Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Economic Justice

The world is a very unequal place. Some countries are on average very wealthy, some are very poor and others are in between. Within countries, there are very rich people and very poor people. Powerful countries and companies consume far more than an equitable share of the world’s natural resources, and can influence the world’s economic order and the rules of global trade in ways that benefit them. By contrast people and countries in weaker positions have access to much less than an equitable share of the world’s resources, and have little influence over the workings of the world economy. Like many others, Quakers worry away at these issues and their consequences, locally, nationally and internationally.

For thousands of years people have debated the nature of fairness and justice, in economic and other spheres. Quakers have no easy answers, but the equality, integrity and other testimonies challenge them to think about economic justice, and to act accordingly, as best they can.

As individuals we make many economic decisions. Fair and honest dealing in all transactions has always been a Quaker concern. That is why Quakers do not swear oaths, as it implies a double standard. Early Quaker artisans and traders had a reputation for fair prices and integrity. Quakers set up many early banks, because of the trust they had earned. Friends in the US and Britain often boycotted goods produced by slave labour. Modern forms of fair trade enjoy much Quaker support.

Some of us are employers and most of us are employees at some stage in our lives. Economic justice implies fair terms and conditions of work. Early Quakers nurtured many apprentices, and helped them set up their own businesses. If they had slaves, as some of the early Quakers did, they soon set them free, or left the Society.  The great Quaker manufacturers (chocolate, shoes, ironware….) were concerned about their employees’ lives and set up many housing, education and health schemes.

The national/regional context for individual economic transactions affects everyone. Quakers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand focus on the effects of economic and other frameworks on indigenous peoples. Friends generally are much concerned with refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers and there is an economic dimension to this. Fair taxation and corruption are ongoing concerns. In the past the most significant economic justice campaign was that against the slave trade.

The global context for individual economic transactions is international trading frameworks. In the past, political, economic and military power determined these. Today, various treaties between countries govern this, with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) playing a major role in global trade.

Two Quaker agencies try to influence these frameworks in ways that reduce economic injustices. QUNO (the Quaker UN Office) in Geneva supports developing countries in their negotiations with the WTO, on international trade strengthening their position in relation to more powerful countries. A special concern has been the impact of intellectual property rules on the rights of people in developing countries over indigenous crops, seeds, and animal breeds, and access to medicines. QUNO also works on food security and sustainability, and climate change and migration, and has done extensive work on international labour standards. Within Europe, the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) works to influence the EU on a range of economic issues, including sustainable energy security.

Alleviating the effects of economic injustice is another key theme. Over the centuries there have been many Quaker social action projects, large and small, seeking to relieve poverty, create employment opportunities, provide micro-finance, or develop skills.

Understanding economic issues, and communicating their impact can inform actions and policies. Back in the 18th century, US Quaker John Woolman wrote, and practised in his own life,  ‘live simply, that others may simply live’. Many other Quakers have written passionately about economic injustices of many kinds. Nowadays Quakers sponsor research, publications and policy papers on a variety of economic matters. The adverse effects of economic inequality, the need for environmental sustainability, and an economic order that reflects these issues, are key current concerns.


Print this article