We need work for all / We need work to be.
— Juluka, “Work For All” (1983)
It’s About Work
An anthem describing the challenges facing a black South African mineworker in the early 1980s, “Work For All” by the Zulu rock band Juluka, intensified my awareness as a teenager of the connection between access to work and human dignity, between working and being. In the years that followed, South Africa accomplished the near miracle of transforming its political arrangements from a constitutional order founded on racial privilege to a constitutional democracy with less-than-expected bloodshed and mayhem. The anti-apartheid objective of “one person, one vote” was effectively enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, finally enacted in 1996. Yet the equally beloved objective of “work for all” remains elusive and, because of that, so does the experience of human dignity for many South Africans.
This became, once again, vivid to me while traveling in South Africa in August of last year. While I was inspired on that trip by the enthusiasm, imagination, and industriousness of the many South Africans I met who were self-employed or had jobs, at the time one in every four of those South Africans who were actively looking for work could not find any. In the subsequent months I found myself—for the first time since my second year in university—without formal employment. The experience alerted me to some realities accompanying unemployment: the loss of momentum, lack of connectedness with other people, and the absence of the feeling that you are making a contribution to some valuable enterprise or another. I experienced these losses as a stripping of my dignity as a person, a dehumanization. Struggling as I was with my own challenges, my heart broke for the 25 percent of South Africans who were faced with even greater challenges than I.
The heartbreak was also tinged with envy and anger because at that time I was also reading Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works, a carefully documented comparative study of the economic development histories of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and China. Studwell shows how particular political choices made by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and to some extent China have enabled those countries to make significant progress towards the objective of “work for all,” while other choices have meant significantly less progress on the part of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. As I read what Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China accomplished, I yearned to see similar progress take place in South Africa and other African countries. I wondered: What makes the worthy dream of “work for all” plausible in a particular context? What institutional arrangements are necessary to generate conditions in which most work-seekers can either find jobs or entrepreneurially create work for themselves and others? What kinds of leadership need to be exercised, and by whom, to bring such institutional arrangements into existence?
For a stark contrast with regard to efforts to provide “work for all,” consider Taiwan and the Philippines. Throughout the 1950s, Taiwan enacted an agriculture policy that combined an emphasis on smallscale farming with a deep investment in research-based education for farmers in addition to the development of an effective infrastructure for bringing produce to market. Yields in crops like rice and sugar increased by half. Yields in fruit and vegetables doubled. Taiwan was able to feed its rapidly growing population and even become an exporter of food.
The focus on small-scale farming allowed Taiwan to soak up available labour into productive and remunerative work, effectively combating unemployment. In time the savings of market gardeners provided Taiwan’s banks with some of the capital necessary for the country’s early industrialization. And small farmers also provided the key market for Taiwan’s early manufacturers as farm incomes doubled in real terms during the 1950s.
The result? According to Studwell:
Household income surveys in Taiwan showed that the country moved from a Gini coefficient—the standard measure of equality, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality—on a par with Brazil in the early 1950s (scoring 0.56) to a level in the mid 1960s that was unprecedented for a developing country (0.33).
Whereas Taiwan “produced the most remarkable developmental results as a consequence of land reform,” Joe Studwell writes, “the Philippines is perhaps the most extreme example of land policy dysfunction in south-east Asia,” so that even today “Filipino farming remains grotesquely inefficient.” In addition, as recently as in 2008, 8.5 million of the 11.2 million rural workers in the Philippines were landless. Among the consequences of this failure in agricultural policy and land reform is a high degree of inequality: the Gini coefficient in the Philippines changed some, but not much, in the years between 1957 and 1994, varying between 0.45 and 0.51, and in 2012 stood at 0.43. (The Gini coefficient for Taiwan in 2011: 0.342. For the sake of comparison, in the late 2000s the Gini coefficient for Canada was 0.324 and that for the USA 0.378.)
The agricultural policies of the government of Taiwan during the 1950s and 1960s resulted in a remarkable increase in employment and provided a solid foundation for the industrialization of Taiwan—the industrialization without which no nation can escape the bonds of poverty. In the short term these policies did involve significantly painful losses for the owners of large agricultural estates. In the long term, the common good of Taiwan was served well.
It seems to me that the development imperative Joe Studwell derives from the comparison— first, focus on farming small, for high yields and for low unemployment—is worthy of consideration by all of the world’s poorer nations. It is also intriguing to consider how this first development imperative sets a national economy up with a bias towards greater economic equality. And it makes me wonder about the ways in which the (admittedly painful) surrender of privileges by some (owners of larger tracts of land) to the benefit of others (small-scale farmers) may in particular settings (here, early-stage national economic development) benefit the common good over the course of decades.
Neighbours Are Near And Far
In my mother tongue, Afrikaans, the second part of the great commandment reads, “en jou naaste soos jouself.” I have always liked that word naaste: nearest. To me it communicates an even closer intimacy than the English neighbour. But, as you might imagine, in the apartheid-era South Africa of my childhood this part of the commandment was easily perverted to insist that the commandment is in the first place about loving oneself, and those nearest to oneself: in our case, our ethnically nearest fellow-Afrikaners. It was thought-provoking, years later, to discover that the international cooperation agency of one of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands is called De Verre Naasten: our far-off nearest.
One of the threads in the unfolding story of God’s love is that of the moral education of the people of God. As told in the Bible, God’s people needed to expand their capacity for compassion from a close-range focus on family loyalty (and its failures) in the stories of the generations of Adam, Noah, and Abraham, towards a much more cosmopolitan concern for the global common good in the apocalyptic visions of Isaiah the prophet and John the Revelator. The visions in Isaiah 60 and Revelation 21 show a picture of the world to come in which all God’s creatures participate in a symphony of justice. That picture is of a city—a political community— into which all the nations of the world and their leaders are gathered. The eschaton is exemplary, even if not to be fully realized here and now: these apocalyptic visions of the world-city to come invite us toward the practice of a cosmopolitan ethic in our time.
To diminish global inequality will require hard work, tough decisions, fortitude in the face of both loss and uncertainty. And on the part of both the rich and the poor, it will require love for our further-off neighbours.
In my childhood I observed the effects of a constitutionally entrenched racism that sought to privilege my own ethnic community to the detriment of other ethnic communities. For this reason, and also because of my (admittedly and undoubtedly inadequate) reading of the biblical narrative as educating humanity towards a cosmopolitan morality, I am prejudiced against politicaleconomic arguments that seek to privilege the nearest over the further-off, the local over the foreign, the particular interest over the common good.
This is not to say that the nearest, the local, or the particular are to be disregarded in the consideration of goods. But I do not believe that as a matter of course any of these are to be accorded moral priority. Instead, they are to be weighed considerately in our politicaleconomic judgments, with attention to what is possible to learn from historical experience, to what can be argued reasonably, and to what the sacred scriptures reveal in illumination of our darkened reasoning and twisted understanding of experience.
Beyond The Politics Of Global Inequality: What’s Needed
In this context, I’m concerned by the global inequality of opportunity that’s resulted from the privileging of the interests of citizens in more-developed nations over the interests of those in less-developed nations.
Having read Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works, I am provisionally persuaded by his argument that the dream of “work for all” is made plausible in the context of developing economies by particular institutional arrangements: agriculture emphatically biased towards small-scale farming; industry vigorously oriented towards exports; a financial sector disciplined in the support of such agriculture and industry; a state in which the government leans its legislative and executive efforts toward the encouragement of such agricultural, industrial, and financial arrangements. Other than tiny city-states with well-situated ports and friendly tax regimes like Singapore and resource-bonanza states like Botswana, no country in recent history has significantly increased employment and improved living conditions without a profound reorientation of agriculture from large-scale estate farming to small-scale intensive farming, without the resolute development of large-scale exportoriented industry, and without financial systems supporting such farming and industry. And no country has accomplished any of these positive changes without a government both devoted to and effective in the accomplishment of such changes.
But the institutional arrangements required to make an exponential increase in employment opportunities plausible in developing countries are not only national, they are also international. And they include international trade regimes that offer preferences rather than barriers to the agricultural and industrial exports of less developed countries. In this regard, there are good beginnings in efforts like Canada’s Least Developed Countries Market Access Initiative, the USA’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, and the EU’s Everything but Arms program. International financial institutions that recognize that developing countries working to increase employment by means of land reform and infant industries are also necessary, but this would require different policies than those of mature industrial economies. Just as “work for all” in developing countries requires national agricultural policies that expand the opportunities of work-seekers at significant short-term costs to large-scale landlords, “work for all” also requires international trade and financial regimes that expand the export opportunities of developing countries at potentially significant shortterm costs to less productive and less innovative farmers and manufacturers in developed countries.
The politics of global inequality is fraught with both legitimate conflicting interests and significant uncertainties about the consequences for developed economies from their efforts to encourage and support development in other countries. While we have much historical information about what it takes for countries with great poverty, inadequate work opportunities, and infant industries to develop their economies, we do not yet know enough about what it will take for developed economies to sustain themselves satisfactorily in a global context in which such development is taking place rapidly.
Making the dream of “work for all” plausible in my beloved South Africa and countries like it will require significant institutional development both nationally and internationally. As with any significant changes, such development will inevitably involve not only real gains, but also real costs to real people. To diminish global inequality will require hard work, tough decisions, fortitude in the face of both loss and uncertainty. And on the part of both the rich and the poor, it will require love for our further-off neighbours.
To make “work for all” possible in South Africa, the primary opportunities and responsibilities rest with South Africans: farmers who must diligently and ingeniously cultivate their land for optimal long-term yields; industrial workers who must cultivate the skills and habits necessary for employment; entrepreneurs who must start and build businesses and vigorously pursue export opportunities to increase the availability of work; bankers who must make and manage loans with a view to long-term wealth and workcreation on a national scale; agricultural educators who must help bring the best new knowledge about crops and farming methods to farmers; labour unionists who must advocate for workplace justice and technical training with a long-term perspective on the improvement of conditions; citizens, lawmakers, and public administrators who must study history and learn from it as they shape policies and practices that ease rather than hinder all of these efforts, who must go to bat for the opening of markets internationally to the products of South African farms and factories, and who must make the case for international financial regimes that serve the interests of those who seek work as attentively as they serve the interests of those who seek a return on their investments.
In more developed countries like Canada and the USA, there are reciprocal possibilities and responsibilities: citizens, lawmakers, and public administrators who must similarly work for international financial regimes that do justice by treating less and more developed economies with the differences appropriate to their distinctive historical circumstances and for trade regimes that (at a minimum) offer farmers and factories in the least developed countries duty-free and quota-free access to the markets of the most developed countries; labour unionists who must advocate for the kind of industrial training and social safety nets that would make workers in these countries relatively more secure in less-protected markets; entrepreneurs who can build on the technical and financial sophistication available in more developed countries to globally offer innovative products and services that allow for the maintenance of high levels of employment in these countries; farmers who will find fresh ways to tend the earth and feed its peoples.
In South Africa as much as in Canada and the USA, these possibilities and responsibilities require a moral context within which we can make sense of both the gains and the losses that will result from our human efforts. Such a moral context is available in the cosmopolitan visions of the prophet Isaiah and John of the Apocalypse—visions that ring true to the story Jesus tells in response to the question: “Who is my neighbour?”