Global Justice: Looking Forward

FSI’s program on global justice (PGJ), now finishing its first year, explores issues at the intersection between political values and the realities of global politics. The aim is to build conversations and research programs that integrate normative ideas—toleration, fairness, accountability, obligations, rights, representation, and the common good—into discussions about fundamental issues of global politics, including human rights, global governance, and access to such basic goods as food, shelter, clean water, education, and health care. PGJ begins from the premise that addressing these morally consequential issues will require a mix of normative reflection and attention to the best current thinking in the social sciences.

In PGJ’s first year of operation, we had several visiting fellows. Adam Hosein and Helena de Bres, both dissertation fellows from MIT, spent the year researching and writing dissertations in political philosophy on issues about global distributive justice. Larry Simon, a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School, director of Heller School’s Sustainable International Development Programs, and associate dean of academic planning, spent the winter and spring quarters working on a book on the relevance of the work of Paulo Freire to today’s poor.

Next year we will scale up the fellowship program. Helena DeBres will stay on as a postdoctoral fellow, continuing her research on utilitarian approaches to global poverty and fair distribution. She will be joined by Avia Pasternak, an Oxford PhD writing on issues about citizens’ responsibility in wealthy democracies to address issues of injustice elsewhere. Brad McHose, a UCLA PhD, and Kirsten Oleson, a recent PhD from Stanford’s IPER program, will also be affiliated with PGJ. Thorsten Theil will be a predoctoral fellow in the fall, writing on deliberative democracy and postnational politics. And Charles Beitz, a distinguished political theorist from Princeton whose Political Theory and International Relations (1979) remains the basis for much contemporary discussion of global justice, will be visiting in the winter and spring, working on a project on human rights.

Our principal activity for this past year was a regular workshop (coordinated with Stanford’s Humanities Center) covering a wide range of themes, from corporate social responsibility to the philosophical foundations of global justice, with participation from graduate students, research fellows, and faculty from political science, philosophy, economics, education, law, literature, and anthropology. In one of the liveliest sessions, Abhijit Banerjee, MIT economist and director of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, presented his research and reflections on the strategy of using randomized field experiments to assess aid projects in developing countries. In a seminar jointly sponsored with CDDRL, Banerjee, a self-described aid optimist, expressed doubts about contemporary understanding of the determinants of economic growth and emphasized the importance of project-specific assistance and evaluation.

Richard Locke, a political scientist from MIT’s Sloan School, presented a paper based on his research at Nike and other lead firms in global supply chains that use corporate codes of conduct in their relations with suppliers. The principal finding of Locke’s research is that such codes have not been very successful in improving compensation, working conditions, or freedom of association for workers in firms that supply products to lead firms.

Amherst political theorist Uday Mehta presented a paper contrasting ideas about peace and non-violence to a seminar jointly sponsored with CISAC. Tracing the idea of a principled commitment to non-violence to Gandhi, Mehta suggested there are important costs to that principle (perhaps it requires devaluing justice), but that there are also costs to emphasizing peace as an alternative to principled non-violence: in particular, that the more conditional commitment to non-violence may end up being very permissive about the use of force.

Stanford economist Seema Jayachandran presented research on strategies for dealing with problems of odious debt. And we had workshops on the foundations of global justice with political theorists Michael Blake, Adam Hosein, Jennifer Rubenstein, and Sebastiano Maffetone; on citizenship and immigration with legal theorist Ayelet Schachar and anthropologist John Bowen; on human rights with Chip Pitts, a human rights lawyer; and on the World Bank with Sameer Dossani, a Washington political activist.

Next year, PGJ will initiate—in conjunction with Locke and his colleagues at MIT—a project called Just Supply Chains. The premise of the project is that the globalization of production is redefining employment relations and generating the need for fundamental changes in the basic institutions governing the economy. Corporations, unions, NGOs, national governments, and even international labor, trade, and financial organizations are all searching for new ways to adjust to the new international order and ensure that workers in global supply chains have decent levels of compensation, healthy and safe workplaces, and rights of association.

The project will explore three broad strategies for achieving these goals. First, it will address corporate codes of conduct and monitoring mechanisms to enforce these codes. Today, monitoring for compliance with “private voluntary codes of conduct” is one of the principal ways both global corporations and labor rights NGOs seek to promote “fair” labor standards in global supply chains. Likewise, a number of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have banded together to promote a more collaborative/coordinated approach to improved labor standards. (The Joint Initiative for Workers Rights and Corporate Accountability in Turkey and the MFA Forum Project in Bangladesh are two of the best known examples.) But these initiatives, like the corporate codes, have produced very mixed results.

Second, much has been written about pro-labor administrative reforms by national governments (e.g., Dominican Republic, Argentina, Cambodia, and Brazil). But very little is known about whether these efforts are successful and, if they are, how to diffuse their success to other countries struggling with many of the same issues.

Third, there is speculation about how efforts at the ILO and WTO, joining labor standards to trade rules, might produce global improvements in compensation, work, and rights of association.

To explore these issues, the Just Supply Chains project will start next year with a series of workshops, bringing together “practitioners” engaged in these institutional experiments and scholars studying global supply chains, corporate responsibility, regulatory strategies, and normative ideas about global justice. We will examine what is already known about the conditions under which new arrangements and strategies can succeed in promoting fair wages and work hours, decent working conditions, and basic rights, including the right to organize collectively. The larger aim will be to define a research agenda animated by ideals of global justice, informed by understanding of current circumstances and social possibilities, and aimed at improving both our understanding and global well-being.