The Opportunity: Why civil society needs to define its own future

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The Opportunity: Why civil society needs to define its own future

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a global effort

In his book “The Great Leveller”, the historian Walter Scheidel analyses how inequality in societies around the world has continuously, since the stone ages, worsened. His compelling piece describes the only three scenarios that have reduced inequalities significantly: wars, natural catastrophes and pandemics.

Scheidel is cautious in saying that a historical analysis does not predict the future. And frankly, reading his book in 2019 did not inspire hope and confidence for a concerned reader.

Today, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, things feel different. While we’re still grappling with the painful comprehension and immediate management of the situation, our thoughts around a desired future start moving into the foreground. Doing away with inequalities, eliminating the gap between haves and have-nots and creating perspectives for people with lesser opportunities, is definitely part of that desired future.

More on the Forum Network: Turning Fear into Hope: Corona crisis measures to help build a better future by Jeremy Wates, Secretary General, European Environmental Bureau

More on the Forum Network: Turning Fear into Hope: Corona crisis measures to help build a better future by Jeremy Wates, Secretary General, European Environmental Bureau

Inequality is just one of the global injustices we want to overcome. Each of us, irrespective of organisational mandates, could name half a dozen threats to global justice – from ruthless wars to a broken food system, from the doom of climate change to political oppression. Over the past years, it has been painful, slow, sometimes seemingly hopeless to move forward on such big themes. And now? Is there a sudden opportunity to overcome these and heal the broken systems?

Well, certainly not by magic nor quickly. But the current crisis has shown previously unimaginable actions and reactions, and might as well be a watershed unfreezing of what we think is possible and not. Do we dare to articulate, with a stronger voice and determination, the transformations we want to see in the global societies?

The most unlikely scenario will be “business as usual” once a solution – a vaccine or treatment – is found.

Futurists and foresighters are currently looking at weak and strong signals on the post-Coronavirus situation. The most unlikely scenario will be “business as usual” once a solution – a vaccine or treatment – is found. The biggest questions appear around so-called ”systems changes”. Is the globalist, capitalist, financial and political system good enough in times of increasing global challenges? Will our societies drift back into nationalist and inward-looking behaviours or move towards global solidarity, interconnected actions and multilateral governance? And how will this current experience affect our approach to “the other” large global crisis around climate change?

Highly relevant to these future systems will be the role of organised civil society, whether it is aid, social discourse, political decision-making or framing the narratives that hold our societies together. We should not let others define the future of the values and systems that matter for civil society around the world.

Read the OECD Policy Response: "A systemic resilience approach to dealing with Covid-19 and future shocks"

Read the OECD Policy Response: "A systemic resilience approach to dealing with Covid-19 and future shocks"
Image: Shutterstock/SeventyFour

Civil society’s most significant contribution to overcoming this crisis will be working in collaboration, focusing on solidarity and empathy. The humanistic values that bind us, and the societies we work in, demand that we are forward-looking and strategic in our actions, irrespective of the high operational pressures out there. Putting people, unorganised and organised civil society at the centre of post-Coronavirus planning is the task we need to unite behind and show collective leadership on. But we need more. To start with, the vision of a just and healthy planet, as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals, needs refreshing. Following on from that, all major political and societal decisions need to be guided by that vision, by the ambition for a just society and clean environment.

Here are some ideas. What if:

  • People in the service sector, the formal and informal gig economy, are paid a living wage;
  • Mass mobility is drastically reduced in lieu of ecologically sustainable ways to meet and communicate;
  • Taxation is directed towards a stronger common good, and tax avoidance loop-holes closed and tax evasion penalties are enforced with lasting consequences;
  • Multilateral crisis mechanisms are reformed to more effectively cease wars and sanction crimes against humanity;
  • Production and consumption patterns support local economies, protect the environment and foster healthy diets;
  • Inclusion of the “bottom billion” in digitalisation, job creation and public health care becomes a priority for development ambitions;
  • Human rights principles and civic freedom move back into the centre of discussions on societal values?

The list can be expanded. We need the courage and the determination not to waste this crisis. Only then can we bring people together as a society that shows solidarity and cohesiveness in the current crisis, and goes beyond the fragmentations and antagonisms that have characterised the past years.

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