Social justice and social protection: an important relationship

In the final plenary,  Georges Corm asked if current economic thinking suitably situates social justice within political economy. Drawing on the experience of late industrialisers like Japan, Corm posed the questions: ‘What happened to the region? Why is the Arab world today totally outside of the emerging markets, and what are the reasons for this failure?’

Corm’s presentation outlined what he sees as the widely unrecognised relationship between political economy and social justice.  He argued that if an economy does not have full mobilisation of its human resources, the likelihood is it will remain industrially and technologically stagnant. He went on to propose that the current trend towards econometrics has pushed social justice out of view. Examining the distribution of national income is now very neglected by researchers and he argued that the link between national income and distribution of wealth is too often ignored.

He pointed out that Japan industrialised half a century after Egypt, and asked why the developmental trajectories of their examples had been so divergent. He attributed Japan’s success to its preparation of the rural workforce to transit progressively to urban towns and become efficient workers in industry. Conglomerates provided total social protection to their employees and their families. In the other example, Prussia, he noted that Bismarck created similar social protection for workers. This social protection was offered up as an essential prerequisite for stimulating increases in social justice.

Corm argued that if governments don’t take care of the largest part of society that have no stake in the rewards of modernity and industrialisation, they are doomed. In the West, he argued, the welfare state addressed social justice to such an extent that it led to the negative reaction of Thatcherism, that sought to push it back.

He highlighted that following the nationalisation of the Suez canal in 1956, Egypt was a leading force. So what happened? On this he commented,  “We have to ask ourselves, today, do we have the right diagnosis? Is it the middle classes revolting, or a large social struggle from the intermixed disenfranchised calling for bread and dignity?”

He warned that migration of talent and skills is a financial loss for Egypt. Brain-drain cannot be a positive development. Also, no international organisation is tackling illiteracy in the Arab world, which is the status of some 80m people, most of whom are women and live in the rural areas.  He went further, saying that literacy should be a conditional prerequisite for donor funding. Corm’s proposed that the overarching cause of poverty is having a bad development model. “The first two waves of Arab revolution were about this bad development model and, essentially, we cannot carry on like this.”

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