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We can secure a just recovery after coronavirus, but we will have to fight for it

Our Other National Debt is a new essay collection, published today, exploring who is making an enormous contribution (or carrying a disproportionate burden) during the coronavirus crisis. Executive Director for Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children Kirsty McNeill outlines some of the lessons from the collection for how we can best deliver social change in a time of COVID-19

The writers are drawn from different organisations and perspectives but are united in their view that a just recovery won’t happen by accident.

For all the commentary about the opportunities presented by ‘The Great Pause’, this mix of policy wonks and social change strategists argue we won’t seize them without crafting both a vision of the future and a campaign plan for how to bring it about. The essay collection is our first attempt at both.

For ACEVO members, focussed relentlessly on missions about delivering a fairer future, the collection will make a bracing read. Across so many areas, this crisis risks taking us backwards. As late as February this year I was writing for ACEVO that this decade was make or break for the kind of world we could build:

We have just ten years to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. In the coming decade, we could determine, once and for all, that it is intolerable that anybody anywhere will die simply because they are too poor to stay alive. If we achieve it, people like us – the campaigners and communicators – will have been at the heart of the greatest thing we’ve ever done as a species. 

That remains the task, but now we must perform it while simultaneously protecting our communities from reversals of progress at a speed, scale and severity we couldn’t have imagined just a few short months ago.

We hope this research is useful for people from different sectors and political traditions but there are eight lessons from it that I think charity leaders in particular should be thinking about as we revisit our priorities and strategies in light of the pandemic:

  • The crisis has illuminated a number of inequalities (and intersections between inequalities) but perhaps the most painful of all is the structural racism that still disfigures our country. The live position paper from #CharitySoWhite is a powerful summary of the issues – you can read it and donate here. Their cause has always been just and the work of dismantling white supremacy has long been necessary. But this crisis – and the implications of it for our colleagues, partners, beneficiaries and clients of colour – must mark the definitive moment where anti-racism becomes central to all of our work.
  • A picture of the policy wins secured in recent weeks would be pretty star-shaped. Some issues have seen a big spike in political attention and public sympathy. The essay on housing charts just one of them. On others – like disability and children’s rights – there is less to shout about. We need to keep asking ourselves why policy space has opened up on some issues and not others and keep questioning why we’re losing overall. The progress is distinctly spiky – let’s not kid ourselves positive change is inevitable.
  • The mutual aid effort around the country has been inspirational. We know, however, that in much of the country it’s the same (shrinking) group that is organising coronavirus support as has always been behind extraordinary voluntary efforts and local campaigning. We don’t yet have a sustainable answer for what the organising infrastructure of our country is going to be if participation in faith communities and the trade union movement continues to decline.
  • There will need to be accountability for policy choices made, but there is a long-term risk of undermining trust in both government and expertise. How charities can deliver effective scrutiny while remaining part of the national effort will be one of the biggest challenges for the coming weeks and months.
  • We know that the fringes of the internet are full of conspiracy theories, misinformation and hate speech that undermine community cohesion and directly harm our missions. How we work together to create a better online public square must be an even bigger priority.
  • We need to be confident in telling the story of what the social sector does, building on the new prominence we have and the new alliances ACEVO and others have built to make the case for emergency support to charities.
  • Local legitimacy will be absolutely key to our future influence. In the cross-sector campaign to defend aid and development, we’ve already put a big emphasis on local campaigning (as Campaign Director Richard Darlington lays out here) and we’ve introduced a much more explicit organising flavour to our work at Save the Children (as Tom Baker lays out here). We only need to look at the pressure MPs are under from businesses in their constituencies to get lockdown lifted to see the impact of local activism.
  • I’ve written elsewhere about the power of ‘leader-full’ movements and there’s no doubt that some of the best social change efforts in this crisis – from #ClapForOurCarers to Captain Tom Moore’s NHS fundraising heroics – have been initiated by ordinary people with a DIY approach. It’s long past time we acknowledged that nobody is waiting for charities to tell them what to do.

These lessons, and the recommendations contained within Our Other National Debt, are far from definitive. We hope, however, that they will provide a starting point for everyone who wants to ensure the recovery delivers a fairer society coming out of the crisis than the one we had before it. It’s time to talk about who has made an outsized contribution or faced outsized challenges at this time in our country’s history. It’s time to repay #OurOtherNationalDebt.

Please read the report at and join the debate on Twitter using #OurOtherNationalDebt.

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