Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 20 June 2016

A toast to the right to development at 30

Many problems threatening the world can be addressed through the lens of the Right to Development, a human right that should be celebrated on its 30th anniversary.


The Declaration on the Right to Development is 30 years old.   Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1986, it has had an illustrious history, having great resonance among and giving a boost to people fighting for freedom and more participation in national affairs, as well as to developing nations striving for a fairer world economic order.


It has been invoked by the leaders and diplomats of developing countries at numerous occasions, when they try to convince their counterparts of the developed countries to show more empathy for the needs of the poorer countries.

The right to development has a central place in the Rio Principles of the 1992 Earth Summit, and most recently it was mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. 

On this 30th anniversary, it is fitting to recall the important elements of this right to development.  It is human and people centered.  The right to development is an inalienable human right whereby every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized.” (Article 1.1).

Simply put, politicians and policy makers should take human beings as the central focus of their development policies, and ensure that people can actively participate in the process of making development and development policy, as well as to benefit from the fruits of development.  (Article 2.3).

But the Declaration also places great importance to the international arena.  States have the duty to cooperate with each other in ensuring development and eliminating obstacles to development (Article 3.3).  And effective international cooperation is essential in providing developing countries with appropriate means and facilities to foster their comprehensive development (Article 4.2).

The right to development is also practical.  It calls for the realisation of the right to development.  It recognises that there are national and international obstacles to the realisation of the right to development, and it calls for states to take steps to eliminate these obstacles.  

In this 30th anniversary of the Declaration, it is useful to identify some present global problems and how they affect the right to development.  

Firstly, the global economy in crisis.  The economic sluggishness in developed countries has had adverse impact on developing economies.   They are facing low commodity prices, reduced export earnings.  They face great fluctuations in the inflow and outflow of funds, due to absence of controls over speculative capital flows and fluctuations in the value of their currencies due to lack of a global mechanism to stabilise currencies.   

Some countries are on the brink of another debt crisis.  There is for them an absence of an international sovereign debt restructuring mechanism, and countries that do their own debt workout may well become victims of vulture funds. 

Secondly, the challenges of implementing appropriate development strategies. There are challenges in developing countries to have policies right in agricultural production, ensuring adequate incomes for small farmers, and national food security.  Industrialisation involves the challenges of climbing the ladder from moving from labour-intensive low-cost industries to higher technology industries and overcoming the middle-income trap. 

There are the challenges to providing social services like health care and education and water supply, lighting and transport as well as developing financial services and commerce. 

This policy making is even more difficult to due to premature liberalisation, some of which is due to loan conditionality and to trade and investment agreements which also constrain policy space.  In particular, many investment agreements enable foreign investors to take advantage of imbalanced provisions and shortcomings in the arbitration system that cause countries lose a lot in compensation and also have a chill effect on their right to regulate and to formulate policies. 

A review is needed on how these trade and investment treaties impact on the right to development.

Thirdly, climate change has become an existential problem for the human race.   It is an outstanding example of an environmental constraint to development and the right to development. There is an imperative to cut global emissions as sharply and quickly as possible.  But which countries and which groups within countries should cut emissions by how much? 

The danger is that the burden will mainly be passed on to developing and poorer countries and to the poor and vulnerable in each country.   

The Paris Agreement of December 2015 was a success in terms of reaching a multilateral deal. But it is not ambitious enough to save humanity, and it also failed to deliver confidence that the promised transfers of finance and technology will take place.  Much more has to be done and within a few years.  This is a major challenge to development and the realisation of the right to development.

Fourthly, the crisis of anti-microbial resistance brings dangers of a post-antibiotic age. Many diseases are becoming increasingly difficult to treat because bacteria have become more and more resistant to anti-microbials.  The WHO Director General has warned that every anitibiotic ever developed is at risk of becoming useless and that we are entering a post-antibiotic era. 

The discovery of the existence of two genes (MCR-1 and NDM-1) with the frightening ability to easily spread resistance to other species of bacteria has raised awareness of the acute danger of the situation.  The WHA in 2015 adopted a global plan of action to address anti-microbial resistance but the challenge is in the implementation.  Developing countries require funds and technology such as microscopes and diagnostic tools; they also need to have access to existing and new antibiotics at affordable prices.

Fifthly, the challenges of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, which are  closely linked to the right to development.  

For example, Goal 3 is “to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.”  One of the targets is to achieve universal health coverage, that no one should be denied treatment because they cannot afford it.   But unless there are sufficient funds, this will remain an unfulfilled noble target.

The treatment for HIV AIDS became more widespread only when generics were made available at cheaper prices, for example US$60 a patient a year as compared to the original prices of US$10,000 and millions of lives have been saved.  

But today a new drug for Hepatitis C with an excellent cure rate is sold for US$84,000 in the US and 56,000 euro in Europe for a 12 week course of treatment.  Many of the new cancer drugs and the new “biologics” are also priced above US$100,000 for a year’s treatment.  Unfortunately, due to global patent rules, most patients have no access to cheaper generics.

For the SDGs to succeed, finance and technology have to be transferred to developing countries and some international rules on trade and intellectual property have to be altered if found to be obstacles to the right to development.

All the above global challenges have to be diagnosed as to where they comprise obstacles to realising the right to development, and the obstacles should then be removed, as envisaged by the Declaration.  That is easier said than done.  But the Declaration has thrown light on the way ahead.