Heather Grady, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. Speech to the High-Level Forum on "Working Out of Poverty: Decent Work Approach to Development and Growth in Africa"

Statement | Monrovia, Liberia | 14 November 2008

Working Out of Poverty:

A Decent Work Approach to Development and Growth in Africa

Monrovia, 8-9 September 2008

Closing Remarks by Heather Grady*

Dear Distinguished Participants…

First, I want to thank sincerely the Government of Liberia, and the ILO, for co-convening this event with us. Realizing Rights is committed to finding concrete ways to progressively realize economic and social rights, particularly in Africa. And in this we have found true partners in Liberia, particularly in the Ministry of Labor, but also among our colleagues in several other Ministries, and in the ILO.

I want to begin with a point that Mary Robinson ended with in her opening remarks yesterday. This event, as well as our participation in the event on Decent Work that took place last week in Oslo, and the event we will co-convene with the ILO in New York in just two weeks, are part of the wider campaign of The Elders called ‘Every Human Has Rights’, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I want to go back to something that Ambassador Zhou from China said yesterday, because I think we must not shy away from the points of difference in progressing a Decent Work agenda. I wanted to ensure that the Ambassador joined our event this week, for two reasons. First, because China is a significant development partner in terms of aid. And second, because we are negligent if we do not acknowledge the huge impact of public and private Chinese investment throughout Africa.

Yesterday Ambassador Zhou noted how proud he was of China’s recent labor law that will bring greater enforcement of human rights. In a nation where the sense of obligation of people to their state is very strong, he said it is time for the state to more fully carry out its obligations to its people. We can all applaud that. He also suggested that the wise path for a country is to focus first on development and economic growth before instituting such labor reforms, which was a more controversial notion. He also worried that too much emphasis on the right to food in a given society would create a handout mentality.

I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting him in his absence, because we actually discussed these ideas for a full hour after our workshop yesterday. I return to these points because they are crucial to the policy debate on decent work. I believe that we need not see labor rights on the one hand, and growth and development on the other, as a trade-off. The question is whether different social partners are working constructively together toward the same goal. There must be dialogue. No misunderstanding, no conflict, is ever solved by the absence of dialogue. And this is a very important discussion to have, beyond the social partners, because many economists and policy-makers see human rights as a cost, not a contributor, to development. Further, until we create and communicate a stronger evidence base to support this argument, we will falter in our promotion of decent work. And this is a discussion that appropriately takes place within each country among its own constituencies.

I also think that part of the answer to this trade-off question lies in where we place the responsibility for enjoyment of rights. While States remain the primary duty-bearers for fulfilling human rights, including the right to decent work and the right to food, all of us must play our part.

This is very much a theme of our Every Human Has Rights campaign. We are calling attention to Article 29 which affirms: ‘Everyone has duties to the community…’ It is important that we as individuals take responsibility in our communities and as citizens so that everyone enjoys their rights. I think this is particularly important in a post-conflict situation. Yesterday Vice-Minister Victor Bernardo of Mozambique mentioned that his society had to overcome passivity – waiting for handouts – to get on the road to economic recovery.

There are many other obstacles in creating a motivated and fairly-compensated workforce. The road builder earning a good wage for his or her work may tire of being the only breadwinner for a family of 15 and leave the job, so we may need to question our assumptions about what makes work desirable and sustainable, and what additional social support is needed from the government or others. These are the challenges that Liberia will need to address.

We have learned much in these two days. One of the most important lessons is that a Decent Work approach for Liberia and other countries must incorporate the formal and informal economies, including agriculture, and must pay special attention to women and to youth. I also think that we have learned that the Ministry of Labor and the ILO will need to define roles for themselves and other Ministries and donors to implement a successful decent work program.

Looking ahead to our own contribution as Realizing Rights, we are committed to the following:

In terms of projects, we would like to contribute to small-scale infrastructure efforts, like road-building, with modest financial contributions. We also hope to provide support in strengthening a rights-based approach in such projects, including promoting women’s equality.

Regarding the informal sector, we have tentative plans to support female waste-collectors in different parts of the country to make their work ‘more decent’. This targets a group of workers that is chronically marginalized and underserved. We want to bring these efforts into the International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, and International Peace and Security next March, which will be co-convened by the Presidents of Liberia and Finland.

We are also exploring working with cocoa farmers to see if we can have ‘clean cocoa’ that is not only free of child labor, but also ensure the farmers have the minimum social floor that comprises decent work. Indeed, tomorrow we will visit cocoa farms outside Monrovia with the NGO Mercy Corps.

On the policy side, we would like to support some of the analytical work suggested yesterday by James Heintz (University of Massachusetts) in terms of identifying how workers toward the ends of global supply chains might obtain a living wage. We hope to include companies in the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights – with whom we already collaborate – in this effort.

I am aware of two important diseases of the development business – one is projectitis (too many projects), and another is overdoing assessments. To avoid this we hope to complement what is already being done, and collaborate closely with allies on the ground here.

Finally, I want to reaffirm what Mary said yesterday. In the short-term, we are on a road to promote Decent Work that winds from Oslo to Monrovia to New York. Hopefully this concept will gain more traction through this process. The real work, of course, is still to come, and we look forward to Liberia’s leadership in this area as we move forward in the years ahead. I am sure it will be a beacon for others.

Thank you.

* Heather Grady is the Director of Policy and Strategy and the Trade and Decent Work Program of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative (www.realizingrights.org)