While poverty has been declining globally, economic inequality has been rising, thwarting more meaningful progress.It’s a stuck social challenge that underlies other urgent problems around the world, such violent conflict, high rates of incarceration, and access to quality education. How can change makers transform the status quo so that marginalized people gain access to decent, sustainable economic opportunities?
While poverty has been declining globally, economic inequality has been rising, thwarting more meaningful progress.Seven out of 10 people live in a country where inequality has risen in the last 30 years, according to Oxfam, and 1 in 10 are still trying to survive on less than $2 a day.
How can change makers transform the status quo so that marginalized people gain access to economic opportunities? Among the pieces of this puzzle are increasing access to quality education, extending access to credit, ensuring fair wages and decent working conditions, moving informal work into the formal sphere, supporting small businesses, and addressing corruption, all while safeguarding and restoring the environment.
Economic exclusion is an underlying factor in many other urgent problems, and Reos Partners has pursued systemic initiatives in countries as disparate as Canada and the Philippines. Two places where we’ve been especially active are South Africa and Brazil, among the most stratified countries in the world. In both, inequality is generationally entrenched, the economy is floundering, people have little trust in the state, and frustration is breeding violence.
Here are some of the mental, emotional, and process shifts that in our experience — 20 years of engagement in systemic change initiatives — enable the breakthrough thinking, collaboration, and coordinated action that’s needed to do something about it.
Slow down and take the pressure off
Given the urgency of economic exclusion and the dire problems it feeds, there’s an impulse to work faster. While short-term measures are important, long-term progress on such a complex problem requires that stakeholders develop a complex understanding — and that takes time.
The tension between urgency and thoughtful response is painfully illustrated by the issue of land reform in South Africa. Nearly 25 years post-apartheid, the promise of “land restitution” is largely unmet, and frustration is high. Yet the problem cries out for deeper understanding and fresh thinking. To help enable that, Reos Partners facilitated a transformative scenarios process, the Land Reform Futures.
Transformative scenarios are one way to develop a complex, and shared, understanding. The structured yet open-ended process is an example of what we call a “purposeful detour.” Over the course of about six months, we guide diverse stakeholders in constructing several possible futures around the issue at hand, combining both rigour and imagination. The resulting stories suggest strategies and initiatives for shaping the future.
The Land Reform Futures are providing a common framework for renewed, informed national debate and decision making on an economically and symbolically potent issue. “It created a platform to hear other people’s voices, and to confront my own views,” said one participant. “It took the pressure off always looking for solutions. By getting clearer on thinking, then getting clearer on a vision, it changes the energy. Then there is the possibility of things changing.”
Let go of “solutions”
The very notion of a discrete solution suggests a neat, discrete problem. At Reos Partners, we never set out to “solve” something like access to credit or child labor. Rather, we try to shift and ultimately transform the complex conditions that are generating the problematic situation so that something new, positive, and self-sustaining can emerge.
Again, that takes time and persistence, which is why we so often work to establish ongoing platforms for change like the Sustainable Fashion Lab. This Brazil-based projectis tackling the problem of economic inclusion (among others), by focusing on the country’s garment industry.
The global garment industry exemplifies many equity problems in manufacturing overall, such as low wages, child labor, “flexible” contracts, imbalance of power among the players, informal work, and invisibility. Sustainability looms large too — the production, overconsumption, and landfilling of clothing has a huge environmental footprint. In many countries, the garment industry is the largest employer in manufacturing. Brazil ranks fourth among global clothing producers, with 1.7 million textile and clothing industry workers, some of them vulnerable illegal immigrants without adequate access to health care or education.
The Sustainable Fashion Lab is designed to enable a better understanding of and response to the systemic issues at play in Brazil and beyond. We launched the lab with a transformative scenarios process,and it has now moved on to prototype cross-sectoral initiatives. Our hope is that it will come to serve as a platform not only for addressing systemic issues in Brazil’s garment industry, but also for inspiring action internationally.
Give everyone a voice
It’s a simple principle: only with a multistakeholder approach can we hope to create something resembling the full picture of a complex system, and subsequently, create initiatives that enable progress. A diverse spectrum of voices and viewpoints is the foundation of any Reos Partners process.
The Land Reform Futures were developed by a team of 40 people who approach land reform from widely differing perspectives: policy makers and administrators, land owners, traditional leaders, communal property institution leaders, activists, business people, academics and consultants. The scenario team’s discussions, in turn, were informed by interviews with more than 100 people.
Our groundwork for the Sustainable Fashion Lab scenarios included 40 in-depth interviews with industry associations, manufacturers, retailers, garment worker, unions, nonprofits, academics, people involved in the circular economy, and leaders from all stages in the supply chain. “With vast and different points of view, we gained a more realistic understanding of our possibilities and limits and of what is still ahead of us,” the lab team reported. “We became more skilled at thinking collectively — to seek progress in a coordinated and broader way.”
Alt/Now, a project of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity that we participated in, grounded its work on income inequality in Canada in the stories and experiences of 150 Canadians from across the income spectrum. They werefamilies in the “squeezed middle,” new Canadians, wealthy people, and young people with precarious incomes.
This way of working is all the more salient when the heart of the problem is exclusion.
Many of the people and organizations we work with struggle to set aside conventional, linear approaches for the more open-ended experimentation that can begin to break up stuck problems. In fact, we’ve foundthat the higher the stakes get, the less willing people are to experiment. It’s well established by psychologists that fear leads us to be more conservative. We default to what we know — even if it hasn’t been working.
That’s one reason we were eager to participate in Alt/Now — not only for the experience we had to offer, but also for what we have to learn about supporting brave acts of creativity in the face of “safe” approaches that are as entrenched as the problems they’re trying to address. The Banff Centre has a legacy of excellence in artistic and creative development across dozens of disciplines. Alt/Now brought that legacy to bear on the structural problems of economic inequality, bringing together entrepreneurs, community builders, and innovators.
Like our own lab projects, Alt/Now focused on prototyping — trying things out to see what works. In this case, new market-based for- and non-profit ventures that generate wider prosperity and well-being. Among them are a new model for housing development, services for childcare, and diversification of rural incomes. All of the initiatives have taken on lives outside the initial project, becoming ongoing ventures.
In South Africa, we’ve supported an experiment that seeks to address crisis levels of youth unemployment: a nationwide initiative called the Youth Employment Service (YES). One facet of the unemployment problem is second- and third-generation economic exclusion. Using a digital platform, YES will connect young people with internships that expose them to work, allow them to gain experience, and increase their chances of getting a job.
Collaborate in spite of conflict
It’s not always easy to collaborate, even with people you agree with. Rife with power differentials and conflicting needs and interests, issues of economic inclusion often ask yet more of us: to collaborate with people we don’t agree with, like, or trust. The parties may never agree, but if they want to shift the status quo, they must find ways to move forward together anyway.
We call this “stretch collaboration.” As Adam Kahane, a director at Reos Partners, describes in his book Collaborating with the Enemy, we have learned how to help diverse, competing stakeholders move forward with no expectation of harmony or even any definitive agreement on the problem, never mind the solutions. Instead, the stakeholders experiment with multiple possibilities to discover what works, one step at a time. It’s the hallmark of our work.
Land issues in South Africa, for example, stemming as they do from the legacy of apartheid, are characterized by intense division, pain, and resentment that run generations deep. When we get people into a workshop,the anger clouds everything and undermines any openness to new perspectives.
In such cases, getting everyone on the same page is unlikely. Rather, we create conditions that allow for a productive, often much-needed release of emotion, and that support everyone’s capacity to bein conflict and in relationship at the same time. The very existence of the Land Reform Futures is testament to our growing skill with this.
Step into the confusion
Facing the scale of our problems head on, slowing down in the midst of crisis, thinking and working in new ways, collaborating in the presence of conflict … People at every level of a system can find all this difficult, confusing, even distressing at times. But as practiced guides, we design our processes to give everyone the support and the time they need to feel their way through. On the other side, as we have seen again and again, is a more successful response to the complex challenges we face.
We invite you contact us about making progress together.
photo: (CC) Álvaro Remesal Royo/Flickr