Learning from history

Christchurch earthquake web

Christchurch was left devastated by an earthquake in 2011

Chris Martin believes we must look to the past to help society bounce back from Covid-19

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6th July 2020 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

In 2011 a deadly earthquake shook Christchurch, New Zealand. The city lost nearly 40% of it’s buildings and many people lost their lives. The emotional and financial aftershocks were still being felt when I attended the Social Enterprise World Forum in September 2017. The kind taxi driver who transported me from the airport to my hotel explained that some of her friends were still awaiting insurance payouts. She went on to tell me that she ‘settled’ with her insurance company but was given less than half of what she had lost. She invested in a car and retrained as a taxi driver. 

Amelia went on to explain how many residents, particularly young people, disillusioned by the trauma, uprooted and moved to the North Island further decimating Christchurch’s fragile economy. Big business also moved out and on a tour we saw where one of the ‘Big Four’s offices had previously been, now relocated to Auckland. In September 2017, I joined with 1,500 international social enterprise leaders and was blown away to learn how social enterprise had rebuilt the local economy in Christchurch, engaging the imaginations of resilient social entrepreneurs who came together, bought and sold from each other, and #builtbackbetter for the sake of their livelihoods and the local communities they serve.

What, you may ask, has that got to go with a global pandemic?  I read with interest Benny Higgins 77-page report advising on a "Robust, resilient wellbeing economy for Scotland”.  I was encouraged to see the group’s commitment to addressing inequality as well as the statement that their 25 recommendations were an “action list, not a shopping list”. However, it took me 51 pages to read the first mention of the ‘Third Sector’ and was shocked to see that a growing social enterprise sector wasn’t even mentioned at all.

‘Social Enterprise’, with a ten-year, Scottish Government backed strategy, wasn’t mentioned in a document explaining how the Scottish economy can recover after Covid-19?  Was I being naïve to assume that this internationally-coveted ecosystem we have built over the past 20 years in Scotland should at the very least be mentioned by top thought leaders?  Or is the problem that we have spent 20 years talking to ourselves?

Josiah Lockhart, chief executive of Firstport, wrote a blog last year highlighting that 2019 was an important year for the responsible business movement globally: Blackrock, stated that profit and purpose are inextricably linked. The front page of the Financial Times called for a reset to capitalism. The Business Leaders Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation to include supporting staff and community; and high-profile companies such as The Body Shop and The Guardian gained B Corp certification, committing to independent and transparent impact measurement. Our own First Minister gave a TED talk calling for a shift away from a GDP-focused economy to one rooted in wellbeing and Scottish Enterprise launched a new strategy rooted in driving a more sustainable, inclusive economy.  Last, but certainly not least the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed a bill to build the Scottish National Investment Bank led by social and environmental missions. Now is the time for social enterprises to shout about what we do: social enterprise is the future of business, a business that is enterprising but compassionate.

Chris Martin

Chris Martin

There are over 6,000 social enterprises in Scotland employing almost 90,000 full-time equivalent employees in the sector earning a combined trading income of £3.1bn. Social enterprises have been some of the most agile, ensuring that they maintained their support for local communities who relied on them. 

Similarly, the speed at which the social enterprise community came to the fore at the outset of the pandemic was striking.  Social enterprises led the way in meeting the requirements of beneficiaries, they marched out ahead and led the way. I believe we will continue to lead the way as the third sector must play a critical part in the recovery phase. 

Economists have long argued that the main benefit of long-term economic growth is expanded consumption, however I believe that the economic growth of our country should be inclusive and not come at a cost to some of its citizens: While a focus predominantly led by GDP has led to a higher standard of living for some, it has also increased the divide between the rich and poor. We need to move from rhetoric to action in addressing this imbalance.  With unemployment set to rise and young people facing particular challenges, we must consider how we can look not just to support existing businesses but look at innovation that may come from Covid-19 and support new entrepreneurs.   

Scotland already has a strong history of social entrepreneurship that we can build on and all entrepreneurs can be supported to consider social and environmental concerns through the support they receive. The quality of recovery outcomes will be directly related to how we go about solving problems – and in this, creativity and collaboration will be just as important as technical skills and evidence.

I believe we must study the past to help inform the future.  After the 2008 crash we saw a surge in new startups. We need to be ready to support them with investment, networks, peer support, leadership and resilience training and business support. 

The social enterprise ecosystem has these key services embedded into it and they are never more needed than now. However, more than anything we need to underpin our economic recovery in the values of our National Performance Framework; creating an economic model that also measures wellbeing as part of our economic output. 

In 2011, Christchurch relied on socially motivated entrepreneurs to support the rebuilding of a city and we need to do the same for our country. Read up and be informed about the economic structural changes, the system changes we need to create. Study issues like inequality, the causes of poverty, power, politics, wealth distribution, tax systems and of course Climate Change.  Understand the scale of the problem we are facing and set about, not just building strong social enterprises but also learn how to fix systems.  It’s time for social enterprises, and their leaders, to be bold and brave; it is exactly what is needed at this point in time. Let’s make sure we spend the next 20 years embedding our proven business model in economic development strategies and ensuring we support scale and growth as well as empowering local community organisations to continue to make a difference to so many citizens around our country, creating a fairer and more equal place to live.

Chris Martin is chief executive of Social Enterprise Scotland