Reflecting on what we are going through now, I thought back on my own childhood. I never call myself a refugee, because I never went through the kind of struggle and hardship so many have gone through. When my father, a Bengali was put in jail in Pakistan as a political prisoner during the military coup and separation of East and West Pakistan, my elder brother, mother and I could come home to my English grandparents in this country. How lucky we were, to be able to do that. We were not refugees in the true sense of the word and we did not suffer, as so many did and do today.
I have some of the documents from that time. The arrest warrant for my father. The release documentation. The picture of him in jail with guards, so the military could prove he was still alive, to us and the International Red Cross. A letter I wrote aged five to my father in jail – “I have a big fat rabbit” I wrote to him. My elder brother, two years older than me, just seven at the time, was writing hoping my father was well. Always so much more aware of others than me!
So many did not get out of jail, or through that civil war for independence alive. He did. Bhutto, who led that government in Pakistan, held onto him a bit longer than some others. When the press asked why, he said “my nightingale has flown he said, referring to having to release the great orator, Sheik Mujibur Rahman, who became newly independent Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister. “At least let me keep the parrot” A line my father loved to tell. Although he was part of an independence movement, years later he returned to Pakistan to visit and we all have fond memories of our time there.
It was only recently, that I more consciously realised we’d had to flee a country a second time. A decade or more later, Bangladesh was under its own sequence of military dictatorships. My father, a civil servant with the disability of honesty in what was then, a period of intense corruption and misrule, was told “leave the country, or die.” By now a teenager, my family relocated to Kuala Lumpur, working for an international development organisation. In the early 80s, KL was as sleepy, quiet city. Amazing food, water you could drink out of a tap. It was paradise. I never thought of it as flight. It was another extraordinary adventure and Malaysia was good for us. Now with two younger brothers, they did most of their growing up there and have a strong bond to the region.
Years later, talking to my mother, she told me how guilty she felt for putting us as a family through all this. I told her at times, as children, we were afraid. Sometimes, we were poor or separated. At other times, relatively prosperous. We had an amazing life and we were always loved. I know how privileged I am.
Coming to the present day, many of us are going through a tough time. Through social distancing, the NHS, and coordinated government action, if we are fortunate, we may escape the worst of this pandemic. A good number of us will become sick, and some really quite ill. I am moved by my friends and colleagues who have been hospitalised or are caring for sick family members at home. I hope and believe they will make a good recovery.
While it is not an easy time for any of us, it is an exceptionally difficult time for the charity and social enterprise sector we support and the people we all ultimately serve. It’s not been an easy decade for charities and social enterprises in this country. They were running efficient operations, but there are not the reserves or slack in the system to cope with a societal disruption on this scale and an income loss NCVO estimated at £3.7bn for the next 12 weeks.
We are seeing charities and social enterprises having to take immediate action to downsize at just the time they are needed the most. We are being asked to fund revenue costs for bare minimum core teams, to run mothballed operations while almost all staff are on furlough, for an uncertain duration. We face it ourselves – just when we are most needed, we are under financial pressure. We are also seeing amazing social care charities re-configuring on the hoof, re-deploying and just doing an extraordinary job to serve new and existing needs. These are really great people in our sector and I have such respect for all our charity and social enterprise workers.
We are being asked to help scale out solutions and to invest, yet what we can do as social investors, even working with others, is a drop in the ocean. A ripple against the tide.
So why do it?
Because we can.
We are used to looking at charities, social enterprises and for profit with purpose operations and figuring out how we can invest to back them. All we really do as social investors, is provide a pipe that connects people with money, to people who need it. We have that pipe work. Right now, the government is making available a big pile of money. What it needs is good pipes. And that we have. We are just good plumbers in the social investment sector.
We have some existing pots of cash we can deploy to charities and social enterprises. The big government and bank schemes are not designed for the likes of us, or our sector, much though I applaud the government for what they have done for the wider economy. We are doing our best to back initiatives by Big Society Capital and the Social Investment Business, alongside our sector colleagues at Social Investment Scotland, Social and Sustainable Capital, Charity Bank, CAF Bank, CAF Venturesome, UnLtd, Key Fund, Northstar, Resonance and so many others organisations in our Social Investment Forum, Good Finance and Responsible Finance networks.
Because we must.
Right now, the government is finding out it needs to be able to reach people in society. Who can do that? That is what charities and social enterprises do. All across the country, food banks and community organisations, reaching out and providing the means of life, to people who need it. My colleague Alan has put himself forward to drive vehicles for the local hospital. That came from his local cycling club – how could people reach the depot without using public transport? On your bike. We need our communities, charities and social enterprises now more than ever. What may have looked like amateur and voluntary was always professional and committed. We are the essentials of life and we must support our sector.
Because it makes a difference.
Small actions have big effects. People pick up and hear about what works, and give it a try. Sometimes it is personal. One of my heroes, the woman who leads one of our largest national charities, had no idea that she was inspiring a young woman at that table, simply by being a woman in power making key investment decisions. That young woman is now a leader in her own right. Years ago, Rob Hopkins came up with the concept of Transition Towns – groups of people in a town coming together to tackle climate change in their community through their actions. I asked him how he thought he’d done. “Well, I thought we’d have four starting up after six months,” he said. He had 400.
In my own sector, Pat Conaty had the idea of replicating community finance organisations. Steve Walker became CEO of the first one and Bob Patterson replicated them. We now have a thriving network and community of them. Steve is just retiring as CEO of Aston Reinvestment Trust, the first one, and Bob Patterson merged his organisation into Resonance, now headed by Daniel Brewer.
Tessa Tennant and Charles Jacob set up the first green and ethical funds in the UK, Merlin (now Jupiter) Ecology Fund and Friends Provident Stewardship Fund, building on work started a few years previously in the States. Today, 20% of the world’s invested assets have some kind of social, environmental or governance filter on them.
It’s a long way to go, but their ripple against the tide has made a difference. So can yours. So can mine. So let us be ripples against the tide.
CEO Big Issue Invest