Statement by Mr. José Antonio Ocampo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the ECOSOC Meeting to Commemorate International Human Solidarity Day
New York, 15 December 2006

Solidarity gets to the heart of our essential character as members of society. It is thus fitting that the General Assembly, home to the world’s family of nations, has decided to proclaim an International Day that shines a light on solidarity. Equally fitting is our gathering to celebrate the first International Human Solidarity Day here in the Economic and Social Council, which serves at the centre of the development activities of the United Nations system.

The UN global conferences and summits since the 1990s have defined the most ambitious development agenda in history. This Agenda embodies shared aspirations, goals, and values to address our common development challenges—and is itself a powerful expression of solidarity.

Yet, an important obstacle to implementation of this Agenda is the persistence of economic and social inequalities at the international and national levels.

Income inequality both among and within countries is on the rise. The distance that separates the richest and the poorest countries has widened for two centuries and, while declining in the last few years, grew rapidly in the last two decades of the twentieth century.

In addition, a recent study by WIDER estimated that, while the richest two per cent of the world’s adult population owns more than half of global household wealth, the poorer half owns a mere one per cent of global wealth. A previous study by the same Institute estimated that about nine out of ten citizens in the world live in countries were income distribution has worsened in the past three decades, a pattern affecting both industrial and developing countries.

As we underscored last year in our report, The Inequality Predicament, the UN Development Agenda cannot be advanced without addressing the global challenges—and, I could say, threat—of inequality.

Disparities at the international level reflect the unequal access of different countries to technology, markets, and finance, as well as the marginalization of developing countries in key decision-making processes.

The push for increased and more effective development assistance, and for broader development cooperation efforts are essential to address the significant asymmetries that characterize the functioning of the world economy. We have made major advances in recent years, but the sheer task of overcoming such asymmetries means that we have to do even more.

Many of the steps that need to be taken are well known. Reaching the longstanding target of 0.7 percent of GDP for official development assistance, one of the most visible and tangible forms of global solidarity. Freeing up more resources for spending on basic development needs through external debt relief. Reducing trade-distorting subsidies and ensuring enhanced and predictable access to markets for the exports of developing countries. And meeting the commitment in the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development to guarantee a fair participation of developing countries in international economic decision making.

At the national level, inequalities in wealth and income, inequalities between rural and urban areas, inequalities based on gender or ethnicity, unequal access to basic social services like education, health care, nutrition, access to productive resources and opportunities can all cause and exacerbate poverty.

Improving access to education and decent jobs lies at the centre of any strategy to reduce inequality. And, in the latter case, this involves creating not only jobs but also decent working conditions that are conducive to the equality, security, and dignity of all workers. Greater commitment is also needed to raise investment in rural areas, where most of the poor live, and to improve access of small producers to productive assets.

National policies in the area of social protection represent a collective intervention of society to prevent risks and vulnerabilities, and are one of the most important applications of the principle of solidarity. Such protection should be understood as covering basic risks like nutrition, health, ageing, and unemployment.

Perhaps above all, the principle of solidarity should serve as catalyst for the development of inclusive growth patterns, which require the mainstreaming of social objectives into economic policymaking.

The current era of globalization, characterized by rising inequalities and competitive markets that do not always meet the needs of all people, especially the poor, forces us to dedicate more attention to the role of economic solidarity. This form of economic and social organization plays an important role in our economic system, yet is commonly overlooked.

In contrast to the market economy, the solidarity economy relies on self-organized relationships of care, cooperation, and community. This economic dimension of solidarity manifests itself in activities undertaken by societies and groups to tackle social, economic, or environmental challenges that are not being adequately met by government or by the market. Cooperatives, mutual societies, voluntary and civil society organizations, foundations, and associations—all often called “social enterprises”—offer a solidarity-based model of organization to help their members achieve their socio-economic goals, through the creation of employment, provision of financial services, and promotion of social integration.

Cooperatives are active in the areas of agricultural production, retail, banking, and microfinance. Mutual societies are prominent in the insurance and mortgage sectors. Associations and foundations provide health and welfare services, environmental regeneration, and humanitarian assistance.

The growing “care economy”, covering such areas as childcare, care for the elderly, education, health, and pensions, tackles some of the most challenging social dimensions of our changing world, in particular ageing and the altering of family structures. There are also more and more businesses that contribute to social integration by employing staff who are often marginalized themselves, such as the disabled or the homeless.

Many of these organizations produce goods and services for the market economy, but they redirect their surplus to reach community objectives. Others produce goods and services for the direct use of their beneficiaries. And all empower community members and encourage social change through responsible citizenship that exercises control over production, consumption, savings, investment, and exchange.

The growing scope of “fair trade” on the global scene is equally an example of economic solidarity in which profit is not the sole objective. “Fair trade” emphasizes equity in international transactions, where businesses engage in environmentally sustainable practices; are open to public accountability; provide healthy and safe working conditions for their employees; and respect international environmental and labour standards.

The solidarity economy can serve as an emerging model for managing economic and social development because it integrates social, economic, cultural, and environmental considerations at the community-level and promotes self-help. It can complement the current market-based model which excludes much of the world’s marginalized citizens from the benefits of the global economy. The social economy also has the ability to make a major contribution to citizen empowerment.

On this first International Human Solidarity Day, let us recognize the need to put the fight against inequality, in all its forms, firmly at the centre of the UN Development Agenda. And let us also recognize the potential of economic solidarity to fight both inequality and poverty. Fulfilling the aspirations behind the decision of the General Assembly to proclaim this new International Day requires turning commitments into action, action grounded in an awareness of growing interdependence and guided by a strong spirit of global solidarity.