What does justice have to do with inequality, and what must be done to create a world that is more just? Robert Bosch Foundation experts Atje Drexler and Ellen Ehmke explore these questions and explain how the Robert Bosch Foundation is contributing.
According to estimates from the United Nations, roughly 385,000 children are born every day. Let's imagine two children who happened to be born on the same day ten years ago. What was their fate? Asha was born in a mountainous region of northern India. She is dependent on a walking aid due to a physical disability. Her family lives in a simple home rented to them by the owner of the tea plantation where her parents work. Without support, Asha cannot go to school, but there are no such facilities. Ben, who is the same age, lives in a German city and his parents are both employed on permanent contracts. They bought the apartment they live in a few years ago. Ben goes to basketball practice twice a week, and since he has been struggling at school, he also has a private tutor.
The lottery of life has obviously given Asha and Ben very different starting points and development opportunities. But where is the injustice? It certainly doesn’t lie in where and into which bodies both children were born - differences between individuals are beautiful, desirable, a fact, and evolutionarily necessary. In other words, it is not a problem that Asha and Ben have different characteristics, but what societies make of this if, for example, they give Asha poorer educational opportunities due to her being a girl.
It is therefore not only the family background that is part of the luck (good or bad) of the draw, but also overarching contexts, structures, societal rules, and institutions. Wealth is very unequally distributed in both India and Germany, and the consequences of colonialism still has an impact on the global distribution of wealth between countries.
When most people think of inequality, they first think of the distribution of money: income and wealth. Both income and wealth are indeed very unequally distributed worldwide, including Germany. In Germany, the richest 10 percent of households own over 60 percent of the country's wealth, while the poorer half of the population collectively owns just 2 percent. Worldwide, the number of billionaires and the wealth of the very richest people is increasing, while the number of those living in absolute poverty is simultaneously rising.
How much money someone has is of great importance for access to other goods such as healthcare, education, and housing. An individual’s financial situation is decisive for how well they can participate in social life overall.
However, a person's financial status is not the only dimension of inequality. Inequalities are also characterized by the fact that not all (groups of) people in a society are recognized as having equal rights, so that some voices are not heard to an equal extent. In many contexts, this applies to women, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, and people with disabilities - this list could go on and on. Their experiences and needs are given less consideration in many societies, and therefore play a lesser role in social decision-making. This is exacerbated by the fact that those who experience less recognition in society are also often underrepresented in political processes.
"If we consider inequalities to be the result of exclusion, we quickly begin to wonder what the ideal conditions should be like - and that is a question of justice and injustice.”
When people are systematically excluded from opportunities, resources, and opportunities for participation due to personal characteristics or family backgrounds, differences become socially generated inequalities. The word "inequality" initially describes distributional relationships as they are. If we consider inequalities to be the result of exclusion, we quickly begin to wonder what the ideal conditions should be like - and that is a question of justice and injustice.
Reducing inequality is a social balancing act
There is no universal answer to the question of whether and how much inequality is fair, partly because the answers differ depending on the dimension. Recognition is about recognizing those affected as people with equal rights. The goal here is therefore equality, for example before the law. Representation is usually about proportionality. For example, parity laws aim to ensure that women are represented in legislative bodies in proportion to their share of the total population. At the level of distribution, on the other hand, in the eyes of the vast majority, it is not about achieving a general equality of income and wealth, but a fair measure. However, the question of what constitutes a “fair measure” is a constant source of contention. Both in Germany and in other countries, the majority currently consider the wealth gap to be too wide - and therefore unjust.
As a foundation, we support the participation of many people in the social debate about how much inequality is too much, for example in the Fight Inequality Alliance. We also promote new findings that provide arguments and data for this debate, such as the study on wealth inequality by the Forum New Economy.
"We are convinced that it takes a multifaceted effort to combat inequality in order to ultimately create more justice."
The Robert Bosch Foundation also collaborates with partner organizations on all three levels of social justice (i.e., recognition, representation, and distribution). The Disability Rights Advocacy Fund, for example, supports people with disabilities in countries of the Global South in asserting their rights. The slogan "Nothing about us without us!" comes from the movement of people with disabilities. When decisions are made about the interests of people with disabilities, they must have a seat at the table to be heard. This work is therefore about recognition and representation. Rez Gardi and Mustafa Alio from the "R-SEAT" initiative make a similar argument: Their organization aims to give refugees a voice and consider their experiences when shaping migration policy measures. The "Economy is Care" network is concerned with the unequal distribution of care work, which is also about recognition, as the achievements of those who often care for other people for free are rarely recognized by society. The distribution aspect plays a major role here, as those who perform unpaid care work have fewer opportunities to pursue paid employment and provide for their own old age.
One thing is certain: Inequality and injustice are not the same thing. It is also clear that there can be no justice without a massive reduction in inequalities. We therefore need a multifaceted approach to fight inequality and ultimately achieve more justice.
We are faced with urgent problems relating to the concept of justice: the wealth divide, global inequality, access to education, and climate justice. These require a fair distribution of resources, intergenerational justice, equal opportunities, and a fair distribution of environmental burdens. Justice shapes us and influences our decisions. Read here how we promote projects to achieve societal justice.