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The power of collective learning for transforming the global financial architecture

We’ve embarked on a collective journey with four other organizations with complementary objectives, but different strategies, geographic perspectives, and expertise. Together, we’re seeing that creating spaces for sharing knowledge is vital to strengthen the fight to center human rights in the global economy. 

By Rebecca Berger, CESR’s Development and Learning Manager

There is growing agreement about the need to change the global financial architecture, in order words the institutional arrangements that facilitate flows of resources around the world. Just last week, the United Nations Secretary General issued a policy brief on the topic. But achieving this change means shifting the deep rooted power structures that uphold the neoliberal status quo. This is no easy task. To take on this challenge, CESR has joined forces with the Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales (CDES) in Ecuador, the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) in South Africa, International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP) in Malaysia, and L’Observatoire Tunisien de l’Economie (OTE) in Tunisia. 

What makes this project so unique is not just the collaboration between organizations, who come from four regions across the world and bring in perspectives from the human rights, economic justice, feminist, and climate justice movements, but also the emphasis on learning. The focus on learning makes the collective different from typical networks or coalitions. By creating spaces for frank reflection and creative action planning among the five organizations, and across our constituencies, we aim to come together in agile ways that forge deeper and more meaningful opportunities for learning and strategizing, that can strengthen the ongoing work each organization is pursuing  in their own work with partners and allies. 

Last November, halfway through this two-year project, the collective came together in Johannesburg to reflect on the goals of the project and share strategies and learnings from our individual and collective work. During the three-day gathering, we used the collective impact framework to build a shared analysis of the problem with the status quo and a common agenda for changing it. Using a range of methodologies, we fleshed out key components of the global financial architecture  and shared experiences in successes and challenges in efforts to change it. The different methodologies used helped spark creative thinking and were valued as useful tools for the participants to then share with others at their organization.

So, what did we learn? Three key themes emerged.

1. The invisible power of the private sector is shaping the Global Financial System

We undertook an actor mapping exercise to better understand the roles, relationships, and opportunities for influencing actors sustaining the status quo. Focusing on economic policymaking in the Global South, we mapped out the various actors involved in this process. This helped reveal the visible and invisible power of the private sector. By incorporating the lens of the “Wall Street Consensus”, the group’s conversation exposed how complex, multifaceted, and opaque the global financial system is. Along with multilateral development banks like the World Bank, large institutional investors and multinational corporations are playing a rapidly growing role in shaping economic governance at the national, regional and international level—with the state’s influence contracting. This dynamic makes it difficult for those on the outside of the map (with less power and influence) to work their way in.

How do these insights help us think about the collective’s work? Given human rights focus on engaging states, how do we recalibrate our strategies to target private actors? One role we see the collective playing is providing insights into the workings of the system as a whole and the ideologies that underpin it, as well as proposals for progressive alternatives. But a key strategic question is where to focus our energies, while not losing sight of the bigger picture.

2. Current crises are opportunities to disrupt the status quo and shift power towards progressive and rights-aligned policies

We used Three Horizons to think about transformation. The premise of the tool is that there are always three qualities of the future that are visible in the present, which offer insights into possible scenarios. Horizon One, “Business as Usual”, is not fit for purpose and will decline over time. Horizon Three, the “Emerging Future”, will replace it. Horizon Two are “Disruptive Innovations” that create a dynamic space of change. The key question is whether these disruptions get captured by business as usual to prolong its life or harnessed to bring through the future we want.  

Interestingly, questions related to the Emerging Future was the Horizon the group found the most provocative and challenging to answer. There was agreement that we want a global financial system that values human rights, equality, solidarity, and democracy. But, beyond principles and overall purpose, a lot of questions arose, which we’ll continue to  explore as we develop a conceptual framework for a global financial architecture that centers human rights.

Two disruptions highlighted were the climate crisis and the debt crisis, both of which are being leveraged by social movements who are challenging the status quo and proposing alternatives. We flushed out ideas for how our collective could harness these disruptions, drawing on our strengths as a multi-disciplinary group working across the globe. These include: 

  • Looking back to the roots of disruptions by civil society and amplifying those.

  • Connecting groups who already have common agendas, using our global positioning to create cross-regional solidarity and learning. 

  • Foregrounding the role of reproductive labor and the sexual division of labor in sustaining the status quo. 

  • Amplifying the messages of community-based groups, such as Indigenous peoples, in national policy debates, and bringing these national voices into international forums.

3. Our collective has a unique role to play in shifting forces that enable or constrain the disruptions of the status quo

After identifying actors on the map that members of the collective are targeting and engaging, we shared our experiences in challenging the power of those at the center of the map and building the power of those on the edge of it. Drawing on the emerging themes, we did a Force Field analysis to visualize the factors enabling and restricting our ability to build power. We prioritized three forces for the collective and discussed the role human rights can play in how we shift each:

  • Challenging technocracy: By “translating” the different ways groups are talking about similar ideas and make technocratic processes and institutions, which the collective is directly involved in, more accessible to different audiences working for progressive change.

  • Building alliances: By building trust, which takes time and needs investment. Strong analysis and clear alternatives are important for mobilizing across diverse groups. We can leverage our different areas of expertise to complement each other’s work in this regard. Using rights is a rallying point for different groups.

  • Shifting political forces: By maintaining the momentum of progressive wins while also challenging the rise of conservatism. We can do this by finding politically receptive settings to promote our messages; using international spaces to amplify national messages; and building cross-regional solidarity. Leveraging rights gives us a framework for formulating and amplifying demands for accountability from both states and the private sector.

The insights that emerged during the workshop further reinforced that in order to transform the global financial architecture, groups need to find ways to work together creatively and in order to break down silos. To that end, the five organizations in our collective will continue to jointly strategize, share learnings, and connect our larger networks in order to build strong counter power in pursuit of the rights-based and equitable economy we seek.