Equality and justice discourse on quality of life and sustainability of resources

The world is experiencing a shift in the classical categorisation of countries, from ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘industrialised economies’ and ‘emerging economies’ characterised by growing middle classes, and disparities in economic development are increasingly becoming evident. For example, the global ranking of countries based on purchasing power parity (PPP) – the term used by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to summarise the number of units a country’s currency needs to purchase a product – is changing. The top 10 rankings, from 1–10, are now China, USA, India, Japan, Germany, Russia, Brazil, France, Indonesia and the UK.

Apart from the global shift in economic ranking, there are crucial issues that need careful and deep discussion to get a thorough understanding of what the future holds for populations all over the world.

Another shift was ushered in by the 2008 global financial crisis, resulting in a shift in financial power from the West to countries such as China, India and Brazil. The impact of this financial crisis has been felt in industrialised countries and emerging economies alike, demonstrating the interdependence of the economies of the world. A major outcome of the financial crisis has been a rethink of global economic governance, and the suggestion that the rules of financial management be revisited to protect economies.

A transition that should also be carefully considered is the rise of Africa. The OECD report, African Economic Outlook 2013: Structural Transformation and Natural Resources, observed that six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa. This continent’s economy grew at a rate of 6.6% at a time when the global financial crisis had a strong hold on the economies of the North. African countries such as Congo, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania used their new-found economic growth to improve the wellbeing of their populations in three areas: employment, health and inequality (Economist, 1 May 2013).

However, not all those countries that had a huge economic dividend applied it to raise the standard of living of their citizens. It is no surprise that 70% of poor people globally reside on the African continent. The formation of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) partnership signals a fourth global transition. The recent announcement of the establishment of the new development bank, a contingency reserve arrangement, and a process to enable co-operation on innovation to facilitate inter-BRICS trade is poised to effect a major shift in the global economy.

The demand from BRICS for reforms to the governance of the World Bank and the IMF to make these institutions more democratic is a clarion call for change that, if implemented, would give the global South a voice in decision-making that would radically alter approaches to human and physical infrastructure development. The BRICS demand for the reform of the United Nations Security Council amplifies the need for a major change in global governance which, together with the reform of the World Bank and the IMF, would have far-reaching implications for reductions in global inequality.

The nature of these inequalities is at the heart of the peace, security and stability of nations. In some countries, wars are fought to mask the looting of natural resources; in others, labour unrest, coupled with the intransigence of employers, slows economic growth, which leads to further inequality. In yet other countries, increasing numbers of billionaires are created as citizens are impoverished through patterns of employment.

It is precisely in the context of the need to reduce these global inequalities that the World Social Sciences Forum will take place in Durban from 13–16 September 2015, bringing together some of the world’s prominent social science thinkers under the theme Transforming Global Relations for a Just World. Participants will address trends in inequality and the measurement, nature, manifestations and drivers of this injustice.

The forum is a project of the International Social Science Council and is hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). These host organisations have joined forces with a consortium of more than 13 partners comprising national government departments, leading South African universities, science academies, research institutes, research foundations, local and international research councils, and prominent non-governmental organisations.

The world stands to benefit from the outcomes of the forum.

For more information, visit www.wssf2015.org.

Professor Olive Shisana,