Specifying and Securing a Social Minimum

Dr Dimitrios Kagiaros (Edinburgh Law School) reports on a recent workshop, ‘Specifying and Securing a Social Minimum’, held at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Oñati, Spain with support from the Global Justice Academy.

Organised by Professors Mike Adler (University of Edinburgh), Sara Stendahl (University of Gothenburg) and Jeff King (UCL), the purpose of the workshop was to bring together international experts from a variety of research backgrounds to discuss the theme of ‘Specifying and Securing a Social Minimum’. The overarching issue that was examined related to the difficulties in determining how poor and vulnerable people can achieve basic minimum standards of nutrition, health care, housing, income, employment and education.

Drawing from a variety of disciplines, including legal theory, human rights law, constitutional and administrative law and social policy, the invited academic speakers were asked to submit research papers illustrating recent developments and new challenges in this field. The workshop followed a particularly innovative approach in generating discussion. Commentators were assigned to each paper and were responsible for presenting its content while also acting as discussants, providing feedback and identifying points for further discussion. This facilitated in-depth consideration of each paper and multiple opportunities for exchange of ideas across disciplines.

The conference theme generated debate on two controversial issues. Firstly, the workshop addressed different approaches and obstacles to defining a social minimum. This included discussion on the concept of poverty, the legal position of social assistance recipients, the concepts of social rights and social responsibilities, and the relationship between resources and the concept of a ‘minimally decent life’.
Secondly, the workshop aimed to bring further clarity to the thorny issue of how such a minimum can be achieved. More specifically, participants critically assessed the contribution of national policies, international conventions, targets and development goals, bills of rights or other forms of constitutional protection to securing this social minimum. Special emphasis was placed on the role of courts. Participants presented judicial approaches to securing a social minimum from India, South Africa, Brazil, and at the international level, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.

Dr Kagiaros’ paper focused on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in this debate. The paper relied on recent admissibility decisions where applicants unsuccessfully challenged austerity measures adopted to give effect to conditionality agreements in states in the midst of a debt crisis. While ultimately the applications failed at the admissibility stage, the Court in obiter statements alluded to the possibility that a wholly insufficient amount of pensions and other benefits would, in principle, violate the Convention. The paper explored these statements in detail to decipher whether in fact the Court would be willing to set a social minimum standard of protection. The paper argued, that although a duty not to target specific individuals with harsh austerity measures while leaving others unaffected has been read into the ECHR, it is unlikely that with this statement on insufficiency of benefits the Court intends to create a social minimum.

Overall, this was a particularly enriching experience for all involved and hopefully more similar opportunities will arise to discuss these issues in even greater depth.

More about the author:

Dr. Dimitrios Kagiaros is a Teaching Fellow in Public Law and Human Rights at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law. He has taught on constitutional law, administrative law and human rights law courses at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Hull. His research interests include whistle-blower protection, the impact of European sovereign debt crisis on human rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to freedom of expression.

 

 

Re-thinking ‘the commons’: examining dilemmas, exploring solutions

Dr. Leila Sinclair-Bright is a Career Development Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. In this article, she reflects on the notion of ‘the commons’ as recently debated in an interdisciplinary, open forum discussion event in Edinburgh.

 

Common Dilemmas

This open forum discussion was designed as a starting point for an interdisciplinary exchange of empirical and conceptual work exploring the theme of ‘the commons’ and collective ownership across different contexts. Excellent papers were presented by Dr. Tahl Kaminer (Edinburgh College of Art), Dr. Marisa Wilson (GeoSciences) and Dr. Kieran Oberman (Politics and International Relations) and followed by open discussion with the audience.

Dr. Kaminer’s presentation focused on the influence of the idea of ‘the commons’ in contemporary urban agriculture and regeneration movements. Kaminer opened by distinguishing the commons from the public space. Originating during the enlightenment, the notion of ‘public space’ has always been linked to civil society ideals. However, public spaces have long been as much about keeping particular elements of society out, as they have been about providing an arena for open movement and debate. In contrast, within contemporary urban agriculture and regeneration, ‘the commons’ has become a political movement that seeks to undermine and critique the control of urban space, as well as current economic and political conditions. Here then, the notion of ‘the commons’ is actually used to challenge the idea of a controlled public realm by various super-structures, from the state to corporations. As a movement, Kaminer suggests that ‘the commons’ provides an ideal but unachievable horizon that ‘rallies the troops’, but does not necessarily offer activists achievable, immediate objectives. Kaminer ended by pulling into question the efficacy of the commons movement, positing it more as a conceptual spring-board deployed by a variety of movements to gain traction and raise support for their campaigns, but often not leading to practical change.

Dr. Marisa Wilson’s paper examined local modes of governing food commons and how those interact with state and market models of the commons in Cuba. At what scale do we define food sovereignty? While sovereignty is usually defined at the national scale, how do localised models of food sovereignty fit into the national project? Since the late 19th century, food sovereignty has been promoted as a national ideal in Cuba, with individual profiteering denounced as against the national interest. From 1959, this became a top down institutionalised model of food ‘commoning’ that aimed to redistribute and provide basic food needs for Cuba’s population. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban state was increasingly unable to adequately provide for its population’s food needs, and practices of local level food provisioning increased and/or became more visible. Local food industries were, however, still justified in terms of a local level fight for collective national food commons, and denunciations of private profit from food sales were equally prevalent at this scale. Simultaneously, powers in the agro-food industry were gradually devolved. More recently, the Cuban state has even begun, somewhat ambivalently, to support local level food networks, but maintains strict controls on their capital inputs. Local food providers thus rely on transnational remittances to supplement their capital input needs. Yet these local/transnational networks are still justified and framed into terms of contributing to the national food sovereignty cause. This fascinating case study revealed the multiple complexities at play around food commoning, and raised questions about the relationship between practices of ‘commoning’ and scale which also pertain to current discussions around food sovereignty in other contexts, such as Latin America and Scotland.

Dr. Kieran Oberman’s presentation, provocatively entitled: ‘Against the commons: an egalitarian argument for privatisation’, provided a schema of three different models of ownership: egalitarian collective ownership; common ownership; and equal ownership. In the egalitarian collective ownership model, a collective body owns the resource, say land, and everyone has an equal say on how it is used. In the common ownership model, everyone has use rights, but no one has individual ownership rights (so you could not sell the land, for example). In equal division, everyone has an equal share of the property, or the value of the property (for example basic income), and can choose what to do with their share. Collective and common ownership both curb individual freedoms. In the first, one can only act according to the agreements of the collective body; in the second, one only has use rights and individuals cannot enjoy the other rights that might come with ownership. Thus, Oberman suggests that equal ownership should be the starting place for those things which the majority believe should be commonly owned, such as the planet earth and its natural resources. Individuals can then choose to opt for a collective ownership model and pool their resources if they so choose. Oberman’s schema provided a useful starting point for assessing why and how different groups chose different models or combinations thereof, as well as highlighting a consideration of what rights are gained or lost in each case.

Re-thinking the Commons

The three presentations provided rich material for further discussion. We began by identifying the need to separate out what different kinds of rights inhere in particular claims of ownership (sale rights, use rights, etc…) rather than simply working with the oversimplified binary of individual ownership/privatisation/commodification: collective ownership/commons/non-commodified realm. Four themes for further enquiry also emerged: how the transition between different ownership models works; how governance affects the very framing of the ‘problem’ of the commons; what is a common/practices of commoning, and (how?) does transitioning between different ownership models actually change the ‘object’ in question. It is hoped that this event was the beginning of a set of interdisciplinary working relationships that may lead to further collaboration as a group or between individuals whose research interests intersect.

More about the author:

Dr. Leila Sinclair-Bright completed her doctorate entitled, ‘This Land: politics, authority and and morality after Zimbabwean land reform’ in 2017 (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests are in labour, property, conflict and politics. While her regional expertise lies in Southern Africa, she is in the early stages of developing her next research project on common property regimes in the UK.

 

Tis the season for Tomatoes and Social Justice

In this second guest post, Janice Brewer investigates the tomato industry in the US and what common practice means for agricultural workers and social justice.

As summer rolls through, tomatoes flourish in all sorts of varieties, colors, sizes, and tastes. As I sink my teeth into an heirloom German tomato, grown 100% organically by Green Edge Gardens in Athens, Ohio, I am blown away by the flavour. I grew up hating tomatoes! So why was this tomato so special?

Janice tomato 2

Tomatoes are thought to have originated in the Northern Andes Mountains where the weather tends to be warm and wet creating an optimal growing climate for tomatoes. When the Spanish invaded these areas they became intrigued by tomato and brought it back to Europe. Being apart of the Nightshade family – a wide group of flowering plants generally containing alkaloids – the tomato was originally thought of as poisonous and unfit for consumption but it later developed the name of the “love apple” and “golden apple” given by the French and Italians. In addition to it’s growing popularity in Europe, then North America, the tomato was found to have countless health benefits.

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A community that has less, uses less, and therefore needs less

This guest post is by Janice Brewer. Janice is studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Specialised Studies at Ohio University, in Sustainable Food System Planning and Development. Janice took the ‘Place-Making and Making-Places’ summer school module at the University of Edinburgh during July 2014 – you can read more about the group and their investigations of Global Justice here. In this post, Janice recalls her visit to Eigg and what she learned about sustainability in an island setting.

While awaiting the Ferry in Mallaig I glanced across the blue waters to a special outline of an island I would soon visit.

The Inner Hebrides is sprinkled with over 30 inhabited islands, each with its own history and charm. Located just to the south of the Isle of Skye sits the Isle of Eigg stretching only 5.6 miles by 3.1 miles. Eigg is decorated with “Singing Sands” beach, dramatic climbs, and sheep Xing with every step. This seemingly “just another island” is pioneering is way out of the ordinary; 17 years ago the – now 83 – inhabitants bought the land and the island became community owned. On 1st February 2008 the island switched off the grid. Eigg is the first of its kind to develop an electricity system powered only by wind, water and solar energy. Electricity would become available 24 hours a day for the first time in this islands history. The community won first place in the Big Green Challenge to tackle climate change and received £300,000 from National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).

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