Social innovation is one way out of the inequality cycle

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund warned of the perils of inequality in her recent ‘Lifting the Small Boats’ speech. She issued a sobering reminder that inequality is bad for growth, leading to under-investment in education, health and infrastructure, all of which disproportionately affect the poorest in society. With a nod to John F Kennedy’s ‘rising tides’ metaphor she described how many people are struggling to stay afloat: “In too many countries, economic growth has failed to lift these small boats, while the gorgeous yachts have been riding the waves and enjoying the wind in their sails.”

This rings true for Northern Ireland where approaches to tackling inequality are having limited impact. Women are grossly under-represented in positions of power, rates of poverty are high and, as earnings fall, levels of personal debt are increasing. This level of deprivation and discrimination tears at the fabric of our society and hinders potential and growth.

Despite high levels of inequality, there is also a deep resilience and passion for creativity and ingenuity in Northern Ireland. The Young Foundation has been exploring ways of harnessing these assets and strengths. Our new movement, Amplify NI, is bringing people together around shared values and aspirations in order to build new narratives of what is possible in Northern Ireland. We have identified 24 socially innovative projects and we are providing them with support to develop their ideas. The stories and narratives that have emerged from our research help to paint a new picture of what might be possible in Northern Ireland and the innovations we are supporting are the vehicle for making that change happen in practice.

Larry Elliott, writing in the Guardian this week describes how the vicious circle that perpetuates inequality will have to be broken. In Northern Ireland current policy approaches are struggling to break that cycle. Yes, bold reform is badly needed, but in reality interventions are slow in generating the social transformation that’s so desperately needed in many of our towns, cities and regions. One of our research participants in Northern Ireland also used Kennedy’s analogy, but took it one step further, saying: “They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but so many round here don’t even have a boat.” It’s time for that to change and social innovation led by local people in their communities is a crucial way to break the inequality cycle.

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