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Opinion

Building Forward Better: Thoughts on Intergenerational Justice

Photo credit: Matt Gibson/ Flickr.

"The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say - we will never forgive you." – Greta Thunberg (2019)

The COVID-19 virus has largely spared the young but the economic shock that follows will not. Unemployment is set to be the scourge of 2021 across many economies, with  Millennials and Generation X bearing the brunt of increasing socio-economic inequality and unprecedented levels of public and private debt. Add to this the climate emergency (the need for a “Green Revolution”) and the disruptive effects of workplace automation and digitisation (the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)”), it’s clear “Building Back Better” post-COVID is a question not just for the next few years but for generations to come.  Those yet to be born do not have a voice in the decisions of today and yet they might be most affected by them.

This is not the first time society has been forced to think in this way. Eighteenth century European and North American history, with its own revolutions (the old-fashioned bloody kind), promoted thinkers to take the long view:

“As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” – Edmund Burke (1790)

Civil rights leaders have often stressed the intergenerational nature of struggles, Martin Luther King included. Today, Black Lives Matter can only be understood with the context of hundreds of years of history. One UK example is the statute of Edward Colston, the seventeenth century Bristol merchant toppled by protestors on 7 June 2020. This was part of the UK’s response to US protests ignited by police harassment and in particular the murder of George Floyd. Colston was a rich man with significant wealth invested in Bristol City. But Colston was also heavily involved in the transatlantic slave trade, something the statue and plaque below failed to acknowledge. What’s often overlooked is that the statue was erected 174 years after Colston’s death in 1895, closer to our own generation than that of Colston.

What are the moral responsibilities for our current generation with regard to the slave trade –  one of Europe’s main sources of wealth before the industrial revolution?  It is the treatment of black people today that makes the question real and urgent. For many descended from slaves across North, Central, South America and the Caribbean the question prevailed for generations. But to the main benefactors – white generations of Europe who might all find slave owners and traders in their family trees – the question has been silent despite its enduring source of resentment and division amongst generations today. The Windrush scandal in the UK is a key example, when a zealous “zero tolerance” approach to immigration meant the government began deporting legal residents to the Caribbean, many of whom had been brought to the UK by parents in the 1950s-70s. The cases came to light only months before a Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in London in 2018, for which the UK Government made one of its rare apologies. In her 2020 independent review of the scandal, Wendy Williams recommended:

“The Home Office should devise, implement and review a comprehensive learning and development programme which makes sure all its existing and new staff learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration and the history of black Britons.”

In other words, the current generation of government employees have been institutionally ignorant of the intergenerational context in which Black Britons live and the history of Caribbean families descended in large part from slaves brought from Africa by British merchants such as Edward Colston. The intergenerational context is fundamental to addressing many of the inequalities of today.

As we think about “Building Back Better” post-COVID-19, we must remember it is not just the climate debate that casts a long shadow backward and forward in time, so do many issues. To take an intergenerational view we must take stock of these in the way the human rights movement has perhaps struggled to do since 1948. Human rights law applies from cradle to grave but not either side of this. Most human rights approaches have perhaps not allowed us to look beyond the span of a single life - Indigenous Peoples rights being one exception, where the long view has been a prerequisite. Indeed, it is to indigenous peoples and grassroots environmental activists that we should look for inspiration. Here are some early intergenerational thoughts for the business and human rights movement as we try to build back and build forward:

  1. Human rights responsibilities of business are not static. Those impacted now often have inherited legacies from generations before. Accounting for this is hard but essential – whether it be historic atmospheric carbon emissions or companies whose roots are tangled with those of colonialism, totalitarianism or slavery in all its forms.
  2. Every business has its own “creation myth” often told and retold. How many are honest and transparent about past human rights challenges? How many businesses look at the issues of inequality and discrimination through this broader lens? What face do businesses want to show decades ahead?
  3. Paying at least a living wage to all employees and suppliers should be the entry level requirement of all global businesses and public authorities. It’s that simple.
  4. With the combined effects of COVID, Climate and 4IR, all business and investment should be transitional. Not “building back” but instead “building forward” better. The “Just Transition” preamble to the Paris Climate Agreement should look at the human rights of all workers and communities, both preventing and mitigating the effects of global warming.
  5. Public and private finance required for these changes ahead are beyond precedent. As Rachel Kyte said in her Human Rights Day interview with Mary Robinson, focusing on transitions is not a sub-set of global finance, it is the central question for all global finance.
  6. The young need jobs but they also require the agency to define their futures. Instead, the populist political reaction in many of countries has been to centralise, polarise and retrench – in many ways disenfranchising generations to come. It’s not just about jobs, it’s also about livelihoods, greater equity and shared control. Impact investment, currently representing a mere $ 0.75 trillion globally, needs to become the new normal: open to communities and young start-ups seeking to make social, environmental and financial impact.

Interesting intergenerational conversations about the nature of business in our societies are emerging worldwide. In the UK, this includes the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Commission or the Welsh Government’s Future Generations Commissioner. It’s interesting how often in history such revolutions have started outside of the main centres of power.

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