by the people.
And let us remind all nations that abolishing
poverty must become a collective international responsibility,
because human life is not safe in the rich nations if
human despair travels in the poorer nations. Let us recognize
that consequences of global poverty today travel across
national frontiers without a passport in very ugly forms:
in the forms of drugs, in HIV/AIDS, pollution and terrorism.
So you are not safe in the rich nations if poverty prevails
in the other nations of the world. So let us abolish it.
Let us return the United Nations to the people of the world in whose name it was first created. That preamble of the United Nations adopted in this very city; in fact in the Penthouse of this very hotel, started with the historic eloquent words: We the people. And yet the UN was highjacked by the governments and today it's an intergovernmental body where the voice of people is seldom heard.
Even in international conferences and summits,
the presence of NGOs is token and many dark curtains separate
NGO representatives from real decision-making forum. The
time has come I believe to raise our voices in favor of
at least at two chamber general assembly in the UN. One
chamber nominated by the governments as the present, with
the exalted ambassadors of the world, but the other chamber
elected directly by the people and by institutions of
civil society. And this will insure that the rights of
the people are heard in all critical issues which affect
Let me conclude
There many steps one can map out to make our global society more compassionate. I mentioned only six simple steps because I believe these are eminently realistic. But let me state quite clearly. Building a compassionate society is not a technocratic exercise. It requires solid ethical and moral foundations. It requires certainly a new way of thinking -- thinking of ourselves as a human family and not just a collection of nation states. And it requires a new concept of humans security which is founded on human dignity and not on weapons of war.
In the last analysis human security means a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crashed. That is human security -- and imperatives of this human security have today become universal, indivisible and truly global.
I think it is only appropriate that I should probably end by quoting the same two poets as the previous speaker. John Donne summed up the challenge before us in a simple sentence. He said: "We must love each other or we must all die", and Robert Frost summed up the challenge before us when he said: "Two roads diverged in the woods and I, I took the one less travel by, and that has made all the difference".
So I hope as I conclude that we will show that courage and the wisdom to take the road less travel by, as we build a new compassionate society in the 21st century.