Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Affirmative action – Key to a more just society

By Lidija Knuth, Research fellow at the Kirwan Institute

There is no consensus regarding the term “affirmative action,” which is most commonly used in the United States. At the international level, the preferred phrase is “special measures.” The European Union (EU) originally used the awkward “positive discrimination” to describe this concept, but started using the new term “positive action” quite recently. In India, the equivalent term is “reservations.” As the terminology varies by region, so differs also the definition, meaning and legal justification of this concept.

Affirmative/positive action is not about equal treatment regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, etc., but rather achieving equality in terms of outcomes. It aims at increasing the participation of marginalized groups in the economic, political or social fields. Independently of the differences in terminology and meaning, positive action is not about “favors” for marginalized groups but it is the basis for building a fairer society.

Affirmative or positive action may require different approaches to achieve its objective; for example, preferential treatment for members of the targeted group, proactive address of ‘indirect discrimination,’ reasonable accommodation measures and/or the preventing and remedying of direct discrimination.

The case of the European Union

In 2000, the European Council adopted two ground-breaking directives, the “Racial Equality Directive” and the “Employment Equality Directive,” both of which aim to ensure that everyone living in the EU can benefit from legal protection against discrimination. The directives also provide for positive action measures. With regard to legislation, the EU has one of the most advanced legal frameworks in this area to be found anywhere in the world.

But one may ask, why then do the EU countries still face major challenges of social and economic exclusion? Why do marginalized groups remain under-represented in most EU countries? One of the reasons is that the directives are still quite young, with deadlines for their transposition into national law only in the year 2003. Another major difficulty, however, is a lack of data and statistical indicators in the field of non-discrimination. In some EU countries it is simply not permitted to collect certain kinds of information, such as census data on ethnic minorities. The consequence is that it is much harder to understand, prove and justify the case for affirmative action. Thus, relevant non-discrimination data and studies are urgently needed to monitor and evaluate affirmative action measures in the EU. Fundamental to the effective implementation of the legislation is the commitment of national authorities, the active support and involvement of civil society. Referring to the incorporation of all levels of society, we touch upon the concept of mainstreaming.

How can we mainstream affirmative action?

First, concerned groups need to be involved in the process. Secondly, people in power are essential to achieving real change. Any moral arguments for decision-makers to change the status quo must be supported with concrete incentives and disincentives. Thirdly, the concept of affirmative action needs to be understood by the mainstream society. Society as a whole must be persuaded of the need for affirmative action, because its acceptance is key to achieving a more just and equitable world.

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