Global equality: the domestic case

02/07/2012 at 11:00 am 3 comments

Guest blog by Anna Visser

In a recent blog post (Why Ireland invests in overseas aid, 18 May 2012), Dóchas summarised the government’s rationale for its aid programme.  The arguments are specific and well founded drawing on the moral imperative, the business and environmental cases, as well as Ireland’s historical experience of famine.

However the case presented does nothing to suggest that there is an equality argument for addressing global inequalities, and that this equality argument is not that different from the rationale for reducing inequalities here in Ireland.  Indeed it is not unusual, in the context of the current crisis the cases for poverty alleviation internationally and domestically are pitted against each other and by extension any focus on inequality.

In this short blog I will name six arguments for equality and suggest that they are equally relevant to global and domestic equality.

The moral case suggests that it is reprehensible for some to suffer deprivation, when it is within our power to do something about this.  Peter Singer in his book and campaign The Life You Can Save illustrates this argument with a story of a young child drowning in a shallow pool of water, the cost of saving the child’s life is your new shoes.  He applies this analogy to the relative ease with which, through international aid programmes and organisations, we can save the lives of countless children.

A second related argument is the more specific humanitarian case, as humans we have a natural empathy for those who are suffering and should therefore act to help them. More frequently labeled the charity imperative, equally relevant domestically.

A third related argument is one often relied upon in a global context, that human beings have basic rights that are inalienable and must be protected, this strongly correlates with the emergence of the international human rights framework.

The utilitarian case suggests everyone does better in a context of greater equality.  In The Spirit Level Wilkinson and Pickett present a comprehensive utilitarian case for greater equality within western democracies, however the argument is frequently applied internationally, not least in the context of global security and stability.

A fifth argument is that of fair process.  Without greater equality power relationships remain so fundamentally imbalanced that fair process within institutions are impossible.  Those with power will seek to protect it, while those without power will continue to be disadvantaged.

A sixth argument is that of resource entitlement, everyone has an equal claim on socially provided goods and natural resources. This would seem particularly significant in a context of global environmental constraints. Thus the wealthy globally and domestically should not have disproportionate access to social and natural resources.

Each of these six arguments reveal domestic as well as global imperatives.  I believe there is a strong case for treating global equality as an inherent part of the broader equality agenda. Indeed global inequalities make greater national or local inequalities possible – those at the top globally set a standard for what is possible in terms of excessive wealth, a standard power elites seek to replicate and exceed across all societies.

The domestic imperative for global development could be much more ambitious than the case presented by the government and summarised in the earlier blog post.  Overseas aid could be framed within a broader project of realising a more equal world, which includes a more equal Ireland.

Anna Visser is a part-time PhD student in Equality Studies at the UCD School of Social Justice.  Anna has over ten years experience in policy and development roles in the statutory and NGO sectors at regional, national and international levels, in the areas of anti-racism, equality, human rights and conflict resolution.  She is involved with Claiming our Future and currently works for The Advocacy Initiative (  


Entry filed under: Overseas aid. Tags: , , , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. R Storey  |  02/07/2012 at 11:59 am

    Would be good to attempt translation of the above into something meaningful for the privileged individual here.

    My attempt;- I want to help a talented Bangladeshi man of my age who is weak and in need of food and other essentials which threatens his existence preventing him from enjoying life because I can.

    The problem with this asperation is the delivery – how to do it without bureaucratic, ineffficient, quick-fix / PR led agencies which dominate the aid sector.

    The aid sector does not need yet more academia but practical and accountable means of delivery of the basic Maslow essentials.
    The government is not about to introduce an equalities rights agenda which would contradict its political philosophy.

  • 2. J Story  |  02/07/2012 at 8:32 pm

    There is a difference between urgent aid, such as to help victims of natural disasters, and that which is done year after year. There is no question in the moral imperative of the first, but it seems to me that the second kind of aid should be of the sort that promotes self-sufficiency instead of dependence.

    On a nation-to-nation basis, this can be helped by building trade. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have the media appeal that giving hats to children does, but the effects are more far-reaching and enduring.

    In the real world, there will never be equality of outcome, but the argument that “a rising tide lifts all boats” suggests that most people helped by the increase in economic activity will, though still unequal, reach a level of relative comfort where there was none before.

  • 3. Anna Visser  |  02/07/2012 at 8:46 pm

    @ R Story Do you think Peter Singer offers a partial answer to that dilemma, or maybe just makes it all the more acute? His answer in one way boils down to generating a list of agencies which he feels do the best work.


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