Social Justice and Economic Growth: Strange Bedfellows or Partners in Prosperity

04/01/2015 07:26 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

The notion of economic growth is one of the most prevalent and persistent guiding forces of the developed world. Most global markets - with notable exceptions, are not only run on the assumption of consistent economic growth, but the very idea of a free, vibrant society is founded on the notion. And yet, the reality is often somewhat different. As Europe struggles with the ripple effects of economic stagnation, we are confronted by both challenges and innovations to the social justice and democratic traditions the continent has borne and nurtured throughout history.

Social justice is defined as "... promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity." It exists when "all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources."

In a socially just society, there exists, in addition to basic human rights, a realization of human potential, social benefits, an equitable distribution of resources, equal opportunities and obligations, and security.

Yet across the globe, tens of millions of people are victims of social injustice. It can take the form of repression, discrimination, harassment, poverty, starvation, or simply the failure to redress inequity.

Efforts such as the Social Progress Index (SPI) seek to not only measure economic growth; they enlighten us as to the condition and reality of our global neighbors' well-being. The SPI rates 132 countries on more than 50 indicators, including Health, Sanitation, Shelter, Personal Safety, Access to Information, Sustainability, Tolerance and Inclusion and Access to Education. In 2014, New Zealand ranked first, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Denmark and Australia.

Do the social strides made by these countries equate to a strong Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? According to the World Economic Outlook, the GDP of six of the ten countries listed above (Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, and Australia) are ranked among the Top 30.

At the bottom of the SPI was Chad, listed below Central African Republic, Burundi, Guinea, Sudan, Angola, Niger, Yemen, Pakistan and Nigeria. Unlike the other countries sitting at the bottom of the list, Nigeria is the exception, boasting the largest economy in Africa and ranking 21 in GDP.

Absent from the Top Ten of the SPI are the ten biggest global economies -- US, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Brazil, Italy, Russia and India (Germany was the highest at 12) - which, despite their full coffers, are not immune to social inequalities -- ranging from the lack of access to basic human needs, such as food, water, shelter and medical care; to the absence of tolerance and inclusion, personal freedom and choice.

Findings from the Index showed that social progress is distinct from economic development, although correlations exist between the two. Some countries with low GDP per capita are able to achieve admirable levels of social progress, while some prosperous nations have levels of social progress lower than less wealthy countries.

And where did my own country land? Greece is ranked 35th, doing best in Water and Sanitation, Access to Basic Knowledge, and Personal Rights but falling short in Personal Safety, Ecosystem Sustainability and Tolerance and Inclusion.

In Greece, organizations such as Solidarity Now exemplify prosperous collaboration between citizens and organizations (including NGOs, local government and civil society groups) that emerged due to the economic crisis. Through its grants and Solidarity Centers, Solidarity Now combats social injustice with provision of services to those most in need by designing, supporting and implementing programs that can generate a broad and positive impact within the community. In a country whose economic growth is constantly under scrutiny, it is indisputable that, if we are to gain back our social welfare system, we need smart solutions and growing networks that empower people and promote social cohesion.

In the 21st century, can a singular list or tool, such as the SPI claim to measure the totality of the human experience? As social networks proliferate and individuals connect, telling their own stories about their personal day-to-day realities, generating unprecedented amounts of data, how are we to measure the well-being of a nation or people? The binary systems of the past seem inadequate--indeed, on a planet that will reach the 10 billion population mark by the end of this century -we must begin to construct new models of obtaining -- and sustaining -- both prosperity and social justice.

The two concepts are inextricably linked, but not in the ways we have traditionally thought. Certainly, access to basic human needs is important. However, so is access to high-quality education, equity in the distribution of resources, access to technology and the economic empowerment of women. The models of the past will no longer suffice when we look across the globe and confront the realities of issues such as climate change, for example. Growth may need to be defined in a much more nuanced and emotionally intelligent manner. We will need more sustainable systems and organizations to confront a future in which we are more connected with one another and dependent on collaboration.

As we navigate the world of today and prepare for our global future, we must forge a more parallel and narrow path between social justice and economic growth. Our well-being and survival as a species may indeed depend upon this.

About Solidarity Now
Established by Open Society Foundations, Solidarity Now is a collaborative funding initiative that supports civil society groups working in Greece. The organization has created two Solidarity Centers - places for everyone in Greece affected by the crisis to convene and find solutions to shared problems. Offering space to new and existing civil society organizations in Greece, the Centers facilitate community solutions to pressing social and economic problems and address the unique needs of local communities they operate within and cater to all regardless of their nationality, origins and social status.

Essential services provided at Solidarity Centers include health, legal aid, job-seeking assistance, and support for vulnerable groups including the elderly, the sick, migrants, and asylum seekers.