Active Global Citizenship: Ethical Living to Promote Human Rights

Bernadette O’Hare

Many people want to live lifestyles that are in harmony with their values, and to make choices that do not inadvertently harm the economic and social human rights of others. Their priorities may be shaped, in part by the most pressing concerns in the world, such as the environment, inequality between and within countries, and include the planet (climate change), people (the impact our choices have on others) and animals. These priorities influence their everyday decisions, as they try and strike a balance between values and competing priorities, such as cost and convenience.

However, in a globalized world, the web of complex interactions between decisions in one region and outcomes in another makes it difficult to follow the links between cause and effect. Nonetheless, many people are making a commitment to being ‘Active Global Citizens’ and to raising their awareness of these links, especially as they apply to environmental concerns. For example, as well as reducing their carbon footprint, people also want to be sure other aspects of their lives, such as their pension schemes, investments, banking, and consumer choices do not undermine these efforts. Equally, as people contribute to overseas aid, (through tax or charitable contributions), they also want to select institutions or organizations that support their values.

Linking individual choices and human rights

Individual decision making about consumer goods, investments, and banking, can catalyze and drive positive change from the bottom-up. Every choice a consumer makes can help influence manufacturers and service providers to improve their positive impacts on people and the planet.

One critical link between the individual choices of citizens in high-income countries and the human rights of citizens in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is the tax paid by multinational companies working in the LMICs. Corporate income tax contributes, on average, to 20% of government revenue in LMICs and thus to public services, which is a higher proportion than in wealthy countries, where it is 10%. However, the average government revenue per capita in low-income countries was less than $100 in 2015 which means that the ability to provide public services for human rights, including the right to health and its underlying determinants (water, sanitation, education, and infrastructure) is severely restricted, leaving multiple gaps through which the poorest fall. Philanthropy, charity and official development assistance may plug a few of these gaps in the short term (overseas development assistance is <1% of LMICs’ gross income), but sustainable solutions have to include tax, government revenue, and domestically financed public services.

Individual choices can appear insignificant given the scale of the issues, but there are two reasons to pursue making ethical choices. One is the evidence that reducing the tension between a person’s values and actions is good for their wellbeing. For example, the benefits of engaging (consuming or investing) with a company which is paying fair taxes is that individuals are contributing to public services and fulfilment of human rights in the countries where the companies work. The second reason is that selecting the products or services of these companies flags this as an important consumer issue to business leaders globally and the more people who make the choice to switch to an ethical company, the more impact this decision has.

How to start making ethical choices

Step 1 Make a list of your values

Use the audit and action plan below to check if values and choices are aligned. Different values may conflict with each other, which can immobilize. Equally, some choices may cost more than you can afford in time or convenience (e.g., the time it takes to switch bank accounts). Let common sense prevail, making one change a month is better than nothing!

Step 2 Carry out an audit

Use Table 1 below to check if your decisions and choices are in harmony with your values.

Table 1: ABCDE audit and action cycle
  People Environment Action
Advocate Observe what political parties say about foreign policy and international development, check the voting record of the incumbent candidates. Observe what political parties say on the environment. Read the manifestoes, vote, write, email, ask questions. These have a real impact on our elected representatives.
Bank Review your bank’s reputation and ethical principles. Where does the bank invest? Does the bank invest in fossil fuels or projects which damages the environment? If bank invests in projects, not in line with values, switch accounts.
Consume Water Does your water supplier pay tax? Do you buy bottled water where the water is safe to drink? Switch water company if they do not pay tax. Avoid buying bottled water. Recycle bottles.
Food What are the ethical principles of supermarkets, grocery stores, and regular brands? Do you buy locally produced and seasonal? Could you eat less meat and dairy products? Support outlets and brands with shared values. Buy local, seasonal, non-packaged, fairly traded from shops which pay a fair wage and tax.
Clothes Is clothing made where there is a living wage? Is clothing sustainable? Wear for longer, repair, buy second hand, recycle.
Shelter Does your energy supplier pay tax? Review the size and insulation of your home. Do you use renewable energy? Use green energy, low energy bulbs, turn down thermostats, downsize, recycle furniture.
Tech What is the global supply of components, is there damage inflicted on the health/welfare of local communities, e.g., the metals in mobile phones. Check the global supply of goods for damage inflicted on the environment. Use for longer, recycle, research the brand and supplier before buying new technology. (phone, laptop, TV, household items).
Travel Review the reputation of car manufacturers and train/airline/bus companies. Could you fly/drive less? Cycle, walk, and use public transport. Fly as little as possible.
Divest Pensions account for 40% of global stocks. Contributors to a pension fund are shareholders in the companies which the fund invests. Are you investing in companies which avoid paying tax? Are you investing in fossil fuels or renewable energy? Check investments, pensions, equities, use your voice as a shareholder. Divest from funds which are not in line with your values or use your voice as a shareholder with pension fund managers.
Educate Why do so many not access their human rights globally? What are the main drivers of environmental change? Educate yourself and your network about barriers to social justice and reasons behind environmental degradation. Hold Active Global Citizenship meetings.

Bernadette O’Hare is Senior Lecturer in Global Health and Child Health, The University of St Andrews, Scotland, and the College of Medicine, Malawi