What do we mean when we talk about fairness? This question is particularly acute in our current age of globalisation and widening inequalities in income and opportunity. As the world’s leaders prepare to launch the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) later this month, it makes sense to re-examine what fairness means in the 21st century and how we can all work to make it a reality.
The struggle for fairness and equality has been a constant force from the Spartacist slave revolt in the Roman Empire to the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, it is still hard to find a global consensus on how to promote fairness and
equality that goes beyond platitudes.
The SDGs are the latest attempt to further prosperity in a just and equitable way and fairness lies at their heart. This goes beyond fair and equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech and the right to vote. It also means being dealt a fair hand in terms of health, education, access to land and other cultural and economic rights.
My own country of Finland, together with Nordic neighbours Sweden, Denmark and Norway, has over the decades developed a Nordic welfare model where the state
actively promotes egalitarianism and a fair distribution of wealth and resources. In Finland this is epitomised by the 'baby box' – a maternity package given by the state to all new-born children regardless of their parents’ social or economic status.
Nobody is advocating a 'one-size-fits-all' model or a top-down approach, but other cherished models of egalitarianism also exist in countries with a very different political tradition.
In Southern Africa, generations have been inspired by the philosophy of 'Ubuntu', defined
as 'the essence of being human' by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In his words,
“Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.”
Yet too many people, particularly those who enjoy the most privileges, still deny this interconnectedness. There is nothing fair about the way Europe treats migrants and refugees.
There is nothing fair about industrialised countries dragging their heels on climate change. Equally, there is nothing fair about denying girls and women the right to an education or full participation in public life.
Fairness is by its very nature all-encompassing. It is not something one can pick and choose. Ahead of the launch of the SDGs, The Elders want to open up a wider debate as to what fairness means in the 21st century.
This is why we have produced a series of short films, showcasing an object or moment from our own lives.
We hope this sparks a wider conversation that can lead to a richer and more diverse appreciation of the importance of this most human of values.