By Henrietta Moore
IT SEEMS like everywhere we look right now we see democracy in crisis.
Since voters opted in a referendum to leave the European Union almost a year ago, Britain has been plunged into an all-consuming public debate on the rights and wrongs that has squeezed out nearly all other issues.
In the United States, Donald Trump’s presidency has become mired in suspicions around alleged collusion with Russia and resistance in Congress to his more controversial policy aims.
The recent election in France saw people voting for prospectuses based on raw emotions of hope or anger; however, neither Marine Le Pen nor eventual winner Emmanuel Macron have given much indication of where this will lead them or what policies will result.
All of this can be deeply dispiriting. Democracy gets reduced to a passive exercise in which we are presented with often radically contrasting worldviews and where we must grant a single individual or party the power to govern in our name – not necessarily in our interests.
Yet all around the world, there are growing grassroots movements challenging this status quo. Recognizing the shortcomings of the political and economic systems around them, people are seizing the opportunity to effect change for themselves and their communities.
They’re doing this because they understand that, ultimately, prosperity is not something that will be bestowed on them from above. It does, and must, start from the ground up.
There’s an important context here. The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to in 2015, created an ambitious framework designed to tackle the world’s most pressing problems by 2030. SDG 16 – widely seen as one of the most crucial precursors for bringing about real change – calls on all nations to “ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.”
But for too long, “participation” – even in democratic societies – has started and ended with periodic trips to the ballot box. What the SDGs are saying is that’s not good enough.
True inclusion must go far deeper than anything we’ve seen before if it’s going to empower people to think of themselves as agents for positive change, actively deliberating the merits of key policies, and ensuring that governments deliver on improvements in the quality of life for all citizens.
University College London’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) is attempting to build on the best examples of community-led activism from around the world in order to develop new ways of measuring prosperity in individual communities. From there, we’re exploring new models for how citizens, businesses and public institutions can work collaboratively to bring about real improvements in people’s lives.
Rather than trying to develop a clunky, one-size-fits-all approach, we’re starting small and building out. But to maximize the potential of these initiatives, we’ve begun trial projects in three very different environments –Kenya, Lebanon and United Kingdom.
In London, we’ve launched the London Prosperity Board (LPB). Bringing together a broad range of local groups with public and private sector partners, the LPB aims to rethink what prosperity means by seeing it as a constantly-changing concept that goes far beyond simplistic measures of hypothetical “wealth,” such as GDP per capita.
The LPB is mobilizing following initial work we did to devise a locally appropriate Prosperity Index for East London, a socially and ethnically diverse part of the city that’s traditionally been a byword for problems of poverty and inequality.
We recruited 10 local “citizen scientists” to join with IGP researchers to gather and interpret data by interviewing more than 600 individuals, business owners and community groups.
This led to the creation of a new indicator model for measuring prosperity that sees us taking account of both official statistics on, say, median income levels as well as local residents’ personal sense of purpose, their ideas about work-life balance and feelings of financial stress.
The key takeaway here is that the IGP wasn’t prescriptive about this: We created an environment where it was possible to crowdsource ideas and views. This undoubtedly made for richer research and a way of capturing people’s understandings and experiences to develop a view of prosperity that made sense in the real world.
We’re also working in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Kenya, on a similar project – albeit one where the challenges are very different. Kenya is on the frontline of climate change, so increasing prosperity there needs to happen amid environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and falling agricultural productivity. We work with local farmers who manage their livelihood choices in the context of these challenges.
And in the Middle East, we’ve begun a project known as RELIEF (Refugees, Education, Learning, Information Technology, and Entrepreneurship for the Future), which aims to improve the prosperity of Lebanon, the country that contains the most refugees as a percentage of its population in the world.
With around 65 million people around the world displaced, the need to grow prosperity in the face of mass population movements is relevant to many places. Our project involves efforts to improve the quality of residents and refugees’ shared public space, fight inequality, promote social cohesion, and provide education, health and a chance of decent employment.
These projects may be tiny acorns now. But they and countless others around the world can help redefine our ideas of effective citizen engagement and the democratic forms of the future.
It’s only by empowering people to think of themselves not only as democratic change-makers, but as the designers of future prosperity, that we can build the “social capital” of our communities – a powerful force we’ll need in abundance to hold governments everywhere to account as they deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.
We need to use this critical window of opportunity to make sure that the skills, thoughts and voices of everyone are harnessed to create a truly global, grassroots democracy.
Professor Moore is Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity, The Bartlett School of Architecture, at University College London. She also holds the Chair in Culture, Philosophy and Design. She was formerly William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics Deputy Director for Research and External Relations and Director of the Gender Institute at the LSE from 1994-1999