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About the project

Illustration by Jahnavi Koganti

This project aims to provide a conceptual and regulatory framework for transnational social security law, paying critical attention to the recent digitalisation of social security programmes. The project considers transnational social security law, not as yet an established disciplinary field, as the global responsibility to guarantee decent living standards and access to essential resources and services – including food, water, sanitation, housing, healthcare, education, labour rights and support in case of sickness, disability, injury, unemployment, old age, caring responsibilities – for all people worldwide.

The entry point for the analysis is the urgency to address the increasing global inequality and maldistribution of wealth and power enabled by the international economic governance and the legal system underpinning it, and to interrogate the inclusionary promises of digitalisation. The increasing digitalisation of social security programmes is relevant for two reasons. First, the consideration of digital technology as a quick fix for inequality and exclusion has contributed to move attention away from international law’s responsibility for redistributive interventions, while creating new avenues for value extraction via fees and data. Second, the advancement of digital technology is embedded in long-term power relations, legal norms, and political economy ideologies that shape the way in which the benefits and risks of digitalisation are distributed. Those power relations can be traced back to colonialism and to the establishment of a postcolonial legal order not based on reparations and redistribution but on the formalisation of principles of free trade, private property and comparative advantage to the interest of richer Western states and corporations.

This project examines how the law enables and reproduces dynamics of maldistribution that result in unequal resources for and entitlement to social security across and within countries, and whether the law can be used to disrupt these dynamics and facilitate a radically redistributive role for digital technology. More specifically, the research asks whether a grassroots-inspired framework for transnational social security law can disrupt the unjust mode of wealth and power distribution legitimised by international law, in particular international economic law, and contribute to global socioeconomic justice. To answer this question the project develops an innovative methodology that brings together a feminist political economy critique of international economic law (IEL) and a prefigurative law reform methodology (Cooper, 2020). The feminist political economy critique of IEL interrogates the assumption that trade and financial relations (economic production) should be regulated internationally while social security (the distribution of the wealth created) is the responsibility of states alone or should be provided via aid, charity, or corporate philanthropy. This regulatory mismatch results in the unequal distribution of power, benefits and responsibilities, affecting more vulnerable communities and countries. The prefigurative law reform methodology draws on prefigurative politics in the form of grassroots activists’ calls for global redistribution and an imaginative law and policy approach that gives them the power to act as if they can remake international law.

The prefigurative element of the project draws on the Feminist Recovery Plan project, which brought together post-Covid alternative recovery plans developed by grassroots feminist organisations and collectives in response to mainstream economic recovery measures, with the purpose to give voice to the margins and place social security, instead of economic growth, at the centre of the recovery. These feminist recovery plans consider the specific contexts but also point to the interactions between global dynamics and local realities and the need to adopt a transnational framework to ensure social security protection for all people. Demands for international social security were central to the Non-Aligned Movement and the unrealised decolonial proposals of the 1960s and 1970s, and have been reclaimed over the years by activists. These demands regain visibility in times of crisis, as demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, but are often dismissed as ‘radical’ or ‘idealistic’. By adopting a prefigurative approach, this project interrogates the promises and limits of a binding framework for transnational social security law as a possible rather than utopian ‘legal’ solution to global inequality. As the feminist recovery plans suggest policy interventions that would ensure immediate support while building long-term collective action for a broader structural change, this project aims to formulate a transnational legal framework to enable the realisation of these actions. This framework goes beyond states’ commitment to social security to include reparative and redistributive measures on sovereign debt; international labour, trade, investment, finance and taxation; and accountability for the actions of transnational corporations and their philanthropic arms.

Methodologically this project will:

  1. Develop a conceptual framework for transnational social security law, drawing on decolonial and feminist political economy critiques of international economic law and of digital technologies. This will build on my research on the exclusionary politics of digital financial platforms, as well as on the project Rosa Luxemburg and International Law.

  2. Draft a framework for transnational social security law. This will involve three stages:

  • First, tracing the demands for international social security advanced from the postcolonial period as part of the Non-Aligned Movement, the New International Economic Order, the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, South Commission reports.

  • Second, compiling the development of international provisions on social security via archival and desk-based research (ILO measures, human rights documents, relevant reports, proposals, studies, etc.).

  • Third, organising collaborative policy design workshops, bringing together grassroots groups, non-governmental and international organisations and other relevant stakeholders.

  1. Adopt a prefigurative law reform methodology, which combines an imaginative law approach as established in initiatives such as the feminist judgements project (Hunter 2010) and insights from prefigurative politics with the purpose of creating alternative legal discourses in the present (Cooper 2022). This methodology gives to grassroots communities epistemological recognition and the power to act as if they are entitled to remake international law. This methodology will be applied to 4 case studies to understand whether and how a binding framework for transnational social security law can have a different distributive potential towards social justice.

  2. Case studies: in its second phase, the project will apply the grassroots-inspired transnational social security law framework to 4 digitalised social security programmes: Bolsa Familia in Brazil; the social grants programme in South Africa; mobile money-enabled social payments in Kenya; and Aadhaar social cash transfers in India. While these cases are presented as national, they are entangled with various transnational relations (e.g. colonialism, development, aid, trade, finance, technology) which create complex distributive dynamics and define processes of accumulation or redistribution.

  3. The transnational focus of the framework will allow to consider patterns of maldistribution and possibilities for redistribution beyond the nation-state (Blackett 2020), power relations between states, and the accountability of non-state actors such as transnational corporations while giving voice to other non-state actors such as grassroots groups.