A time for optimism or pessimism? In this blog, friend of the network Deborah Doane argues that whilst we certainly cannot predict the long-term outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must play an active and positive role in shaping the emerging future. This blog is the first in a series which marks the release of the 2020 Ariadne Forecast, and looks at the challenges and opportunities identified by funders through the lens of the current pandemic.
I’ll admit, I haven’t been sleeping very well. Anxiety is keeping me up at night. I’m very good at acknowledging my blessings: I have a home, access to food and can socially distance, unlike millions of others. But somehow that knowledge doesn’t take away the anxiety.
At the expense of my own psychological well-being, I’ve been trying to put my mind into the heads of what it must genuinely be like to fear for your life on a more consistent basis. The first point of call in my restless mind is usually Anne Frank. I keep pulling out the example to my teenage son when he complains about being locked in: “We’re Jewish. Had this been 1940 and we lived where your Bubbie (grandmother) was, we would have been hiding in an attic unable to make a sound for 2 years. You’re lucky.” Like all good teenagers who have no sense of their own mortality, he brushes this off. Fortunately, it’s not his reality. I think of Nelson Mandela and his 26 years of imprisonment. I think of human rights defenders, migrants, homeless people, or the Bangladeshi garment factory workers who now have no economic lifeline. I know I’m fortunate, but somehow that doesn’t calm my racing mind.
Instead, it makes me want to find something over which I can have control. In my less anxiety-led moments, I, like many others, am finding solace in my community. I’m running my local COVID mutual aid Whatsapp list, with about 100 neighbours simply looking after each other, seeing amazing acts of kindness every day: the meals delivered, the bicycles loaned, the kind words shared.
But if you work in human rights or social justice, you’re probably also letting your mind wander beyond the now. I’ve been addictively reading every headline for inference of what could follow: 3 months in lockdown, or even 18 months, with either scenario leaving devastating impacts, especially for those who don’t have the luxury of lockdown: the Kibera slums, the South African townships, the Greek refugee camps.
Some say those of us who are ‘liberal’ are better at seeing the dark side of things; that while we’re working to make the world a better place, we’re actually pessimists, like the old Gramscian phrase about being ‘optimistic of the heart and pessimistic of the mind.’
Is this a time for optimism or pessimism? Heart or mind? Signs are pointing in both directions. Some commentators say neo-liberalism and austerity is dead, as governments have stepped in to support whole economies; that governments will recognise how much they need civil society now and will reverse the trend of ‘shrinking civic space’; that the groundswell of community-based support shows that a more caring, loving future will emerge when all this is over.
Others suggested that the pandemic has only served to magnify what was already highlighted in the recently released Ariadne Forecast, bringing even more challenges: that we’re going to see disaster capitalism rise and that the ricocheting after the crisis will be worse than ever before. I saw a headline that predicted the end of European cooperation and that we’ll see the rise of more Victor Orbans; that our every move will be surveilled and censored, as people accept authoritarianism as a necessary contract to keep them safer. Coronavirus becomes a convenient alibi for the breakdown of democracy.
While either of these outcomes seem plausible right now, try as we might, we can’t predict the long-term outcomes of the pandemic with any degree of certainty. The current crisis is a case in point. Perhaps some epidemiologists and science fiction writers were prepared for the onslaught of COVID 19 and are now happily or unhappily waving their ‘I told you so’ fingers at us. But most mere mortals could not have foreseen that a rapid and almost complete global shut-down would happen in just a few short weeks, alongside all that might ensue.
But I’ve noticed that philanthropy often leans that way, where there is a tendency towards analysis as a proxy to action: seeking complex data, drafting strategies and seeking answers as to ‘what works’ before making decisions about what to fund. This, in my view, is folly.
A colleague and writer, Margaret Heffernan, writes in her recent book, Uncharted, that “when it comes to complex threats, waiting for the perfect grand masterplan is risky. If it arrives, it could be too complex, inadequate, wrong – or simply too late.” This is perhaps why I’ve always hated the ‘outcomes’ section of grant applications: can I really know the cause and effect of my action 3 or 5 years hence?
This doesn’t mean, however, that we only have to think to the short-term either. In fact, our short-term ‘emergency’ responses can very much be about building the future we want to see in the world, too. I may not know the outcomes, but I can control the processes and the principles of how I move forward in the present. And the principles of the crisis-response – the things we can control – will very much sow important seeds for the future: like thinking about what seems temporary that can be permanent; letting go of power and an illusion of ‘control’; and creating more active forms of solidarity.
So the work in my community gives me solid grounding to think about the future of community organising and its potential. The actions taken by some funders to double their grant-making or reduce reporting requirements, increasing flexibility – like the Libra Foundation in the US or the Pears Foundation here in Europe – should be strategies that remain in the future, too, throwing out long-held views about risk and control.
For those working in the international humanitarian space, strengthening the local response should be coupled with ensuring that grassroots civil society is funded directly and has power over decision-making, perhaps through investing more in community foundations. This can pave the way for stronger, local civil society beyond COVID19.
There is a potential for more solidarity across human rights and humanitarian response, too, advocating for the expansion of civic space, as a counter to the authoritarian tendency to close it. I was dismayed to see an Oxfam call to action that focussed merely on health and economic support in the crisis: civic space is a necessary pre-condition to both.
Do not think of this as an ‘emergency’ response. We may not be able to predict, let alone control what the shift will be post-pandemic. Instead, for now, I’m going to cast off my Gramscian tendency and not accept as fate the pessimistic headlines that pepper the editorials. I’m going to think and act with my heart, not least because it helps to quell my anxiety. We can’t control the future, but we can certainly play an active and indeed positive role in shaping it.
By Deborah Doane, Partner, Rights Co-Lab.