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How Do We Come to Empathise With Distant Others?

Alice Evans

How do we come to empathise with distant others: not just feel sorrow for their suffering, or transfer funds for good causes, but actually campaign for institutional reform? What moves citizens of wealthy, post-industrial countries, to become compassionate, question their way of life, and invest in sustained activism, to abate global inequalities?

With generous support from ‘Rebuilding Macroeconomics’, I intend to find out!

Answering this question is critical if we are to create more inclusive prosperity. Whether it’s curbing climate breakdown, abating the arms trade, welcoming refugees, or ending corporate impunity, we urgently need to understand how people come to care, and mobilise for reform. What catalyses widespread demand for legislation that benefit ‘others’, in future generations or faraway lands? Moreover, why does sustained activism emerge in some countries, but not others? What can we learn from those successful campaigns?

One such issue is corporate impunity in global supply chains.

Even if they dump raw acid in Congolese rivers, fail to mitigate oil spills in Nigeria or Ecuador, procure from places with abysmal working conditions, source from genocidal regimes, or invest in hydroelectric dams while fully aware of rights violations, our companies are rarely held accountable.

If our companies were liable for human rights abuses and environmental degradation, they would have an incentive to source more judiciously. To avoid costly litigation, they might mitigate risks of abuses. Deutsche Bank would have far less reason to favour Bolsanaro.

Legislation would help internalise international externalities, and create a level playing field within that country, so that responsible businesses (who already go to great lengths to reduce risks of abuses in their supply chains) are not undercut by less scrupulous competitors.

If more countries adopt such legislation, and buyers deliberately avoided places with terrible track records, labour repression would cease to be a competitive advantage in global supply chains.

There are credible reasons for hope.

Corporate accountability is gaining ground across Europe – with activism in Belgium, Germany, Finland, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. In Switzerland over 100 environmental, global justice, and religious organisations, as well as journalists, academics, and lawyers are pushing for corporate accountability. Surveys indicate widespread public support. It will soon be put to a public referendum. If this passes, Swiss companies will become liable for human rights abuses in their global supply chains.

The Finnish campaign is supported by 130 NGOs, trade unions, and companies; 200 parliamentary candidates; and four political parties. Just last month, the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation announced a draft law on human rights due diligence. Many politicians champion EU legislation, to create a level playing field. This all builds on the French Duty of Vigilance Law, passed in 2017.

So how do we explain this flurry of activism and legislative success?

We could focus on their characteristics, charisma, connections, and campaign strategies. But this is an incomplete explanation. It presupposes relentless motivation and investment (which did not occur earlier, or in all Western European countries).

French activists had credible reasons for hope. They saw progressive international support, public outrage over Rana Plaza, widespread scepticism about multinationals, broad acceptance of a state intervention, and a centre left government (2012-2017). Believing change was possible, they invested in sustained activism, and secured legislative change.

But how do we explain the huge campaign in Switzerland – with its business-friendly, centre-right government, courting a wealth of multinationals (opposed to legislation)? What gave these activists hope for reform? What’s enabled the critical and widespread politicisation of global supply chains, in a country that thrives through commodities trading. Why have so many people come to prioritise distant others, and demand legislative change? Why Finland too? But not Germany, Sweden, Denmark, or Norway? That’s more of a conundrum!

Why do some – but not other – countries take steps to internalise international externalities?

Through qualitative research (listening to and learning from campaigners, church-goers, trade unionists, journalists, academics, lawyers, and business associations) in Switzerland, Finland, and Germany, I hope to shed light on how people come to empathise with distant others, organise for legislative change, and create more inclusive globalisation.

This is big, and it’s exciting. It shows that unregulated globalisation is not inevitable.

Campaigners are changing the rules.

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