Driving Change: The role of the private sector in an era of anxiety
Co-written by Stéphanie Barreau, President of AmCham France and Jérémie Gallon, Managing Director, AmCham France.
The latest elections in Italy, Hungary and Germany are a stark reminder that nationalism and populism are on the rise across Europe. On both sides of the Atlantic, a growing number of our fellow citizens feel disconnected from centres of power, overlooked by the benefits of globalisation and are convinced that the future will be more difficult for their children than their own generation.
Rapidly changing technologies create fear of unemployment among workers who lack the skills to keep up with a changing workplace. Populist leaders play on these cultural and economic anxieties by calling for protectionist measures, whose noxious consequences have already been proven by history.
These phenomena are the direct result of the challenge to democracy produced by the 2008 financial crisis. Politicians alone will not be able to bring sustainable solutions to the table. In this regard, there is an essential role to be played by the private sector.
The best way to push back nationalist movements – who are, as stressed by George Orwell, obsessive, unstable, and indifferent to reality – is to rebuild our nations through inclusive growth and education, and by reaffirming common values. Where politicians fail to accomplish this, the private sector has an opportunity to be a counterweight to closed-door policies. It is certain that companies have shirked this role in the past but, in uncertain political times, they have already begun to step up to the plate. The most successful among them are already irreversibly globalised and open.
Today, the private sector must reinforce its efforts in three areas: climate change prevention; promoting inclusive growth; and reconnecting with those communities who feel abandoned and overlooked from centres of power.
When the United States left the Paris Climate Accord, many business leaders stood up to say, “we are still in.” Companies understand that in a world threatened by climate change, they stand to gain by investing in green jobs and technologies. By taking steps to ensure that their customers, investors, suppliers and communities are protected from the dangers of climate change, the private sector leads by example.
Business additionally endeavors to promote inclusive growth. When our populations are integrated and diverse, they work best. This remains true in business terms. According to a recent study, companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns higher than the median in their industry. When companies fight prejudice by actively promoting diversity, they become a stronger actor for integration in our societies.
Across all sectors, companies are incorporating technological advances, such as automation and artificial intelligence, yet they are often seen as challenges to integration and diversity. We must see past the potential anxieties they may create among certain communities and act so that these changes become opportunities for all citizens, companies and countries. We need businesses and governments to work together to reform and encourage the population to adapt. We need closer co-operation between the public and private sectors to reconnect with those left behind, and therefore reduce the territorial fragmentation which is very much a reality on both sides of the Atlantic.
Digital training is a way for companies to connect with those who feel sidelined, and to bring territories closer to city centres. For instance, certain companies have called to close the rural broadband gap and to provide training to outside of metropolitan areas. This gives access to the social and economic opportunities that come with a connected world, even to those disconnected communities. It is one additional step towards limiting widespread resentment that fuels politicians looking to put up barriers to international co-operation.
It is easy for charismatic leaders to exploit widespread anger, such as that caused by globalisation. Madeleine Albright’s recent book, Fascism: A Warning, is a valuable reminder of how important it is to bring communities together. “We are not there yet,” she says, but if we disconnect from the ideals that unite us, the prospect of authoritarian nationalism is not unthinkable.
In a challenging world, faced with the threat of populism, the private sector’s role is to reconnect communities. It is business’ responsibility to work alongside the public sector to tackle societal challenges, and to act as a counterbalance that is united against demagogues and populists that attempt to tear apart co-operation among communities and nations.