Given the global news and indeed ongoing trends it’s hard to be upbeat right now - lots of folks are feeling understandably glum. In these extraordinary times, it’s important to remind ourselves that overall and broadly speaking, we continue to make great steps in both social and political progress. It can be hard to get an historical perspective particularly when fake news, inflammatory, divisive hate speech and unprecedented international uncertainty keep us hooked on an ever shorter news cycle.
As a gay man, I’ve witnessed a revolution in equalities legislation in many countries, including my own, occur at a pace that I could have only dreamed of as a closeted, distressed teenager of the 1980’s.
Did you know that deaths as a result of malaria are down 48% since 2000?[i] That’s approximately 7.5 million lives that have been averted from life-limiting disease or death. Or that global malnutrition has declined by 1/3 in the last 25 years?[ii] Were you aware that deaths from war and conflict are at around 5% of their 1950’s peak and are actually at an historic all time low?[iii]
When you look at all sorts of global trends it’s hard not to believe that social progress and even political progress ultimately continues to occur - whatever bumps we hit along the journey. And while it’s never going to be just a one-way street, in these dark, uncertain times it’s worth holding on to those bigger picture trends and that general direction of travel.
Whilst we should remind ourselves regularly and celebrate these hard fought for successes, a gap, a gulf in our collective advancement is becoming increasingly apparent; that in our pursuit of social progress and more benign political representation we have all but ignored the growing concentrations of economic power. So, celebrate hard won progress on social policy and reflect on some of the successes having been made on political progress too. But also, take time to reflect on those things that have happened to our world whilst we’ve been clamouring to deliver gender, disability and age equality.
The real question, something that’s quietly happened whilst we were looking elsewhere, is, put succinctly, who owns what? where does power sit? and who has got all the cash? Legal protection for minorities, human rights advancements, green tech and democratic progress only really counts for much if economic equity begins to underpin those achievements.
Prior to globalisation sweeping the world, the nature of localised or even national economies helped to stem the concentration of power, at least somewhat. Today the four largest US tech corporations (Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Oracle) hold around $504 billion in cash overseas and it is estimated that US multinationals collectively keep a whopping $2,096,644,000,000[iv] offshore and consequently far out of reach of US the tax system. That’s a big number; potentially a lot of public services.
As we read in Oxfam’s recent report “An economy for the 99%” just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest 3.75 billion people in the world. As Obama rightly told the UN general assembly in 2016, “a world where 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the bottom 99% will never be stable.” He could and should have reflected that it will also never be fair, just or sustainable..
As more and more of our needs and expectations are delivered by fewer and fewer amalgamated, inter-connected global interests, so more and more power and wealth is extracted from our communities and relocated to offshore opaque structures, in curious island tax havens, supposedly accountable to mostly invisible shareholder interests. With automation occurring at an astounding pace this is a threat that is only going to become more pressing.
Rail against Eurocrats, career politicians and migrants all you like. If you’re really interested in taking back control you must look beyond Brussels, your neighbour’s foreign au pair, that cheaper Polish plumber or the growing queue at your local hospital – you must understand how globalisation, catalysed by tech, promoted by marketers, and supported by media moguls has, inadvertently or otherwise, stripped many communities of jobs, hope, renewal and power. This man-made system of trade has evolved a ferocious and insatiable locust-like hunger which knows no bounds and increasingly no boundaries. Disparity and uncertainty is what’s left behind for the many, and reward taken for only the lucky few; a lottery win or a TV talent show the remaining chance of hope or social mobility for most. Yes, living standards have increased in many parts of the world, but not nearly as proportionately as they might; it is equivalent to ‘one for you and ten for me’ - out of kilter with our collective endeavours and contributions. The trillions held by the eight richest men or hidden offshore by the biggest corporations is wealth that is generated by our collective endeavours over hundreds of years, yes there are innovators and grafters whose efforts require recognition and reward but to this extent? Really? Therefore taking back control of the systems and processes that distribute and divide this awesome power and wealth is now a critical necessity
Around the world, as I travel on my social enterprise mission, I see that communities are compelled to buy more stuff, join a globalised world and yet are frequently, albeit subtlety, disempowered through that process. As new wealth is generated in the world it doesn't take long for the private equity firms, hedge fund managers, cash-rich multinationals and billionaire investors to sniff out the opportunity and ensure that when profit is made, it’s done so in a way that keeps as much of it as possible away from anyone other than themselves and that often means avoiding tax, finding ever cheaper more flexible labour and frequently the devastating exploitation of our natural resources.
So, what's to be done and what can be done? Well, taking back control is obviously not a passive concept and, it requires more than casting a vote. It means, at its best revising the economic systems - not just the political systems that influence our lives. These systems have been designed and evolved by humanity, principally in the most recent decades and almost entirely within the last couple of centuries. That's good news; it means these human creations are not set in stone, what's done can be re-visited, re-imagined and made fit for the 21st century and the challenges we face. It must mean greater democratic control, transparency and oversight of global corporations; shared value rather than shareholder value. It could mean local devolution, subsidiarity, community owned footie clubs, pubs and post offices, a thriving local business community – building wealth in local communities and keeping more of it re-circulating within them. It should of course mean new economic models – such as, but not exclusively social enterprise; it must mean revision of these systems to rapidly tackle climate change and inequality, disempowerment, unemployment, underemployment, health and care. Ultimately a shift to the system so that the health and wealth of our planet, our communities, our people are prioritised over the notions of insatiable, unsustainable economic growth which has increasingly benefited the few over and above the many.
At Social Enterprise UK, we’ve worked for 15 years on developing a pro-social set of public policy initiatives that has helped socialise government procurement, kick-started social investment, levelled the playing field for social business, brought social enterprise to students, decision makers and the public at large. There's so much more to do to make local, national and international economies do the heavy lifting that traditionally we’ve looked to our governments to do. Old models have failed. Globalisation has created undeniable wealth, and has lifted billions of people out of poverty. It has created innovations that have changed our lives in incalculable ways but it has also brought us to the brink of division, climate chaos, inexcusable inequity and conflict. It's time to rethink and revise these systems. It is of course possible for citizens to take back control but there's an obvious and urgent social, political, and environmental imperative that we do so in a way that doesn't protect, further isolate, or push one community to compete directly with another. Interdependence and shared value is the new paradigm.
We cannot allow ourselves to be in the words of the US president “America First! America First! America First!” It has to be People First! People First! People First! The UN Sustainable Development Goals give us the clarity of what's required to achieve our shared needs for a prosperous, sustainable and hopeful future. We now need to take back control and design our economic and political systems to get us there. That for me is taking back control, but in the right way.
Peter Holbrook is CEO of Social Enterprise UK. He is a Board member of Big Society Trust, which oversees the delivery of Big Society Capital. He previously ran the Sunlight Development Trust, a community-based social enterprise in Gilllingham in Kent, and before that worked for Oxfam, Greenpeace, Marks and Spencer and Body Shop International. Peter is also a member of A Better Way cell in London.