The current Coronavirus pandemic has tested the health systems and economies of most countries and, beyond the general concerns on the development of a vaccine, all are grappling with two major issues: containing the crisis and initiating economic recovery.
There is talk globally about the falling GDP and the impending collapse of the economies of several nations. Typical discourses are around providing bailouts, fiscal stimulus, enhancing social protection, and a relook at taxation policies. While these measures are immediately needed, one has to also ask if the current economic model is flawed and explore other alternatives.
The narratives around the world show how the consumption-driven market economy has taken away everything that can be sustainable. A paradigm shift from a ‘for-profit’ mindset to that of a ‘for-benefit’ one is necessary. A new economic order that draws on the ‘for-public’ DNA of the government, the efficiencies and profit mandate of the corporate world, and the social conviction and commitment of the non-profit sector is now needed. Focus needs to shift from revenue generation to ensuring benefit to all stakeholders. While this sounds challenging and like it might involve a long, drawn-out process, the COVID crisis has shown how this change is desirable — and has even already begun. What will be required is the political will and leadership to institutionalize it into the existing ecosystem.
Nations will need leaders with the vision to take on such a mandate, and have the political will to go against the tide, the determined optimism to endure the ups and downs, and the inspirational presence to urge citizens to walk the talk along with them. This requires that the leaders understand that such a shift will not happen by passing legislation or extending tax concessions and subsidies. It can happen only when one understands that the problem on hand is complex, and demands huge, adaptive change. It needs individuals and institutions to change their centuries-old values, beliefs, and practices. Political leadership should accept the responsibility to be ‘different’ and not be dictated to by mere electoral or political considerations, or be distracted by the noise created by their detractors. They need to stay focussed on creating a faciliatory eco-system, along with the appropriate legal, policy and taxation architecture. Calling for the stoppage of using single-use plastic, minimizing food waste, or safeguarding water resources is only the beginning. The need is for a deeper recalibration of consumption patterns and lifestyle priorities. Convincing voters to endure short-term pains for the long-term benefits goes beyond oratorial capacity. It needs someone with the credibility and the ability to provide statesmanlike leadership despite the risks involved.
Industry captains need to ask themselves difficult questions and have the courage to move beyond shareholder pressures and their own personal interest of generating profits at any cost. They need to consciously take on the mandate of focusing on the quadruple bottom line of planet, people, profits, and peace, and move their organizations toward being socially and environmentally responsible in the true sense of the term.
NGOs have a declared purpose of responding to societal demands and for mobilising communities to participate in the development that affects their lives. NGO leaders need to prepare themselves and their organizations with the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to be the initiators of a change that is still in its infancy. They need to grapple with the uncertainties that go with such a situation and not lose hope or faith that they can accomplish this shift. They have to acquire the capability of going beyond seeking donations to generating resources on their own to ensure that they continue to engage in social development without being too dependent on public or private funds.
Finally, what can really allow this new economy to emerge and flower will be the leadership that each of us show as individuals. Instead of making excuses about how small our contributions will be or how large and unsolvable the problem on hand is, we need to come to terms with our own misplaced priorities. We need to move away from a lifestyle that is consumption driven, that is based on ecological destruction and loaded with a huge carbon footprint.
Making changes is not easy, whether it is going vegetarian or using public transport more often. Seeing clothes as a necessity rather than as a fashion statement is easier said than done. We need to demonstrate leadership in the several roles that we play in everyday life – whether as a consumer, voter, employee, or as a shareholder in a corporate entity. Our informed and collective choice will have market impacts. Making such a large-scale conscious shift happen demands enlightened leadership of a high order.
The timing is appropriate to explore the emergence of this new economic order that seeks to create public good while ensuring reasonable private gains for the entrepreneur. Unless capitalism gets grounded in compassion, equity, fairness, and justice for all stakeholders, sustainability will just remain a fashion statement. For a world that seems to be rapidly absorbing, accelerating, and celebrating the spirit of market economics and individual attainment, this will seem unnecessary and difficult to undertake. But embedded in the paradigm of a harmonious economy is consideration for the planet, its people, and fair gains for everyone. It is in this movement, away from mindless ‘profit maximization’ for the shareholders to ‘benefit optimization’ for stakeholders, that a sustainable World Economic Order lies. And this requires each one of us to awaken the ‘leader’ within us and play our part, instead of complaining, criticizing, or proselytising.