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UN Public Service Day Marked amid Uncertain Future

International Event Highlights Need for Universal Quality Public Services

Hasmik Tutunjian uses chargeable lights in her living room during power cuts in Beirut, Lebanon, August 26, 2022. © 2022 Laura Boushnak/The New York Times/Redux

Today marks 20 years since the first “United Nations Public Service Day,” which annually commemorates the contribution of the public sector and public services to the global development process. But 20 years on, public services face significant challenges worldwide.   

Public services are essential to human rights. These government institutions and policies manage and provide the goods and services necessary for realizing many rights, including health care, education, housing, energy, food, water, sanitation, and more.

Under international human rights law, countries have obligations to ensure these goods and services are available, accessible, acceptable, and of good quality. For governments seeking to meet these obligations, public services are indispensable. But recent Human Rights Watch research has documented how public services can fall short:

  • In the United States, which has neither a universally accessible public healthcare system nor universal health insurance, many patients are at the whims of the private health care market, which often charges prices that undermine access to health care like hospital services and essential medicines.  
  • Also in the United States, decades of inadequate federal funding for public housing has jeopardized residents’ living conditions and exacerbated the country’s housing crisis.
  • In Lebanon, authorities’ failure to properly manage the state-run electricity company has created an electricity crisis that has left people dependent on unaffordable private generators, exacerbating inequality in the country and undermining rights.

This UN Public Service Day comes amid multiple overlapping crises that threaten human rights worldwide and place significant financial strain on public services. Right now, more than three-quarters of the world’s population are experiencing some form of economic austerity, much of which comes in the form of cuts to public services.

But today is also an opportunity to chart a new course forward.

From the grassroots Santiago Declaration for Public Services, endorsed by 200 organizations, to the UN Research Institute for Social Development’s call for a New Eco-Social Contract, a growing consensus of movements, academics, and advocates recognize that addressing these all-encompassing crises without compromising human rights requires universal quality public services.

On this UN Public Service Day, national governments, international financial institutions, and other international organizations should avoiding demanding harmful cuts in social spending at home and abroad, and instead commit to delivering on their obligations to high-quality public services for all.

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