Europe needs a vaccine for inequality, not just COVID-19

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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A year from now we may well have a vaccine for COVID-19, but we certainly won’t have one for inequality or social injustice. In addition to its immediate health impact, the pandemic has shone an ugly light on the levels of inequality in Europe and around the world through a variety of lenses from demographic to financial to digital.

As always, these crises hit the disadvantaged and vulnerable parts of society the hardest, and as one of the stakeholders working to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, philanthropy is calling on EU policymakers to allow us to do more so that we can play our part in a more coordinated, holistic response.

Tackling inequalities and designing policies for more social Europe will be one of the key challenges in the years to come. In the field of education, for instance, we are confronted not only with the problem of digital divide but also with the consequences of rising social disparities.

School children from the lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have access to the internet, often lack reading opportunities and parental support. These children faced difficulties already before the crisis. Many students speak a different language at home than at school, which presents an additional challenge, particularly when it comes to remote learning.

In her recent State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that the EU is “a community of values”, and philanthropy is certainly part of that community.

Philanthropic values are European values. Von der Leyen’s focus on health, climate change and fairness harmonises with the European philanthropy agenda, and foundations have epitomised this during the crisis.

In the spring, Wellcome Trust not only joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MasterCard Impact Fund in launching a new initiative to speed the development of and access to therapies for COVID-19 (together they are committing up to $125 million in seed funding), they also turned over their headquarters to become respite centre for local NHS staff.

Aga Khan Foundation Portugal mobilised volunteers to translate key COVID-19 information for migrant communities in Lisbon. Mama Cash stood up for the most stigmatised people, including sex workers, LGBTQ people, and (un)documented migrants. These are just some of the myriad examples of philanthropic organisations going beyond just “giving money”.

As noted in the McKinsey report “Reimagining European philanthropy” (June 2020) philanthropic organisations can mobilise faster and more effectively than governments during crises such as COVID-19.

They are a key strategic partner because they are agile, locally-rooted and able to look at long term to solutions to extremely complex problems. As we await a vaccine, foundations continue to work tirelessly to level up unequal and unjust societies.

Many larger foundations are increasingly taking a cross-cutting approach, as they look into the interconnection of health/climate change/human rights in order to tackle today’s issues including COVID-19.

Crises such as these require a holistic and comprehensive approach and philanthropy is ready to bring its diverse set of abilities to work with the EU as an ally, partner, and bridge-builder.

To make the most of its capabilities, philanthropy requires a more fertile atmosphere, a more balanced ecosystem, which would allow it to make a stronger contribution to a more socially, environmentally and economically equal Europe.

That means recognising it, partnering with it, removing unnecessary administrative barriers and policies which are hampering it, and move forward – cross-border and cross-sector – so that we can tackle joint challenges together with courage, creativity and innovation.

Pandemics, climate change, social injustice and inequality don’t care about barriers or boundaries. Their depth and potency mean there is ample scope for all sectors to come together behind a common cause, one that requires a fuller partnership approach than ever before.

**We will be discussing this issue in more depth at the online event “Single Market for Public Good – How can we unleash private resources for European solidarity?” on 1 October to celebrate the European Day of Foundations and Donors.

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