"System change in international cooperation" - Laura Sullivan

23 april 2019

This is the fourth in a series of blogs that will be published in the lead up to the Dóchas Conference 2019 – Finding Our Voice: How Civil Society is Countering Uncertainty – on 2 May 2019 in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin 8. Find out more.

We are asking leaders, innovators and thinkers working in the areas of equality, justice and development to respond to a set of questions around the theme of the conference - the key challenges facing international cooperation and how we can shape the Irish response to these challenges, find opportunities within them, and build public support along the way.

Today, we are delighted to feature Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of WeMove.EU, and former Regional Director for Europe and the Americas with ActionAid International. Find out more.

Read the other blogs in this series.

Laura's Response:

We talk a lot about challenges. And yet many of them are in reality symptoms of deeper root causes. Arguably one of the main issues for international cooperation going forward will be to use a root cause lens when tackling global challenges. Climate change, inequality and poverty in the Global North and South, have something in common. At their root is a neoliberal economic system, adopted not that long ago, that is accelerating crises and eating away at the survival chances of people and planet. The economic system is combined with a style of patriarchal leadership that continues to colour decision making in international cooperation and beyond.

The bottom line is this: climate justice, an end to poverty and inequality will only come when we reality check our systems at a deeper level. A more innovative approach by leaders would permit discussions that go beyond the false dichotomy of the capitalist versus communist system. It would open out and acknowledge the new system that is already out there and being lived by people all across the world whose unstoppable invention is allowing for entirely different ways of organising that also cater for the survival of the planet. It would also allow for a style of leadership that is visionary, that understands how much process matters (not just results), that values participation and ownership and walks the talk on some basic values like humanity, dignity and solidarity.

The challenges are essentially the same for civil society. Whilst we have been winning small battles, we have been losing the planet. The proof of this is literally to be seen in the report of the IPCC declaring that we have 10-12 years until planetary boundaries are overshot. The implications are clear. Civil society needs to make its own shift in the direction of tackling root causes, of getting past single issue strategies. We also need to shift the narratives that underlie our beliefs and decisions. The entire narrative around ‘poverty’ and ‘development’ could do with a shake-up. People are still ‘pulled out of poverty’ when they start earning a few more dollars a day. The real long-term issue however is the level of equality of opportunities and outcomes that people have or not. Whereas income inequality and the 1% have rightly been outed as problems, at their root is a deeper issue of unequal power relations, skewed power and voice in democratic processes. This has taken us to a place where 51% of our largest economies globally are corporations and not states.

Meanwhile in Ireland, the amount of people power exercised to shift narratives and ultimately decisions to a more humane and rights oriented place of late is something that makes me proud to be Irish. And yet, the economy still rules the roost. Many fear discussions about the role of corporations in paying their fair share of taxes because of the perceived impact on jobs and growth. What does this say about the state of the basic social contract? This story is the same in international cooperation. Whilst aid matters now, imagine how much more sustainable things could become if corporations paid their way in the Global South? That would be an honest form of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Happily there are many corporations out there that are changing the rules of the game, and civil society should be actively working with them. The B Corps are busy questioning company ownership rules and seeking to shift the proportion of investment in innovation (read sustaining the planet) and workers (human rights) versus that which goes to shareholder profit. Set against this, Jeff Bezos personal wealth is now roughly equivalent to the entire annual global aid effort. What does this say about power? About corporations? About the rules of the economy? And yet the seeds of the alternatives, like B Corps, are already there.

The future could look bright for civil society if we can talk more to people about root causes and the interconnectivity of things, using a language that speaks to them. The housing crisis that is destroying lives in Ireland is likewise impacting people in cities all over the Global South. The root causes are ultimately the same. If climate change has gotten to a place where youth in Europe are now wondering if they will get to know their grandkids, it is precisely the same for youth in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Creation of common cause and action around challenges that are shared by people globally, North and South, is the key for civil society going forth. It matters here, it matters there, it matters everywhere.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dóchas.

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The Dóchas Conference 2019 - Finding Our Voice: How Civil Society is Countering Uncertainty - will take place on 2 May 2019, 2pm - 5.30pm, in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin 8. Registration from 1.30pm - 2pm. The Conference will explore the key challenges facing international cooperation between now and 2030. It will provide a space for discussion and new ideas about how we can shape the Irish response to these challenges, find opportunities within them, and build public support along the way. Speakers include Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Chief Executive Officer, Plan International, and more.

Find out more and register.

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