The following article is based on an edited transcript of a presentation by STWR’s Rajesh Makwana for an event held at the House of Commons in Westminster, London, on the emergence of the sharing economy and the policy challenges it presents.
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Good evening, everyone. It’s great to be here in Portcullis House to talk about the sharing economy. There has been very little public debate about the importance of sharing, particularly in relation to public policy, so I am very grateful to The People Who Share and GlobalNet21 for spearheading this dialogue and inviting STWR to contribute.
As Caroline Lucas just highlighted, the emerging sharing economy is an essential ingredient in shaping our sustainable future, and it is therefore crucial that we introduce policies that support it. But if we truly believe that sharing has a role to play in creating a fairer and more sustainable future, then we also need to look more broadly at how the principle of sharing applies to other aspects of policymaking. In a globalised economy, that means we also need to think about sharing on an international scale. On that basis, I would just like to spend a few minutes broadening out this discussion to consider these more global aspects of the sharing economy.
As an organisation, STWR’s perspective on sharing is about as broad as it can be. Our primary focus is on how sharing can be applied as a solution to our global problems – in particular to issues of world poverty and inequality, conflict over scarce resources, climate change and other environmental issues. It doesn’t take much imagination to get a sense of how sharing can be part of the solution to these crises. In simple terms, sharing what we have more fairly can obviously reduce inequality. Sharing finite resources more sustainably is clearly good for the planet. And sharing rather going to war over resources can de-escalate conflict and significantly improve international peace and security.
In our most recent report, entitled ‘Financing the global sharing economy‘, we identified aspects of the sharing economy that people don’t normally label as sharing. For most people, the sharing economy relates primarily to forms of collaborative consumption, local food sharing schemes, online sharing applications, peer-to-peer initiatives, and so on. But we suggest that systems of sharing are far more fundamental to the way we organise societies. For example, perhaps the most important and complex forms of sharing in the modern world are systems of progressive taxation and public spending. Through these crucial forms of sharing, nations take collective responsibility for ensuring that basic human needs are secured for all citizens.
We also identify the ‘global sharing economy’ as a form of economic sharing that is still in its infancy. The global sharing economy refers to systems of sharing and redistribution that are international or global in nature. These can be facilitated directly by people, organisations and governments or by institutions like the United Nations. It refers to the many ways in which the international community can share resources for the common good of all people and the well being of planet Earth.
International aid, although in need of extensive reform, is obviously one of the key examples of the global sharing economy. Another is the work of the United Nations, the first truly global body funded and animated by the world’s nations. Hopefully one day, when systems of international trade and finance are genuinely fair and sustainable, these too could be classified as being part of the global sharing economy, even if this is far from the current reality.
Undermining systems of sharing
We argue that it is very important to consider all these different economic systems in terms of sharing – from taxation to international aid, trade or debt – as it helps us to understand these complex processes in more down-to-earth and human terms. This is particularly important at a time when the thrust of economic policy across the world is undermining systems of sharing and impacting on the wellbeing of ever-growing numbers of people.
As we know, governments across the world are implementing austerity measures and cutting back on welfare and public services, which is increasing inequality and deprivation. We are also cutting back on our international aid commitments. And developing countries are still struggling under the burden of unjust debt and the impact of Structural Adjustment Programs from the 1980s and 90s – programs that very closely resemble the austerity measures familiar to us now in Europe.
In short, largely because of our failure to strengthen and scale up the sharing economy, humanity now faces what can only be described as a global emergency. Ninety five percent of people in the developing world live on less than $10 a day. Some 400,000 people already lose their lives each year as a result of climate change. And some 40,000 people die needlessly every single day from a lack of access to basic resources such as food, water and health care – that’s 15 million preventable deaths every year.
This really is a very stark illustration of our failure to share. Never before has the need to support all forms of sharing been so urgent.
Of course, addressing the root causes of poverty, climate change and austerity will require a raft of reforms on a scale that has never before been attempted. And as I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the principle of sharing could have an important role to play in shaping these reforms. But transformative change takes time, and humanity simply cannot wait for all these changes to happen. We already have the structures and institutions in place to prevent this emergency – including numerous humanitarian agencies, UN organisations, NGOs and even global funds to help developing countries tackle climate change.
Our research demonstrates how governments could readily mobilise more than enough money to prevent poverty-related deaths, mitigate the human impacts of climate change and reverse policies of economic austerity. We put forward 10 concrete policy recommendations that, together, could mobilise $2.8 trillion to help strengthen and scale up the global sharing economy. They include, for example, taxing financial speculation, preventing tax avoidance, redirecting perverse subsidies paid to agribusinesses and fossil fuel corporations, and many others.
Campaigning for sharing and justice
Not only are each of these policies extremely beneficial in their own right, between them they also have the support of millions of campaigners and engaged citizens across the world. Although redistribution on this scale would not address the root causes of these crises, even mainstream economists would agree that it would amount to a massive – and much needed – economic stimulus.
Despite the many advantages of implementing these measures, policies that support and scale up the sharing economy are still being undermined. There are, of course, many vested interests that favour privatisation and free markets over sharing and redistribution. At the same time, many policymakers remain ideologically opposed to applying the principle of sharing to public policy.
From STWR’s perspective, it is clear that the only way to overcome these barriers to progress is by galvanising public opinion to support sharing in all its forms and at every level of society – from the local to the global. And there are indications that things are beginning to shift in the right direction. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, people across the world have recognised that they have a powerful voice and are beginning to use it. Yes, they demand freedom, but they also demand sharing: social and economic justice.
Just last week, largely thanks to the efforts of Benita and her team, the world celebrated Global Sharing Day with people across the world honouring sharing in all its forms. A global voice in support of sharing is clearly beginning to grow. As part of that process, I would urge everyone who champions the sharing economy to see themselves as part of a much larger movement for transforming society.
As most people in the global movement for social and economic justice would affirm, the most compelling incentives for supporting the sharing economy are humanitarian and environmental, not just financial. If we put sharing at the forefront of policymaking, it may not be long before businesses, communities and entire nations are all empowered to share their resources and actively participate in the creation of a fair and sustainable world.