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The Justice Based Approach to Change

Updated: May 10

How would you define justice? Think about it for a second.

The word “justice” may conjure images of weighing scales and blindfolded women with swords, but most people tend to think of vague ideas of fairness, equality, and truth. The idea of justice is definitely not something one can easily put one’s finger on. In fact, even many dictionaries struggle to define justice. With suggested definitions like the quality of being just, the maintenance or administration of what is just, and just behaviour or treatment, it’s clear that we are dealing with an idea that is generally understood in broad, subjective terms.

At United Edge we talk a lot about justice. After being involved in social change movements, NGOs and humanitarian agencies for years, we have seen first-hand that the goals social change makers have been working towards for the past few decades are not sufficient in order to create the kind of changes the planet and her people are crying out for. Working towards increasing economic growth or stability, working towards the Millennium Development Goals[1] or Sustainable Development Goals[2], even working towards the more tangible objective of achieving specific human rights – it always seems like we’re moving one step forwards and two steps back[3].

Even worse, and something we saw on almost a daily basis while working with NGOs, is that teams would inevitably focus all their energy on the watered-down goals outlined in their project proposals – often set by donor organisations in former colonial capitals – instead of concentrating on actually solving the problems they initially set out to solve. Many organisations now even focus on achieving targets for indicators set by these same donors[4].

Although all these goals are important, when we focus on them for our work, we often forget about the very real reasons for having goals in the first place, as well as the importance of addressing the actual root causes of the problems we care so much about solving. And although much progress has been made in so many areas over the past few decades, when we take a step back and look at the state of the planet and humanity, it doesn’t take a PhD to realize that we’re up the proverbial creek: paddleless, desperate, and for the most part, blissfully ignorant.

The problem with our goals is that they are intellectual. They are in our heads and written on papers and logical frameworks and empty promises from states with oh-so-ulterior motives[5]. One of the main reasons we still have so far to go is that our goals – or, what we are trying to achieve – are not up to the job.

If we want goals that are fit-for-purpose, we absolutely must have goals that viscerally impel us to act, to stand up and be counted, to be brave and to never, ever give up. What makes justice so important is that unlike human rights it can be felt, experienced, and acknowledged universally without redaction. A sense of justice lies deep within every human, and when we experience injustice we experience it at the very core of our being, not simply intellectually[6]. Justice has been part of our religions, cultures, tales, fables and soap operas since time immemorial. It has been part of your life from the moment you started.

It is justice that tells us what human rights are. It is justice that tells us that ecosystems and other species deserve respect, reverence and protection even though they have no human rights. It is justice that tells us that the current global economic system is broken; that the white-supremacist, heteronormative patriarchy needs smashing; that we have to get up from our comfortable Netflix sofas and protect this planet before it’s too late. It is justice that looks for power to be redistributed and for those in power to be held to account for their actions.

Justice is our real goal, for without justice, we have nothing to work for.

But this brings us back to the question of what justice actually is. One of the best ways of answering this question is to look at what makes up injustice. Injustice is much easier to see and feel, and it actually tells us a lot about what we need to have in place in order to have its opposite – justice.

When founding United Edge, we spent months looking at a wide range of injustices to see what factors they have in common and to better understand what specifically we had to work on if our ultimate goal was to live in a more just world. Five key themes came out of this process and these themes developed into what we now call a Justice Based Approach.

Across all injustices, the first thing we notice is that they don’t just happen out-of-the-blue. They are not natural and inevitable but are rather created by unjust systems. The massive gap between rich and poor in the world today[7] has not been created by forces of nature. It is human-made, created by a broken economic system that sees those with power and wealth hold an unfair advantage over those without. They set the rules. They built the machine that is the global economy. So, of course, they are the ones who will benefit from it and are therefore incentivized to uphold it.

It is not just that in any city in the world, a child’s future is determined by which neighbourhood they are born into. While one child will enjoy all of life’s comforts, another is destined for a struggle of survival. That injustice is self-evident.

Any system that is set up for some to benefit at the expense of others will always lead to injustice, and only by stepping outside of broken systems to create alternative, radical systems can we expect to see any progress towards justice in the world. Many radical systems exist today. Some have existed for thousands of years while others are the result of new technology and discoveries, but they all share certain traits. A radical system, like a healthy eco-system, is diverse, sustainable and self-regulating. The parts of the system work together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Power is shared across the system, and every individual in that system benefits from its functions.

At its heart, “radical systems” represents the understanding that if we want to change the world, we must address the root causes of injustice rather than continuing to work on surface solutions that have little or no long-term impact. It’s about being brave and calling out broken ideologies even when we might be benefiting from them. And it’s about creating viable alternatives to the systems of power that affect all parts of our lives everyday.

Think about an injustice that has affected you or someone you know. Chances are that at some stage, it felt as though someone did something wrong but wasn’t held to account for their actions. This lack of accountability is a theme across every injustice the world has ever seen. In fact, you could argue that we call something an injustice when there has been a lack of responsibility from those who are responsible. If someone breaks the law and is punished, we no longer call their action an injustice, unless the law itself was unjust.

What happens when a country violates human rights? Think about the unjust war waged against civilians in Yemen. Think about what happens to the white police officers after shooting and killing a twelve-year-old black child while he is playing in the park. Think about decades of brutal military control over the people of Palestine[8]. Who is holding those responsible to account? Have our human rights instruments succeeded?

And even if countries were perfectly held to account, are they the only violators? Think about the millions of babies killed by the aggressive marketing of baby milk[9]. Think about children enslaved in sweatshops producing the clothes you’re wearing while you read this blog[10]. Think about banks, pharmaceutical companies, household brands, the arms industry. Who holds them to account?

There is impunity everywhere.

Brave accountability is not only about having clear standards or rights to protect individuals, communities, other species and the environment but also about making sure there are strong mechanisms to uphold these standards, particularly to ensure that those in power are held to account. When formal mechanisms fail or do not exist, it’s about being brave enough to hold violators to account nevertheless through building their capacity, lobbing, pressuring or sanctioning them in some way.

In brave accountability, there’s also an aspect of being responsible for our own actions as individuals, members of organisations or citizens. It’s about being transparent, talking about our failure and putting our learning into tangible action. It’s about speaking out when we see injustice. It’s about organisations being clear who they exist for and to whom they are answerable. And it’s about standing up against all impunity wherever it exists, because without impunity, cycles of injustice cease.

Clearly, if we want justice in the world, we need to shift the current power balance. For too long, for example, women have had too little say in decisions that society makes, despite the fact that those decisions will affect their daily lives. Around the world, politicians are making decisions based on their own interests or the interest of their peers rather than the interest of the people they represent and the planet that sustains us all. Decision-making is how we put our power into action. If we want to see a shift in power, we have to change how decisions are being made in the world.

Looking at countless examples of unjust decisions, the magic rule is clear. Injustice happens when the people affected by a decision are not actively involved in making that decision. It sounds obvious, but in fact it is a massive shift in the way we understand the world we live in. Imagine an architect is tasked with designing a school. It’s clear that as an expert in the intricacies of creating buildings that the architect should be seriously involved in decision-making about the school design. But who is the school actually designed for? Who will spend their time there, day-in-and-day-out? Schools exist for the purpose of educating children, so they are the ones most affected by the design process and should therefore be leading the decision-making process. And yet, we certainly do not live in a world where children are leading the design of their schools[11].

The same applies to our “development” projects. Those who are most affected (i.e. communities and individuals forming our target groups) should be those most involved in making decisions about what problems will be addressed and using what means. While we belabour “participation” in the social change sector, we usually use this word incorrectly to refer to consultation with or sensitization of communities. In reality, participation refers to the right that all people have to be involved in any decision-making that affects them[12]. If there is no decision-making happening, there is no participation. Our goal is that our projects are led, from start to finish, by those for whom they exist.

Living democracy does not simply refer to a political system. It doesn’t mean voting. It’s ultimately about ownership. It’s about living in a world where students are leading decision-making at schools and universities. It’s about hospitals that are run by patients and not by doctors (or shareholders). It’s about businesses being owned by their workers, supermarkets being run by their customers, gyms being run by their members. Living in a country in which every four or five years you get to vote for a couple of people to represent your complex, intricate opinions is not democracy[13]. It’s about having a tangible and genuine say in any decision that directly affects you. And that is what is needed if we are to move towards creating a more just world.

Injustice can happen in two ways: either when someone, somewhere acts or when someone decides not to act. Either way, whether through action or inaction, there are always consequences. When an action (or inaction) has consequences that are positive, we can say that there has been a just action. Conversely, when its consequences are negative, there has been an unjust action – right?

The problem with looking at the consequences of our actions is that they can be very difficult to see and extremely difficult to measure. It is always easier to see the consequences that are closer to us. Enjoying a bar of chocolate with our loved ones may feel positive, but if this action becomes a habit or even an addiction then we could quickly see the negative consequences of too much chocolate in our diets. Harder yet to see are the children being forced to work on plantations to grow the cocoa beans in West Africa. Or the species becoming extinct that once lived where the cocoa plantations now exist. Perhaps it’s more complex than just positive vibes.

In order to have justice, we, as individuals, organisations and nations, must consider the impact of all our actions and make brave choices so that we can live with true integrity, aligning our values and our actions. It’s hard to believe that anyone actively believes in torturing and murdering other species of animals. And they certainly aren’t seeking to destroy the planet and their health every time they have a meal. Yet, this is what they literally buy into almost every time they have a meal[14]. We live in a world where something as cruel and destructive as eating animal products is seen to be as normal as drinking water.

Humans are designed to be afraid of change. “Starting with ourselves” is sometimes one of the hardest things we can do, but it’s something that we must do if we want to create a better world.

The trait that now makes us most different from other animals is that we evolve consciously. We decide to act differently. This starts by reflecting on our own positions in society – our privilege, our power, and our responsibility to act. Now that we’ve tasted of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil[15]”, it’s up to us to choose just actions even when it’s hard. We have the unique ability to banish complacency and become part of the solutions we so desperately seek.

People have a tendency to judge things by the degree to which those things comply with the social norm[16]. Innovation is often built into our cultural fabric in the form of taboos. In economics, it doesn’t work this way. When Apple created the iPhone, no one knew whether this hybrid between the iPod and a mobile phone would take off. Whenever a new invention comes to the market, it is usually hit-or-miss. iPhones were definitely a hit. Mini-disks, not so much. Money determines the difference.

When it comes to running societies, we’re not doing such a great job of innovating – unless money is involved. The model of education that’s been exported to almost every corner of the globe has remained largely unchanged since it was set up during the industrial revolution in Europe. Intended to ensure that poor workers had just enough skills to increase productivity and profits for business owners, the model also taught compliance, rule of authority and competition to those who passed through the system. Today, as the number of school hours around the world increases, we are seeing children take their own lives due to the stress of school. Peers compete for grades that indicate a child’s worth from younger and younger ages, and we continue to demonstrate to children that there is one way of doing things and that those in power know best. All in all, not a great way of embracing the right that every child has to an education!

Yet, alternative education models have existed for centuries and generally focus on supporting children to lead their own education, cooperation and preparing children to take up their rightful place as the leaders of the next generation[17]. But even though these alternatives show massive promise[18], they are often looked down upon and seen as anything from “hippie” or elitist to satanic.

As a pillar of justice, alternative models recognizes that just because something is considered “normal”, it doesn’t mean it’s best. Alternative models are more localized, holistic and egalitarian. They are often bold enough to step outside of broken systems while never losing sight of what they are supposed to be achieving. Across all parts of society – from education and healthcare to agriculture, governance, waste management, livelihood strengthening, conservation, etc. – alternatives exist. Many more could exist if we were brave enough to seek them. If we want justice in the world, we have to be brave enough to challenge the way things are done. We have to build a just society from the ground up – one that is based on just models.

As separate ideas, none of these themes are particularly new. But the declaration that they are all a central, interconnected part of justice is. The Justice Based Approach is a lens that anyone can use to better understand our ultimate goal. It can be used as a tool for learning and personal growth and leadership as much as it can be used as a framework through which to design social and environmental change initiatives.

Our Justice Based Approach: Foundation Course is aimed at those already working in humanitarian, development, social change and environmental justice. It encourages them to shift their focus towards the goal of justice so that they move from implementing surface solutions to really addressing the roots of the world’s problems. If you’re interested in learning more, we invite you to join one of our upcoming courses or get in touch.

It might take time, but we believe that everyone in the world should be learning about these parts of justice. This is what our society should be built on. As people further explore these ideas, the chance of being able to address some of the greatest injustices in the world becomes more and more real. And perhaps one day, we will be living in a world where justice is at the very heart of human existence on this beautiful planet we call home.


[1] One example of how the Millennium Development Goals failed to go far enough is in addressing child poverty -
[2] One of the many gaps in the Sustainable Development Goals is the link between national and global strategies and targets -
[3] For a quick look at how far we still have to go, check out the latest Human Rights Watch annual report -
[4] Indicators are designed to tell you if you’ve achieved your goals, not to become goals themselves
[5] For just one example of ulterior motives of states in international aid, see this factsheet from AID/WATCH updated for 2017
[6] One study suggests that even babies have a sense of justice
[7] According to one study from Oxfam, just 26 of the world’s richest people own as much wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion people
[8] For just some of the human rights violations inflicted on the Palestinian people since 1948, see the latest report from Human Rights Watch. This is the tip of the iceberg.
[9] Estimates at the time of the baby milk crisis suggest millions of babies died from Nestlé’s aggressive marketing of baby milk. More recent conservative assessments suggest 66,000 babies were killed in 1981 alone
[10] India is just one example of a country where the scale of child slavery is ‘shocking’
[11] Child-centred design has existed for a long time but is largely overlooked when undertaking design processes – even when children are the end users.
[12] Roger Hart, one of the leaders in the schools of Child Participation, defines Participation as “the process of sharing decisions which affect one’s life and the life of the community in which one lives” and “the fundamental right of citizenship”
[13] On just a few reasons why democracy is not just about voting, see this article from 2015 prior to the UK elections
[14] Some of the main effects of the animal industry on the environment are described here: and some of the health effects here:
[15] Genesis 2:16-17
[16] What French sociologist Emile Durkheim terms Social Facts
[17] For a nice introduction to the intersection of capitalism and education see
[18] A study into just one type of alternative school, Waldorf schools, is summarized here

Daniel Bevan is one of the architects of the Justice Based Approach and co-founder of United Edge. An activist at heart, he has worked alongside communities and organisations across the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe on community-owned and -led initiatives to tackle oppression and spark social and environmental justice.

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