John Rawls & International Development

In 1971 John Rawls published ‘A Theory of Justice’, this book focused on the idea of distributive justice, the two principles of justice and the ‘veil of ignorance’. Here, Conall Brown explores the relationship between Rawls work and international development.

John Rawls book ‘A Theory of Justice’ is somewhat of a more modern Beveridge Report and his theories are incredibly important and influential in the realm of international development, his legacy can be seen in the sustainable development goals of the United Nations and also in the work of the United Nations Development Programme. These organisations put Rawls philosophy in practice in trying to end poverty, improve worldwide educational standards and ensure peace and freedom for all citizens of the world; this is the philosophy of Rawls.

Rachel Tan/Creative commons license

Rachel Tan/Creative commons license

One of the primary ideas, or thought experiments, of Rawls is the veil of ignorance; imagine you are entirely conscious and aware of our world and all its brilliance and horrors, but unborn and with no control of where you will be born, your class, your race, your gender, whether you live in a suburb of an American city, a favela in Rio or are born into war in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Would you take that gamble? In a society where the top 1% owns nearly half of the world’s wealth, where 860 million people live off less than $2 a day? No. You’d want to better your odds, to change the world: this is what John Rawls wanted us to see.

Our world needs changing, the veil of ignorance shows us this. But how? How can we possibly have any impact on the lives of 7 billion people, how can we increase access to education, tackle poverty, climate change and world hunger all at the same time? When put into these terms the task of international development, of bettering our species seems daunting and nigh on impossible, but this is not the case. In 1990 almost 2 billion people were living on less than $2 a day, that has more than halved now; we can learn from the writings of Rawls to better our world by following his two principles of justice.

Rawls two principles of justice, liberty and equality (of opportunity), must be the principles of all development policies. Liberty is the first principle of justice, without it there can be no justice. Therefore, if we take a Rawlsian perspective of international development the first goal should be liberty, not poverty reduction. In practice this would look like not praising an administration that represses, tortures and imprisons its citizens at will, and not delivering speeches praising its totalitarian ruler Sultan Qaboo Bin Said because we place oil above the liberty of our fellow human beings. Without basic civil liberties nothing else really matters, but with basic civil liberties and a government that works for the benefit of its citizen’s development is a possibility.

International development is arguably best achieved through domestic democratic reform.  South Korea and Japan are both fantastic examples of this, the introduction of democracy into their society led to economic development and prosperity; North Korea on the other hand has no liberty, and is punished by the international community for this and suffers economically as a result. Therefore, we can learn from Rawls that the main goal of international development should be spreading liberty and democracy, because this must be achieved before poverty can be reduced.

Rawls second principle of justice, equality of opportunity, or the social and economic

Chris Devers/Creative commons license

Chris Devers/Creative commons license

mechanisms of society to be structured to benefit the disadvantaged; has arguably been put into place in western countries with affirmative action programs, LGBT rights and welfare programs with relative success. However, in the developing world this principle will be far harder to achieve so long as the rulers of developing countries remain corrupt, greedy and repressive. Therefore, we must return to our first principle: liberty. We cannot flood countries with foreign aid that doesn’t actually go to the people in need of our aid, as corrupt rulers keep it for themselves. It is pointless and simply stupid to spend billions in foreign aid so Jacob Zuma can build an extension to his house.

We are seeing a constant repetition of US policies in the Philippines, where the US propped up a corrupt government, had to intervene in a war, exploited the Filipino economy for their own benefit, flooded the country with billions of dollars that lined the pockets of government officials and eventually just gave up on the country. If this pattern sounds familiar, then you’ve most likely heard of a region in the world known as the Middle East. On the other hand, US policy in Japan placed personal freedoms and democracy first, just as Rawls advises, and today Japan is the third largest economy in the world while the Philippines is thirty third. It’s almost impossible to find a modern example of the Japanese model or an example of a successful military intervention or UN mission, our leaders have failed to learn from Rawls the importance of liberty for development.

This shows that Rawls has been proven correct in his ordering of the two principles of justice; and the veil of ignorance is one of the best thought experiments ever devised for identifying the ills of our world. Now we have both a tool to identify the world’s ills and an idea of how to solve them, all that remains is the task of enacting Rawls philosophy into practical policies.

Easier said than done.




The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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