Closing Plenary: A new perspective on policymaking through the lens of trust


Andrew Finkel, Journalist and co-founder of P24

Catherine Howarth, Chief Executive, ShareAction
Bassma Kodmani, Executive Director, Arab Reform Initiative
Andreas Krűger, Chairman of the Board, Belius Foundation
Renzo Martens, Dutch artist

The space certainly exists for synergies between policymakers, communities and foundations to develop better and more lasting social change. The question is, where and how does trust fit in to this picture? Moderated by Andrew Finkel, this closing session brought together four people who shared their views on how trust can be leveraged for lasting change.

Using art to reverse wealth streams

The session kicked off with a moving intervention by Renzo Martens, a Dutch artist who has set up the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) located in the Netherlands, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The core issue for Mr Martens is global inequality, “Our responses are way too weak,” he said.

Using video as his medium, he showed participants what life is like for workers on a palm oil plantation, formerly owned by Unilever, in Congo. Netting 19 dollars per month for working six days per week, the lives of these workers are more than harsh. Living in substandard housing, not having enough to eat (a portion of fish costs 2 dollars, a portion of cassava, 30 cents) while the owners, shareholders and western-based employees of the companies which own these plantations keep virtually all of the profits – not just from the final sale of goods, but from all of the related wealth-generating activities along the production chain.

The IHA takes the approach that empowering plantation workers to engage artistically with their work is a way to reverse this one-way flow of capital – intellectual, financial, emotional – from south to north. As a recent example, plantation workers made self-portraits in clay, which were then shipped to chocolatiers in Europe, who then created chocolate sculptures with the moulds. The sculptures were exhibited in galleries in London and Amsterdam, and 2000 dollars’ worth of these chocolates were sold on opening night. The money went back to the workers on the plantation, who watched a video made by Mr Martens of the opening night.

The IHA intends to do much more of just this sort of value adding at the beginning of the product chain – i.e. where the raw materials are grown or extracted – so that the opportunity for generating wealth using these raw materials can be more evenly spread, from PR to production of value added goods.

Approaching corporations with trust to effect change

Catherine Howarth’s organisation, ShareAction, leverages the power of shareholders to inspire change in how companies operate, but with an approach based on trust. So far 29 of the FTSE 100 companies have signed up to ShareAction’s Living Wage campaign. After receiving politely persuasive letters from shareholders through this campaign, these companies have agreed to change their practices to ensure that all their employees earn a living wage.
Several directors of these companies had said the gentle tone of the campaign and the letters to them really helped them to sign up. Most of the shareholders writing to these directors were foundations, which just goes to show how much leverage philanthropy has in this. “These companies appreciate these long-term prestigious shareholders, it makes a difference,” she said. Foundations should try “to nudge companies to align their activities with the type of world we as foundations want to create.”
Regarding the refugee situation, ShareAction is calling on shareholders to ask companies to be totally engaged on this issue. “This is an amazing opportunity to nudge the corporate sector on this. Sometimes they just need permission from their shareholders.”
Another avenue for Ms Howarth’s engagement in responsible investment is through her recent appointment as a trustee of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian newspaper in the UK. The Trust has an endowment of almost 1 billion dollars, yet until recently it had not made the link between how it invests this money and its goals as a charitable trust. The Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground campaign, which challenges major investors to reconsider their investment in fossil fuels, was a key driver in the Scott Trust’s decision to divest its endowment investments from fossil fuels.
She quoted a former editor of the newspaper on his definition of what trust entails: honesty, courage, fairness, and a sense of duty to community. Ms Howarth said that this was “a good list of values for foundations”.

Communities at the centre of rebuilding trust

Bassma Kodmani gave a moving talk on the situation in Syria and outlined how the trust that has been battered by the government is being rebuilt by communities. She asked, “How do you restore trust in a society where the government aims to destroy trust? The survival of the government depends on distrust, pitting communities against each other.”

Despite the war and violence, a big success story is that Syrian society has been able to organise life at the community and local level. The problem is that this is not happening across communities. To nurture these cross-community relationships, arts and culture projects are being developed to inspire communities to work hand-in-hand in initiatives revolving around food, culture and heritage. As an example, Christians, Sunnis, and Armenians are using culture to come together around the common goal of rebuilding their city Aleppo.

When it comes to refugees here in Europe, Dr Kodmani said that, “Building trust for them in a new environment is essential. They don’t believe when told that they will be helped.”

She noted that some big corporations are stepping up to provide services to refugees, and more of this is needed. She proposed that philanthropy develop a prize to highlight the best practices of corporations in this area.

Dr Kodmani closed by saying that wealthy and influential European players – philanthropy, banks, and business – can show their humanity and “pave the way for politicians to be more courageous on these issues.”

Trusting ourselves rather than governments to take action

“Politicians don’t have the solutions, we have to propose something,” said Andreas Krüger who outlined how his organisation has helped the city of Berlin to take a pragmatic approach to finding housing for refugees in his city, the numbers of which are expected to reach 100,000 shortly.
He was asked by the city to make a list of the empty building space throughout the city that could be used to house the refugees. He then set about knocking on doors of companies and convincing them to let the space be used, rather than sit empty and be held as an asset. “Land management in cities is about using it rather than holding it to make money,” he said.

The spaces will be renovated and used for several categories of people in need including refugees and those in poverty. The spaces will be far more than housing units – they will be workshops for innovative collaboration, education and arts programmes.

Inspiration to take forward

The Flemish theatre troupe, HetGevolg, returned to close the session and the day of debate with a moving interpretation of trust and love, bringing an inspirational end to a day dedicated to exploring how we can improve trustworthiness and the capability of institutions and communities to be more resilient and better prepared in adapting to a rapidly changing Europe.