Human rights are fundamental to everyday life. And when we think of rights, we usually focus on the right to life or freedom of expression.
However, rights surrounding access to healthcare, quality education, and favourable work conditions are also integral to society. These are known as economic and social rights (ESR) and include the right to food, water, housing, and a healthy environment—benefits that are lacking in many parts of the world including Nigeria.
ESRs and the Constitution
ESRs barely get enough attention in Nigeria, and one reason for this is their exclusion from Nigeria’s constitutional framework.
Chapter IV of the Nigerian constitution lists a number of fundamental rights for all Nigerians. Issues like healthcare provision, the establishment of social security structures, and the creation of employment opportunities are not considered fundamental rights. If at all, they would be included in the fundamental objectives of government policy under Chapter II. The legal implication of this is that no court action can be brought against the government for its actions or inactions in relation to these objectives.
Many academic scholars have advocated for a change in this constitutional position, arguing that ESRs be afforded equal status with Chapter IV rights like the right to life and right to own property. Currently, about a third of the world’s constitutions already adopt this approach, including other African countries such as South Africa and Kenya.
Studies have shown a positive link between strengthening economic freedoms and long-term macroeconomic growth. Furthermore, research by the World Bank suggests that protecting ESRs can improve the quality of economic growth and serve as a useful tool in poverty reduction. Nevertheless, not all large economies conform to this rights-economics nexus. China, for instance, is ranked 135th out of 162 countries on the Human Freedom Index but is the 2nd largest economy in the world.
Developing countries, in particular, can also argue that economic development is needed to enhance ESRs rights and not the other way round. Education and health are expensive to provide for everyone. With scarce resources, other budgets will have to give way to work towards providing these essentials—reducing the fuel subsidy, for instance. That aside, many leading ESR experts also argue that there is a minimum level of protection that can be afforded to ESR rights irrespective of a country’s resources.
Rights and Impact
But what difference will it make to Nigeria’s economic prospects if ESRs are recognised and protected?
First of all, it gives the government a greater incentive to develop policies that will specifically address ESR deficiencies. Protection of ESRs, in particular, is recognised under international law as requiring international cooperation and assistance to ensure a country maximises its resources. There is emerging research showing a link between increased economic freedom through ESR protection and a rise in foreign direct investment in developing countries. In particular, economists have established a connection between protecting property rights and economic growth.
Realising this potential, however, requires positive government action which cannot be guaranteed. A case in point is the fact that Nigeria still ranks 184 in the world in terms of ease of registering property, notwithstanding its constitutional guarantee of property rights.
In the longer term, recognising other ESRs can also help develop the human capital fundamental for economic growth. The Federal Government currently spends just over 0.7% of its GDP on education. Meanwhile, seven out of the ten largest economies in the world spend over 3% of their GDP on education. Enforcing education as a right would go a long way in transforming the output of the 13 million out of school children, either through eventual participation in the formal economy or through the implementation of vocational skills in the informal sector.
Developing a comprehensive social security framework to protect the right to social security will also go a long way in ensuring that the 87 million Nigerians currently living in extreme poverty do not have to turn to illicit or criminal activities for survival. Enforcing the right to just and favourable conditions of work can also be instrumental in creating a more favourable business climate for the 44 million business owners, boosting economic activity and also encourage new businesses. Again, these potential gains are dependent on the political will to make bigger financial investments in these areas.
The prospect of holding government judicially accountable, which would follow a recognition of ESRs as actual rights under the constitution give greater leverage to civil society in ensuring positive government action. A word of caution in this regard is the fact that judicial recognition of economic rights does not necessarily result in their implementation. Significantly developed judicial frameworks for ESR protection in South Africa and India, for example, have not necessarily resulted in better enjoyment of ESRs by the citizens of these countries.
There are different factors involved in economic growth and ESR protection does not by any means solve all problems in this regard. However, ESR rights, particularly the right to health and education are the pillar of an economy. Not a great deal can be achieved if these rights are not effectively protected. Without proper education and health, it is difficult to fufill the right to life.
Fifehan is a research specialist and legal consultant.