Beyond Balancing the Scales: The Roots of Equity, Justice and Prosperity for All


Beyond Balancing the Scales: The Roots of Equity, Justice and Prosperity for All

Baha’i International Community’s contribution to the
UN Global Thematic Consultation on “Addressing Inequalities”
New York, 12 October 2012

As deliberations about the Post-2015 development agenda gain momentum, it is becoming indisputable that the future we want is not a bisected world of haves and have-nots. The effects of social inequalities are apparent on all sides: apathy, alienation, social unrest, violence and the erosion of trust between individuals and the institutions of governance, to name but a few. The vitality and legitimacy of any vision of development rests on the degree to which it embodies the highest aspirations of the world’s peoples and the extent to which they play a role in its articulation.

Over the last several decades the subject of inequality has gained greater prominence both nationally and internationally. The concept of inequality has become more and more visible in descriptions of poverty, reflecting the growing consensus that the two are inextricably linked. United Nations Human Development reports have increasingly recognized that inequalities related to gender, income, education, employment, productive assets, basic freedoms, and the like exacerbate a host of social, environment and economic problems. In 1990, the first Report asserted that “average improvements conceal considerable inequality within countries and mask the continuing severe deprivation of many people.”[1] Almost a decade later, the 1999 Report identified ‘horizontal inequalities’ between groups—whether ethnic, religious or social—as the major cause of civil conflicts occurring at that time.[2] In 2010, the UN’s inequality-adjusted human development index began assessing human development in light of the inequalities in a given country.[3] There is now broad recognition of the persistent and deepening inequalities at all levels and widespread consensus that the assessment of inequalities must play a central role in the post-2015 development agenda.

Equality of what?

Despite recognition of the challenge of deepening social and economic inequalities, there is little consensus on the meaning of concepts at the core of the discussion. This lack of clarity complicates the task of defining the social ills involved and reaching agreement on the nature and scope of the problem. A discussion such as this must begin with the question, “Equality of what?”

Most would agree that the principle of equality, expressed in various forms, is an important element of social organization. Hard-won moral battles have established principles such as the equality of men and women, the equality of diverse peoples and nations, and the equality of all people before the law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and are “endowed with reason and conscience.” More recently, the Millennium Declaration records the commitment of world leaders “to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity.”[4]

The idea of equality that emerges from these documents focuses not on possessions or conditions, but on defining certain attributes of the human being. Dignity, reason, and conscience are qualities common to every member of the human race. As such, the main concern of efforts in this area would not be to create equality, but rather to reflect in social structures and processes the equality that already exists. The principle of the equality of women and men, for example, is rooted in this same idea—in those aspects that make human beings human—there is no distinction between women and men. Equality, then, is more than just a desirable condition to be achieved for the good of society. It is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.

Elements of a ‘transformative’ framework for social development

Around the world, calls for an ambitious and ‘transformative’ development framework are increasingly heard—a framework capable of transforming oppressive relations, reforming structural inequalities, and embodying the highest aspirations of all people, particularly the most marginalized and vulnerable. But even as we yearn for such a transformation, society remains enmeshed in norms of conflict and competition: political systems are organized as contests for power; legal systems as contests of legal advocacy; economic systems as contests of capital accumulation; and educational systems as contests of intellectual achievement and recognition. Such structures promote separation into opposing groups of “we” and “they”—groups that fight, compete, negotiate, even cooperate across the boundaries of their separateness. These norms exacerbate the many categories of “otherness” that distort human relationships and perpetuate injustice.

So apparently prevalent in world affairs are prejudicial distinctions based on constructs of gender, race, age, socio-economic status, nationality, tribe, religion, disability, and location that alternatives can seem out of reach. Narrowly identifying with particular physical or social characteristics and placing them at the centre of our identity has had ruinous consequences, whether that identity has been used to win advantage over others or has formed in response to prejudice and oppression. The deeply fragmented social reality that we find around us today is, in part, a consequence of these divisive constructs and attachments.

Is a conception of society without an “other” even possible? We propose that not only is it possible, timely and practical but that such a conception is essential to the maturation of the human race. Humanity is experiencing a transition that can be described as the passage from a collective childhood to our collective maturity. During this transition, the thoughts and attitudes associated with the period of humanity’s childhood are gradually being uprooted and the structures of a civilization that reflect our adulthood are gradually taking shape. Characterizing this transition is the redefinition of human relationships within the context of a single social body, animated by bonds of mutualism and reciprocity. Such a transition calls for an organic change in the structure of society on an unprecedented scale. It requires that the oneness of humanity become the operating principle of our collective life.

The analogy of the human body illustrates, in a simplified manner, how the principle of the oneness of humankind can establish more equitable forms of social organization. Within the body, countless differentiated cells, structures and organs collaborate to sustain life. Each gives and receives whatever is needed for its individual functioning and for the welfare of the whole. And just as no one would explain a healthy body in terms of self-interested competition, no one would argue that functioning would be improved by all of the body’s cells becoming identical to one another. Optimum performance, rather, is achieved through the reciprocity found in the body’s governing principle of “unity in diversity”—a principle that applies to the social body of humanity as it does to the physical body of one of its members.

As awareness of the inescapable oneness of humanity pervades both human consciousness and the structures of society, a new vision of development begins to emerge—one in which labels of “donors,” “recipients,” “developing” and “developed” have to be re-examined. From this perspective, development ceases to be something one group of people does for the benefit of another. Instead, all individuals, whether materially rich or poor, engage in a common enterprise of development, and all work shoulder to shoulder—as is their right and responsibility—to contribute to the development of the whole.

This conception of equality in which all are able to participate in the development process implies that certain questions need to be asked at the levels of both practice and theory. Among these: How would relationships between and among individuals, communities and institutions of government need to be defined to reflect the oneness of humanity as an operating principle of collective life? How can diversity be more effectively approached as a source of creativity, innovation and resilience, instead of division, discord and conflict? How could a concept of global trusteeship–an idea that all are born into the world as a trust of the whole–be better incorporated into current development efforts?

Equity and justice through the lens of the ‘oneness of humanity’

Given the central role accorded to the human rights framework in discussions of goals, standards and processes of the post-2015 development agenda, we feel it is worthwhile to consider the exigencies of justice through the lens of the oneness of humankind. The purpose of justice, we firmly believe, is the manifestation of this inherent unity in the material and social dimensions of human life.

The principle of justice applies not only to social institutions but also at the level of the individual. At this level, justice can be seen as an evolving moral capacity that connects one’s well-being and happiness to that of broader society. The very motivation to respond to the injustices of present-day society and the will to exert ourselves for the betterment of others is animated by this moral principle. Justice calls for fair-mindedness in one’s judgments and equity in one’s treatment of others. It is a quality of mind and heart that enables one to discern truth from falsehood and, thereby break long-standing cycles of prejudice and blind imitation.

At the collective level, justice is the practical expression of the awareness that the well-being of society and of the individual are intimately linked and that the welfare of the individual is best secured by advancing the welfare of the whole. A concern for justice helps to curb the tendency to define progress in ways that bestow advantage on the privileged few, and can blunt tendencies towards partisanship and manipulation of decision-making processes.

Justice requires universal participation: all people have both the right to benefit from a materially and morally prosperous society and a commensurate responsibility to participate in its construction. If development is to be effective, it must promote the participation of the people in determining the direction of their communities, whether analysing specific problems, attaining higher degrees of understanding, exploring possible courses of action, or making collective decisions. From a practical standpoint, it is not difficult to see that plans and processes, which are perceived as meeting the essential social and economic needs of the world’s communities, can best secure the trust and the commitment of the masses of humanity upon whom implementation ultimately depends.

How, then, can the individual sense of justice be strengthened in a society? In what ways can global systems and processes better reflect the fundamental connections between the welfare of the individual and the welfare of society as a whole? How can consensus be reached about governmental and international policies that meet the needs of all stakeholders in a fair and equitable way? How can recognition of fundamental human equalities translate into equitable social practices?

Rights and responsibilities

Closely related to considerations of justice and equality is the issue of rights. A balance must be struck between the preservation of individual freedom and the promotion of the collective good. Freedom is indeed essential to all expressions of human life. Yet concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of expression and freedom from want does not justify the exaltation of the individual or support for unbridled individualism, to the detriment of broader society. At that same time, concern for the welfare of society does not require a deification of the state as the only source of human well-being. An equilibrium of responsibilities is implied—responsibilities shared by individuals, communities and their social institutions.

Human rights, then, achieve their highest expression when understood in the context of relationships, at the local, national and international levels. Viewed through this lens, human rights become a vehicle for all to have the opportunity to realize their inherent potential and to exercise their responsibility to ensure the same for others. Within this framework of rights and responsibilities, a pattern is set for institutional and individual behaviour which depends for its efficacy not only on the force of law, but also on the recognition of a mutuality of benefits and on the spirit of cooperation. How, then, can the needs and rights of the individual be balanced with the needs of broader society? How can conceptions of the individual as primarily a ‘rights-bearer’ be expanded to include every individual’s moral duty to advance the welfare of his or her society and of humanity as a whole?

The lens of the oneness of humankind sheds light on the vulnerable situation of national, ethnic and religious minorities. The imperative of preserving cultural diversity is implied by this principle—if a just international order is to emerge, then the infinitely varied cultural expressions must be allowed to develop and to interact with one another in ever-changing patterns of collective life. It has been repeatedly shown that the unjust treatment of minorities, the suppression of their rights and access to opportunities to participate meaningfully in the life of society leads to social and political instability, unrest, and, at times, culminates in violent clashes and loss of life. The marginalization of minorities and active suppression of their freedoms exacerbates misunderstandings, propagates harmful stereotypes in the wider community, and sows the seeds of distrust and conflict. When structures are in place, which promote a peaceful exchange of views and when the rule of law provides equal access to justice, conditions are created in which nascent conflicts and challenges can be constructively resolved. To deny groups the opportunity to flourish, on the basis of their identity—ethnic, religious or other—is to deny the entire human family the intellectual, social and moral benefits that derive from such opportunity.

How, then, do we ensure that raising consciousness and addressing the conditions of injustice that affect a particular group do not reinforce divisive distinctions? How do we foster the will to struggle for change without making these identity issues our sole cause? How do we prevent identity-based struggles from becoming ends in themselves, rather than working towards a society which is free from the many forms of prejudice and discrimination that afflict the world? How do we recognize difference without glorifying it or obscuring commonalities?

Eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty

Disparities of income and wealth, though far from the only kind of inequity, are of central importance to sustainable development and social harmony. Over 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening. The poorest 40% of the world’s population account for five per cent of the global income. [5] Poverty eradication measures, even where finding some measure of success, have failed to address growing disparities in income and unprecedented concentrations of wealth. Such extremes cripple participation in decision-making processes, lead to higher levels of social isolation, undermine economic vitality, and distort perceptions of human capacity. While much has been written about the depths of poverty that afflicts “the bottom billion” and condemns millions more to a precarious and vulnerable daily existence, very little attention has been given to correspondingly inordinate accumulations of wealth. Where two and a half billion people lack basic sanitation, a mere thousand or so individuals are said to control nearly six per cent of the Gross World Product.

The reticence to consider growing concentrations of wealth has resulted in a dangerous ‘blind-spot’ in development discourse, and policy and has failed to draw the important connection between the extreme wealth of some individuals and groups and the degrading poverty afflicting masses of the world’s population. Resource-rich regions and resource-poor regions can no longer be treated as unrelated phenomena but, rather, as characteristics of a global system that selectively bestows advantage on the privileged few, while leaving the masses to make do with a small fraction of the world’s resources. The mere transfer of tools, funds or knowledge will not suffice to transform the oppressive structures of power and production that have been growing steadily for over two hundred years.

The shortcomings witnessed in the economic systems of the 20th century are, in large part, a reflection of the failure of the materialist ideology on which they were founded. Though the productive output of the global civilization has grown significantly over the past century, the fruits of that production have not “trickled down” to the masses of humanity. Not only has the gap between the wealthy and the poor continued to widen, but the poor have, in many instances, become even poorer in absolute terms. And tellingly, the privileged few at one end of the spectrum have failed to find the contentment and satisfaction they sought, as the social instability caused by inequalities continues to drive crime, terrorism, violence, revolution and countless other forms of civil unrest.

Addressing economic disparities, then, will require addressing extremes of wealth in ways that have so far been resisted or declared impractical. Social norms and the laws reflecting them will need to ensure that those who have amassed fortunes share their wealth to provide for the essential needs of the masses and to promote the common weal. To be sure, a dynamic and creative world economy cannot flourish within an overly restrictive legal code. But neither can a just, vibrant, and prospering world civilization allow some members to accumulate personal fortunes larger than could be spent in a lifetime, while others die from lack of basic necessities. The goal is moderation conducive to social order and prosperity. It must be remembered that voluntary sharing can be a powerful driver of economic equity, as it springs from one of humanity’s most noble attributes—the desire to sacrifice a portion of one’s wealth for the betterment of the whole.

Yet such voluntary action alone will clearly not be sufficient. What are the structures, then, that permit the on-going existence of extreme wealth?  How is it perpetuated by economic and political systems? What kinds of identities and qualities are fostered by its continuing presence?  How can such accumulations be addressed in ways that are fair to those who hold them, those who don’t, and society as a whole? How can the practice of voluntary sharing be promoted and expanded, particularly as a mechanism to address inequalities of wealth and resources?

Toward a more equitable future

Gross inequalities in access to resources, services and opportunities stem as much from the paradigms and values behind global structures as from the structures themselves. The unfettered cultivation of needs and wants, for example, has led to a system fully dependent on excessive consumption for a relative few, while reinforcing exclusion, poverty and inequity, for the majority. Each successive global challenge—be it climate, energy, food, water, disease, or financial—reveals further the need for a fundamental re-evaluation of the conceptual and moral basis of the present world order.

Laying the foundations for a more equitable future will require the formation of new models of development, prosperity, and economics. These models, to be effective, must be shaped by insights arising from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience and a keen appreciation of the central role relationships—between humanity and nature, among individuals and communities, within the family, and between individuals and social institutions—play in sustaining human society.

The injustices evident in the current global framework will require more than skilful methodologies and technocratic solutions. Well intentioned as they have been, such “solutions” have so far failed to alter the basic inequities in the way the fruits of human endeavour and prosperity have been distributed. No longer can people of good will be content with the goal of providing for people’s basic needs. Only as all members of the human family are invited to make their contribution to the betterment of society, and only as the distribution and use of resources are arranged in a way that permits each to do so, will progress against the age-old spectre of inequality and inequity be possible.

[1] United Nations Development Programme. (1990). Human Development Report 1990. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] United Nations Development Programme. (1999). Human Development Report 1999. New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] The 2010 Report introduced the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI)—a measure of the level of human development of people in a society that accounts for inequality. Under perfect equality the IHDI is equal to the Human Development Index but falls below that Index when inequality rises. The IHDI represents the actual level of human development, taking into account inequality.

[4] U.N. General Assembly, 55th Session. United Nations Millennium Declaration (A/55/L.2). 8 September 2000. (Masthead)

[5] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Rethinking Poverty: Report on the World Social Situation 2010. Available from  (link is external) (Accessed 1 October 2012).