By Dame Julia Unwin

If the last two years have shown us anything it is that our economy is both fragile and volatile.  As Scotland takes its early, tentative steps through the debris left by the global pandemic, our recent past warns us not only that we are not completely out of the woods yet, but also that future shocks and disruptions lie ahead.

Covid 19 revealed inherent weaknesses in all the economies of the UK, including the complexity of the supply chain, the lack of resilience in our critical institutions, and – most tellingly of all – the gross financial inequalities that drain confidence and undermine growth. Like a powerful X-ray the pandemic exposed the deep divisions in communities, uncovered the myriad challenges facing towns and villages, and the very real vulnerability of so many vital services. To take just one example, Covid 19 and its consequences highlighted the peril faced by women for whom an instruction to stay at home was in effect, an order to endure violence and abuse.   

But the pandemic also demonstrated the value of the rich network of groups and organisations whose deep connections in communities, ability to organise rapidly, and whose authority enabled them to advocate for people who were overlooked. In other words, civil society. It was civil society that warned about the overcrowding in some areas that was enabling the virus to flourish. It was civil society that could support people hesitant about the vaccine. It was civil society that organised the practical support and mutual aid which prevented the virus from causing even more human misery.  

And so too it is civil society that has the capacity, connections and contacts to ensure that the recovery is real, secure and resilient enough to withstand future crises.  

Any economic recovery requires that we pay attention to both growth and resilience. Without both of those elements, future shocks will be just as destabilising and devastating as the pandemic. None of this can be achieved without the active and engaged participation of broader civil society. Indeed, any attempt at economic recovery is doomed to fail if it doesn’t work closely with that rich web of organisations, large and small, which enable communities to connect, to build confidence, capacity and care. There are five ways in which policy makers can make good on this promise. 

  1. Civil society is central to the development of the public realm – to making sure that any regeneration of our towns, villages and city centres is genuinely an expression of the will of people living in those communities. Only in this way can we ensure that the built environment is loved and trusted by those who live and work there and that changes are not seen as simply an imposition. It is local community groups which can help to green our town centres, can foster the innovative street markets, encourage the public and community arts and populate the cafes and shops which are so integral to any invitation for investment. Making our places beautiful is of course nice. But it is central to making the investment case which will facilitate serious recovery of hard-pressed town and city centres. Cash does not flow to places that look unloved, uncared for and unwelcoming.  

    Civil society organisations with a focus on heritage, place, horticulture, land use, housing, architecture, civic space are indispensable to economic recovery. Their contribution to making places greener, cleaner and more attractive to investment is vital. So too is their ability to mediate difference, enable discussion about amenities, as well as about change and development. They will be joined by all those advocating for particular groups and ensuring that the development of villages, towns and city centres are attractive and safe for older people, anyone with a disability, young people and those without very much money. That is the way to make them attractive, build pride and confidence without which economic recovery will never take off.  
  1. No plan for economic recovery is ever undertaken that doesn’t focus on skills and the development of new and different skills. But people who are damaged by economic and personal disaster don’t learn new skills without help and support. People who are worried about where they will sleep tonight won’t just turn up for training and fill in applications for new jobs. People who are lonely, or frightened and emotionally distraught are not going to take the risks of going into new fields of work. It is civil society that supports and enables, advises and helps those who need to take advantage of new opportunities.  

    Economic recovery nowadays needs to be data driven, but data and intelligence is not evenly and openly distributed. Voluntary organisations have huge knowledge about their patches. Charities supporting homeless people, those caring for people who use food banks, community groups running after school services, all know where the real detriment is, and all know more about their communities, in granular details than many of the more distant bodies crafting economic development strategies. Their knowledge is central to economic recovery and renewal.  
  1. Economic recovery and the move to net zero together require engaged, active communities. Tackling the climate crisis means recognising that behavioural change is as important as technological change. Scientific solutions to our environmental problems have their place, but addressing the biggest challenge of our day will also require active and empowered communities.  

    Economic recovery as we strive to move to net zero needs people to change their behaviours, to manage waste differently, to use fuel more effectively, to move away from dependence on petrol hungry transport. The poorest communities contribute least to climate injustice, but in the global North we all have a part to play and it is only through work at hyper local level, understanding the very real pressures that people face and developing locally acceptable, and effective, approaches that we will be able to meet these challenges.  
  1. Civil society is an integral part of the cultural economy, which is in many senses, the backbone of the Scottish recovery. In turn, charities, voluntary organisations and individuals giving freely of their time are the core of the arts organisations, heritage bodies and other groups which enable national, regional and local identities to flourish. It is the music we hear, and the art we look at, the plays and films we see, the books we read – all of these build confidence and creativity – and civil society is at the heart of all of those. But even more than this, it is the creative economy that employs people, attracts audiences who spend money, develops and improves building. The cultural economy is at the heart of the economic recovery and much of it exists within broader civil society. 

    The articulation of the economic role of the cultural economy is well advanced, but the engagement of wider civil society in this work is not always explained and developed. 
  1. Civil society is also central to the care economy. The care economy is another way of describing that vital and under resourced web of childcare organisations, care home managers, domiciliary care providers, and the hyper local network of support from families, neighbours and friends. They work together in every community to prevent crisis, maximise independence and enable those who draw on care in the course of a lifetime (that’s all of us) to lead rich and invigorating lives. An impoverished and degraded care economy is bad for those who draw on care, bad for those who provide it, and because of the waste of talent and energy it represents, ultimately disastrous for economic recovery. 

    The economic value of the care economy is known in communities, and understood by those working within it. But across most of the UK it is not well articulated in a way that decision makers can hear it. The pandemic has highlighted both some of the inherent weaknesses in the care economy, and our significant dependence upon it.  

So what next? If there has ever been a time for civil society to articulate its major contribution to a secure, sustainable and just economic recovery it is now. The call to leadership across civil society is to take seriously its role in economic recovery, and ensure that it is central both to planning and to execution. The challenge of economic recovery is too big for any sector to deliver alone, and as the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery argued in the summer of 2020, it is only by the active engagement of all parts of the economy, working both at national, regional and local scale that we will be able to secure that recovery. Civil Society can be leaders in ensuring that recovery is both just and sustainable.