Image by Albert González Farran, UNAMID
  • Blog
  • 28 April 2020

Transforming aid into GPI could help achieve social justice

Gorik Ooms, human rights lawyer and global health scholar, suggests that Global Public Investment (GPI) could transform aid and achieve global social justice

Written by Gorik Ooms

Honorary Professor of Global Health Law & Governance, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

The notion of transforming ‘aid’ as we know it into ‘global public investment’ is one of the most refreshing ideas I’ve heard in a long time. But I’m not objective − it’s a concept I’ve cherished for many years, under a different name, namely ‘global social protection’, or ‘global social policy’. (I think Bob Deacon coined the term ‘global social policy’,[1] long before I started using global social protection.[2])

I spent 18 years working with Médecins Sans Frontières and during my time there, I tried making sense of aid and its many paradoxes, contradictions and whims. The closest I got to a better understanding of aid was when comparing it with the policies that preceded social protection before World War II in today’s industrialised countries. Social policy was an amalgamation of efforts inspired by a mixture of charity and scarcely enlightened self-interest. (I say “scarcely enlightened” because the realisation of true social protection after World War II and the multitude and magnitude of shared benefits that came with it, showed us how short-sighted the initial efforts were.) The rich took some care of the poor, because they pitied the poor, and because they were scared that the problems of the poor would affect them in the long run.

That could explain the whimsical nature of aid, and why it can suffer from tunnel vision. The giver considers themselves superior to or smarter than the receiver; the giver is not accountable to the receiver. The search for shared interests leads to a narrow focus on efforts that obviously benefit ‘donor’ countries, while ignoring, for example, that effective infectious disease control efforts require solid and robust health systems.

During World War II, the leaders of the UK and USA came to realise that their countries’ social policies were insufficient to mitigate the self-amplifying inequality produced by the free trade of goods and labour. Inequality had reached unprecedented heights and provided a breeding ground for extremism. The Atlantic Charter was based on two pillars: the welfare state at the national level, required to mitigate the effects of free trade and then… free trade at the international level. (It’s puzzling that the cause of the problem at the national level was considered the solution at the international level.)

Not everyone agreed that free trade would address the problem of inequality between states; indeed, some warned that it would exacerbate inequality. Aid emerged as the compromise – the expectation was that development assistance would create a level playing field for international free trade, and then become obsolete.[3] However, things did not evolve as planned. Inequality between states has increased dramatically since World War II. It seemed to be levelling off after the turn of the millennium. In reality, however, it is merely transitioning from inequality between states to inequality between people.[4] As poorer states become wealthier they are not building up their social protection – not as much as they could – because cheap labour is their main asset in global free trade. Wealthier countries are downgrading their social protection, to remain competitive.

As long as social policy is organised at state level only, it will fail in the long run. We cannot tackle HIV/AIDS in isolation from other infectious diseases, we cannot tackle infectious diseases without building stronger health systems that cater for all health needs people have, and we cannot build such health systems without stronger social protection mechanisms in poorer countries. But as long as cheap labour remains the primary asset of poorer countries in the global free trade competition, we should not expect them to ramp up social protection. We can only expect to see that happen if we can create an international order in which the social policy efforts of poorer states are encouraged, or even required, without being punished by global markets for doing so. And that will require international solidarity, something that is very different from aid.

As Martin Luther King Jr wrote, from Birmingham Jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

MLK was right, in a wider and deeper sense than he may have envisioned at the time. Global social justice is the ultimate global public good. We need Global Public Investment to make global social justice happen.

This blog is the fifth in a series on Global Public Investment and the future of foreign aid that aims to stimulate and contribute to the debate on new approaches to international cooperation and financing of global public goods, as we look to the decade ahead. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us that international cooperation is absolutely vital. What lessons can be drawn from the response to major global challenges such as pandemics and the climate emergency? How can international cooperation systems and public funding evolve to support sustainable development and global public goods? What should the priority objectives of a renewed international cooperation effort be? Which actors should be involved? Featuring voices from a diverse range of actors, providing their personal insights from across the globe, this blog series, co-hosted by Development Initiatives, United Nations University International Institute for Global Health and OECD Development Centre complements discussions hosted by Wilton Park on its series about the Future of Aid, with partners Joep Lange Institute and Coalition for Global Prosperity.


  • 1Deacon, B. (1997). Global social policy: International organizations and the future of welfare. Sage.
  • 2Ooms, G., & Hammonds, R. (2013). Just health, from national to global: claiming global social protection. Global health and international community: ethical, political and regulatory challenges, 81, 98.
  • 3Kapstein, E. B. (1999). Distributive justice as an international public good. Global Public Goods, 88.
  • 4Firebaugh, G. (2009). The new geography of global income inequality. Harvard University Press.