Robin Broad

Buzzwords and Fuzzwords — terms that became popular but mean vastly different things to different people.  We’ve had a long list: development, sustainability, good governance, civil society, accountability. “Corporate responsibility” should certainly be on that list. And the avalanche of new buzzwords and fuzzwords continues: emerging markets, inclusive growth, resilience.

But today’s buzzword winner is: responsible mining. Meaning what exactly?  Well, not surprisingly, as is the case with most buzzwords, it means whatever the user wants it to mean. So, let me try to distinguish among the top four uses of “responsible mining.”

To most corporate mining executives and, alas, also to many government officials, mining is responsible if it focuses on maximizing economic growth which, in turn, maximizes economic profits, which will make everyone better off and in the most efficient way. This, of course, is what neoclassical economic theory tells us. Socially, this will be responsible because the economic benefits will multiply and trickle down to the poor.  In terms of environmental impact, the “environmental Kuznets curve” purportedly proves that, at least in theory, as a country grows in economic terms, certain environmental pollutants decrease.

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Sunita Narain

Our health is not on anybody’s agenda. Or, we just don’t seem to make the connections between the growing burden of disease and the deteriorating condition of our environment. We don’t really believe the science, which tells us each passing day how toxins affect our bodies, leading to high rates of both morbidity and mortality. It is true that it is difficult to establish cause and effect, but we know more than enough to say that air pollution is today a leading cause of both disease and death in India and other parts of South Asia.

The Global Burden of Disease is an initiative involving WHO that tracks the causes of disability-adjusted life years lost—the number of productive years lost to diseases—and human death. In other words, it assesses a large number of risk factors responsible for the global burden of disease. Why are we ill? The initiative’s decadal 2010 assessment should make us angry.

In South Asia the top cause of disease and death is particulate pollution—inside homes because of the poor quality cook stoves and biomass fuel burnt by poor households, and outside homes because of growing numbers of vehicles and use of dirty diesel fuel. What is more worrying is that ambient and household-level air pollution has a correlation with ischemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and lower respiratory infections. According to this assessment, some 627,000 deaths in 2010 are attributable to ambient air pollution alone in India, of which heart disease caused almost 50 per cent deaths and stroke and hypertension another 25 per cent. In all, over 1.6 million deaths happened in India because of indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2010, finds the global assessment. It is not mocking numbers.

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We are economists who think that the economy should serve people, the planet and the future.

The United States ranks first in the world in health care spending per person, but only 45th in life expectancy. The average American sees a doctor less often than the average Canadian, the average Briton, or the average resident of most industrial democracies. The average life expectancy of white Americans without a high school degree has fallen since 1990 by three years for men and five years for women.

This paradoxical combination of first-class costs and second-rate performance is a result of a multi-payer health care system whose enormous administrative bureaucracy absorbs nearly one-third of our health care dollars. The aim of this private bureaucracy is to police patients and doctors, not to add value or protect human health.

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Margot Baruch, Guest Blogger. 

Tax laws impact government revenue and expenditure and can also violate states’ obligations to protect, respect, and fulfill economic and social rights.  Last week the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) at Rutgers University circulated their most recent Nexus Brief: Shaping Feminist Visions in the 21st Century (, which provides an analytical tool to measure government’s realization of economic and social rights through economic policy. The tool uses human rights principles as a framework for auditing economic policy.

The current global economic crisis provides stark evidence that the economic policies of the last three decades have not been working. The devastation that the crisis has wrought on the most vulnerable households in the Global North and Global South is a reminder that the formulation of economic policy and the realization of human rights (economic, social, political, civil and cultural) have for too long been divorced from one another. Economic policy and human rights do not have to be opposing forces, but can exist symbiotically.

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James K. Boyce

Is environmental racism good for white folks? The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem.

In the United States, there is plenty of evidence that African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans typically face greater pollution burdens than whites, with associated health risks. So if the same total amount of pollution were spread more evenly, whites would wind up breathing dirtier air.

But would total pollution remain the same? Or would pollution decline if it was no longer disproportionately inflicted on minorities?

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Barry Eidlin, Guest Blogger

For the past two decades, retail giant Walmart has served as a model for corporate America to emulate. Now, by forcing unions to break out of old habits, its workers might be showing the way forward for labor.

Walmart stores and critical parts of its distribution chain have been hit by a series of strikes in recent weeks. These strikes are remarkable for three reasons. First, the workers involved have no union protection. While their strikes are technically legal, they are taking huge risks by walking out. Second, many are not technically employed by Walmart. Rather, they work for a variety of sub-contractors that Walmart can replace at will. Third, despite items one and two, these workers are winning, and the strikes seem to be spreading.

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Lyuba Zarsky

For nearly a decade, Goldcorp’s Marlin gold and silver mine in the Guatemalan altiplano has been at the center of intense local conflict and international scrutiny. The conflict was ignited in 2005 when local Mayan communities overwhelmingly rejected mining in popular plebiscites called consultas. Chief among their concerns was the potential for water contamination in the agricultural areas.

Virtually every international human rights organization—from the ILO to the UN Special Rapporteur – has weighed in, urging Goldcorp and the Guatemalan government to suspend mine operations to ensure protection of the rights, health and livelihoods of the indigenous people. In mid-2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR) went one step further and issued precautionary measures ordering the Guatemalan government to suspend operations at the Marlin mine.

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Ali Kadri

Prior to the Arab spring, the official rate of unemployment in the Arab World was the highest globally. The labour share was as low as a quarter of national income. Productivity was negative. If a more sensible method of assessing unemployment is carried out, more than half of the labour force could be considered unemployed. The real economy was de-industrialising and shrinking relative to oil rent, and its capacity to reemploy people perished.

A propos, a 2004 technical report on economic performance in the Arab World stated that ‘the predisposition of major macroeconomic and demographic variables towards an inevitable collision implies that there is little space for argument over the unavoidability of change. The built-up of imbalances in a regional economy that does not expand at a rate commensurate with the demands of the demographic transition means that, unless the system experiences a chance occurrence of heavy oil rent fallout, change cannot be gauged as a matter of degree.’ This report took about a year to prepare, so these remarks were written sometime earlier when oil prices were at historically low levels. The chance occurrence of high oil prices did indeed take place soon after, a matter which became pellucidly clear in 2005. But the massive oil rents could not avert an inevitably violent political (only political and not social so far) restructuring, or what has come to be known as the Arab spring.

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Susan Ariel Aaronson, Guest Blogger

For many years the U.S. debate over trade has been a little like a sixth grade dance. Proponents from business, academia, and government squirm on one side of the room.  Meanwhile, opponents who include members of labor unions, civil society groups, academics, and local government officials, refuse to move. But on December 6, 2010, two unions joined the dance.  The United Autoworkers and the United Food and Commercial Workers expressed support for the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), arguing that the agreement will not only “protect” but according to the UAW “grow more jobs.” These unions became the first U.S. unions to publicly support a free trade agreement since the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement (FTA) of 1988.  Meanwhile, several other prominent unions including the AFL-CIO umbrella organization continued to signal their opposition to the KORUS and other trade agreements.

Does this development signal a new policy environment for trade? Perhaps. The UAW got special provisions to protect workers in the auto sector from import surges. But the politics of trade may be changing. The Obama Administration has made labor enforcement a top priority for trade policymaking and in so doing, has built trust with union leaders and members of Congress. Moreover, in recognition of changed economic and demographic conditions, some union leaders see opportunities in some of these agreements.

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Lyuba Zarsky

I don’t regularly co-mingle with international human rights lawyers but I do regularly investigate the local sustainability impacts of foreign investment, including in the ethically and environmentally challenged extractives industry. Thus it was that in early December, I found myself at a conference in The Hague organized by the World Legal Forum. Tagged “Business and Community in Dialogue: Connecting Corporate Responsibility and Global Governance,” the conference aimed to promote the emerging UN Framework for business and human rights. The main draw was Harvard Professor John Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights and the primary mover and shaker in articulating and now operationalizing the Framework.

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