Compassionate economics: Rewiring our economies for care, equity, and justice

The 100 richest people on the planet could end global poverty four-times over. Something isn’t working. We need to change the way our economy works and the priorities it works to.

And we can do that. Economies are just systems we have created to – ostensibly – distribute goods, services, and wealth to ensure that everyone is catered and cared for. The problem is that many economies across the world have strayed a long way from that ambition. Instead of prioritizing the good of humanity they have increasingly come to serve the welfare of a minority. Instead of functioning according to the values of care and universal wellbeing, they are driven by competition and profit-maximization.

The result? Long and often unrewarding working hours, poor compensation, minimal rights and protections, the stigmatization of those out of or unable to work, and escalating inequality: 70% of the world’s population lives in a country where economic inequality is increasing.

So we have a choice. Whether to allow these arbitrary systems (based, it should be said, on very real values) to dictate the quality of our lives or to reprogramme and redesign them in ways that promote our wellbeing and help everyone to lead a good and happy life. That, ultimately, is the goal of a compassionate economy. 

But how exactly would that work?

Prioritize public and planetary wellbeing

GDP can’t measure this.

Nearly every economy in the world measures its success using the yardstick of GDP – gross domestic product. That, in essence, records the amount of “stuff” a country produces. It doesn’t matter if that stuff is weapons of war or jets that pollute our air – these all count towards a “healthy” GDP. At the same time, GDP fails to measure things that actually make our lives better: care work, education, our health, the state of the planet, and volunteerism for example. 

The saying goes – what you measure counts. If we want to reorientate our economies we have to change the goal those economies are working towards. There are an increasing number of tools being used by governments that go far beyond GDP and look instead at the economic activities which are beneficial to humans and our planet. Measures like the Gross National Happiness Index which has been introduced in Bhutan or the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare. These types of indexes offer a framework which help decision-makers pull the economic levers most conducive to human flourishing. 

Provide economic protections

Whatever measure is used to assess the performance of an economy, people need to know that their government will protect them from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. These are basic human rights that have been laid down in international law since the UN Declaration of Human Rights was ushered into existence in the aftermath of the Second World War and was subsequently built-upon by the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights which urged governments to enshrine the right to food, shelter, and an adequate income in their domestic legislation. Unfortunately, many countries have failed to implement that recommendation – an oversight which some argue led to the increasing rates of poverty and inequality in the years since the 2008 financial crash: in essence, without legal safeguards, governments chose to respond in ways that benefited the wealthiest at the expense of the poorest. To ensure the vast resources that are available to governments and international institutions are used for the common good, we need rules, regulations, and norms mandating that approach. 

Make essential services available to all

To preserve human dignity, provide essential care, and improve the health of whole populations, governments must ensure universal access to education and healthcare. But that should be a minimum. Equity is achieved when services are provided in a way that meets the specific needs of different communities and individuals. So as well as providing education and health treatment that is – for the least well-off if not for all – free at the point of use, those services should be designed to include and support communities who may have been historically disadvantaged. 

Right past wrongs

In many countries, poverty remains endemic because of the legacy of colonialism (and it’s continuation in the form of neocolonial approaches to trade, resource extraction, offshoring and outsourcing, and structural adjustment demands). To create prosperity the world-over, Western governments need to right past wrongs and, in many instances, change the fundamental nature of their economic relationship with countries in the Global South. A number of approaches can help this process including the provision of debt relief and reparations, the promotion of fair trading practices and ethical consumption in the North, supporting and facilitating technology transfer, establishing and enforcing legal protections for workers and ecosystems that have been historically exploited by multinational corporations, and by ensuring the transition to a climate-safe economy.

Ensure businesses operate with a social conscience

Governments play a major role in deciding the objectives of individual businesses. The legal frameworks they create and the products and services they invest in send a very strong signal to shareholders, boards, and directors about the kind of activities that are desirable and financially beneficial. Unfortunately, when it comes to the wellbeing of society, many governments are sending out unhelpful signals to their private sectors. Company Acts often dictate that the object of a private enterprise should be the creation of profit for investors. Minimal investment in renewable technologies makes producing these kinds of goods inordinately expensive. And the failure to introduce basic protections for workers or requirements on the ethical impact of company operations creates a moral framework in which exploitation and unsustainable resource consumption are normalized. We need our governments to step-up and step-in and signal to businesses that the economic priorities are compassion, care, equity, and justice. 

Let people live

Ultimately, the goal of a compassionate economy is to free people to live a life that is good, happy, and full. By creating unnecessary financial stress, modern-day economies dictate that our days are defined by the work we do – or, if we don’t work, by our status as unemployed. We have to move beyond that. We are humans, not workers and we all have other passions, interests, and hobbies. Proposals like a universal basic income or a four-day working week are just two examples of the kind of policies that could point towards a future in which we no longer live to work. 

This article is by:

  • Lene Rachel Andersen, President, Nordic Bildung & Co-founder, Global Bildung Network.
  • Katy Chakrabortty, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Oxfam.
  • Elham Fakhro, Research Fellow, Exeter University’s Centre for Gulf Studies and an associate fellow, Chatham House Middle East and North Africa programme.
  • Jennifer Nadel, Chair, Global Compassion Coalition.
  • Stewart Wallis, Executive Chair, Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

They are writing in a personal capacity.

Translate »

The Transformational Power of Male Compassion

Wednesday 12th June | 9am PT / 12pm ET/ 5pm GMT