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Nine things I’ve  noticed  this week

We’ve known that a global pandemic would come for decades, and it’s been modelled and planned for time after time. But when it comes it’s a massive and terrifying shock, and the implications will be felt for decades to come. Just now we’re wrestling with the health and economic impacts and learning things we didn’t know about ourselves, as well as confirming what many of us have always believed. And primarily it has confirmed, if it was ever needed, that global shocks hit the poorest people most badly.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to say that this extraordinary period is variously as big in its impact as 2008, or 9/11 or 1945. But it clearly is a hugely important moment in our lives and will probably change everything. I feel it’s a bit too early to make dramatic predictions (after all, what use are they just now?) but it is probably the moment to notice accurately what is going on. I often think that change happens in the most unexpected places and when we are not really looking. This is one of those occasions.

  1. We’ve learned that we need strong, trusted institutions. After a decade or more of it being easy to throw brickbats at the NHS, the BBC and the civil service, at a time of national emergency those authoritative and powerful bodies are needed more than ever before. Just notice how often senior politicians invoke ‘our NHS’.  Remember that only 10 days ago the end of the BBC was called for, and carelessly compared to Netflix.  And we’ve learned once more that trust is, and always has been, the most precious currency.
  2. We’ve learned that people do look out for their neighbours and friends, and that a dense network of connections is keeping people going, supporting their well-being and offering practical help. Support really is local, mobile and social – and the outpouring of local support and friendship has been astonishing and heartening to see.
  3. But it has its shadow side and the panic buying, stripping of supermarket shelves, and shameless profiteering is a powerful antidote to those of us who like to think that crises produce the best in people.
  4. We need the state. Anyone who in the last few years has been tempted even for  a minute by the siren voices proposing that the market or the community alone can cope, now knows the absolute importance of a connected, capable and properly powered state.
  5. Experts matter. We need to be allowed to trust the science and the advice. The clear voice of experts rings through all the noise.
  6. But in a world where everyone has access to a publishing platform, we’ve also learned of both the dangers of rumours and false information and the extraordinary benefits of rapid organisation, and the ability to raise concerns from anywhere in the country.
  7. We’ve learned that 1:10 of us in the lower half of incomes can work from home, and 9:10 of us in the higher half can (thank you Resolution Foundation) and that really matters because it makes our economic prospects so hugely different. The Universal Basic Income has its detractors (and I’ve been one) but if ever here was a time for it, it is now. It is feasible, effective and could remove economic anxiety from a nation already massively anxious.
  8. We’ve learned how appallingly degraded our public services have become over the last decade of austerity. We’ve learned that 5000 ventilators for a population this size is the lowest in the developed world. And we’ve learned how very badly some companies have behaved. We’ve learned that even social landlords needed to be told not to evict people who couldn’t pay their rent, and others in the private sector have tried to by-pass this instruction. And we see that, and we will not forget and forgive.
  9. And we’ve seen the very best of what we can do as humans, as community networks and as big institutions, moving to support, to salvage and to save. The generous leadership, ability to organise, willingness to forsake brand and position and just make change happen, has seen the very best of us at the very worst of times.

It’s been a terrifying week, and it doesn’t look as if it will get much better very quickly, but what I’ve observed and felt will stay with me for ever.

 

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Civil Society and public grief – rituals, ceremony and silence

In the public unfolding of grief in the last terrible few months a number of things stand out. The first is   of course, the helpers. The courage and generosity of those who run to the site of disaster – whether Manchester taxi drivers ferrying people home, or café owners providing drinks or people contributing money.  The community centres and sports clubs throwing open their doors. The collections of money and goods. Along with the heroism of our emergency services, we can be really proud of the way in which all parts of civil society respond so actively and so quickly, giving the lie to the myth that people don’t care, and lead entirely atomised lives. Solidarity exists, and we show it at our lowest, most terrified moments.

But there is something else too which I think speaks to civil society and how we organise. In the face of disaster people congregate `and seek out opportunities to come together physically, not in a web based chat room, but in squares, and gardens, on streets and on bridges. We need places for silence and for contemplation. We need time for reflection. Music and poetry, along with a particular form of oratory have all played their part in providing both a shape for, and an expression of, terrible grief.

Some of those spaces have been churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship. In observing this, and taking part in many solemn gatherings, I am struck by how much we can learn from people of faith about the power of the assembly. The use of ritual. The importance of belonging, and of sharing, and of collective expressions of grief, loss, and yes, in our increasingly secular society churches, temples, synagogues and mosques don’t only provide material support- essential though that is. They also teach us how to come together.

I have been also been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for  Atheists. Although not an atheist myself, there is so much in his clear-sighted view of the contribution made by religion, whether or not doctrine and faith are accepted. And I’ve also been very stimulated by   http://howwegather.org examining how younger generations come together.

At times of national grief, just as much as at times for personal tragedy, we may lack the words to console and express our shared sorrow. And yet there are parts of civil society, both faith based and not, that have so much to teach all of us about the human need for comfort, for sharing and for very present and physical ways of expressing our shared loss and shock.

Civil society   requires us to recognise the value of every human being, and find ways of expressing both our pain and our anger in ways that bring us together. Civil society can be a dry concept, and its behaviour can be equally arid.  But behind that phraseology lies an immense emotional human impulse.  Civil society knows about celebration. It knows about memorials. It knows about collective action. It knows about art and music. We are about everything that makes us human. Let’s recognise that and harness its power

 

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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The future of civil society

It has become increasingly commonplace to say that the world around us is changing and changing fast. The impact of the digital revolution, the rise of new populist forms of politics, globalisation, gender fluidity, demographic change – and everywhere there is a crisis of trust.
Devolution in the nations of the UK, changing powers and behaviours for the cities, new forms of governance, the impact of funding reductions are all transforming the role of the state. And the market too is changing too with the emergence of the platform economy. New ‘industrial’ giants like Air BnB, Task Rabbit and Uber, are making old notions of market power obsolete while the titan collectors of information and data, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now control assets that are more valuable than oil and diamonds were in earlier centuries. These market makers and disruptors have been joined by the B Corps, the activist investors, and the companies now loudly claiming the importance of their social value.
Wherever you look there is change, and civil society needs to respond and respond without veering between wild panic or a retreat to the eternal verities of the past.

But we should remember this.

Every social and economic change has seen a response from civil society that both changed our sector, and influenced the future. The Industrial Revolution turned upside down the lives of people who had previously eked out a life in the countryside. They flocked to the towns and burgeoning cities, encountering hardship, a new kind of squalor and a hazardous liberation from the rules and norms that had previously governed their lives. But the moral panic that ensued brought us some of our greatest voluntary institutions: the working men’s clubs, trades unions, the university settlements, rescue missions for children and hundreds of charities. They were the products of an active, engaged, and entirely voluntary response to the challenges of the times.

Later, in the interlude between the great wars, NCVO was born, as an association of civil society, along with institutions supporting injured returning service men.

Then, in the aftermath of that massive global catastrophe, the second world war, new forms of associational life and service provision were devised to support the displaced peoples of Europe, and the dispossessed of the UK.

Civil society observed change, organised to respond to that change and in doing so, altered the trajectory of our culture and social order. Successive waves of organisational forms, the women’s aid refuges of the 70s, the organisations for people with AIDS in the 1980s, rights groups for gay men and lesbians, ethnic minority bodies in London, Liverpool, Leicester and so many other cities, demonstrate the capacity of our sector to shift in response to huge change and also shape it. So too did the housing co-operatives, the Claimants Union, the organisations of parents of children with learning difficulties, campaigning for change.

Now the boundaries around our sector are shifting, even blurring. We witness the internet and the digital revolution altering not just how we do things but what we do. We can see that some of our global institutions are in peril. The most recent Edelman Index suggests a weakening of public trust and confidence in NGOs. This is the right time to revisit our ways of operating and examine whether our values match up to the imperatives we face. This is not a time to withdraw into nostalgia about the past, nor to simply do what we’ve always done, and get what we have always got. It is the time to examine our powers of connection and our capacity for association. To examine our accountabilities, and our relationship with others, and forge a new future, just as surely as our predecessors did before. We need to ask some fundamental questions about who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.

That’s why a group of grant-making foundations have created an Independent Inquiry into the future of civil society. We’re approaching this important task in a spirit of considerable humility, recognising that some of the answers to our questions will be found in the most surprising places, and that what we find may challenge our preconceptions. But I also approach it with considerable confidence that today’s civil society will develop and change to make a positive difference on our fast-changing world.

Julia Unwin
February 27.