Paul Gateshill reports on an international online three-day conference for young economists and entrepreneurs.

[New City Magazine – January 2021]

Last year I was at the Focolare conference centre in Belgium. Our meeting was a small group of around 25 participants. At meal times we were joined by another group consisting of around 50 young people who were interested in developing new models of the economy. I was very impressed that so many 20-30-year olds were focusing on this issue. They were meeting for the Economy of Communion which Chiara Lubich had launched in Brazil in 1991, where businesses are encouraged to consider ethical issues as well as growth in profits. Later I discovered that these young economists and entrepreneurs were preparing for a major conference in Assisi called the Economy of Francesco, in March 2020. I was also due to attend this conference. (See page 20)

A virtual conference

The emergence of the pandemic caused the conference to be postponed until November 2020. It was hoped that Covid-19 would be history by then. However, that dream did not become reality and the Economy of Francesco went ahead online.

Background

The conference was called by Pope Francis who, as we know adopted the namesake of St Francis as a witness to his passion for the environment and for releasing the poor from the chains of poverty. He asked Luigino Bruni, the Focolare’s main expert on the Economy of Communion, to form an equipe to make the conference happen.

The event was to take place in Assisi so that the participants could walk in the footsteps of St Francis. It was to be a conference on economics, but with a profound spiritual root – hence the name, the Economy of Francesco.

Statistics

The online conference took place over three afternoons from 19-21st November 2020. About 2,000 young economists, entrepreneurs and changemakers registered for the event, representing 120 countries from all over the world. In addition, around 220,000 others were able to drop in and out of the event through live streaming. I asked Luigino Bruni, one of the key players, for his thoughts about how the event had gone.

Luigino Bruni:

The young participants worked together for a year in the preparatory stages of the conference. Each of them was part of one of the 12 villages (working groups), which addressed specific issues and challenged conventional ways of thinking and working, in order to make the economy of today and tomorrow fair, sustainable and inclusive. Every thematic village explored a topic, namely a challenge, to generate new ideas and proposals. Here are a few of the topics: Finance and Humanity; Work and Care; Business and Peace: Management and Gift; Agriculture and Justice and so on…

What we witnessed in Assisi made us understand that without a movement of young people, the world cannot change. They developed proposals, initiatives, that something new can be done in the world. During the event, young people clearly stated that environmental sustainability is just one aspect of the change we are seeking. There is also social sustainability, spiritual sustainability… As Pope Francis in the Encyclical letter Laudato Sì and St Francis in the ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ taught us, the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are not separate issues. Hence, the Economy of Francesco promotes an integral ecology, one that respects nature and loves the poor [see New City Dec 2020, p.4-6].

From this conference, we can draw a great message of hope: a proactive generation of young people has emerged, inspired by St Francis and Pope Francis. This was totally unexpected. We were astounded by the quantity and quality of these young participants. The actions they put forward on the last day of the event are extremely practical. The stereotype that young people are just wishful thinkers is wrong. They have told us about hundreds of projects already in progress. These projects are not only an announcement about the future, but an announcement about our present.

The pandemic, along with the suffering it brings, is also offering us valuable lessons. It made us see more clearly that the economy dominating the world so far is inadequate. If the Economy of Francesco was already necessary back in 2019, today it is even more so: it is essential in a world of increasing poverty and growing inequalities. And precisely at this dreadful time, we have come to understand – and perhaps the world is also realising it – that today is a new dawn for young people. The economy needs to change and it needs to do so soon. The young people told us this through their experiences of study and work. From the very beginning, we wanted this event to be a place of action and not just talk. In recent months, we have seen the beauty of these young thriving talents, their desire for life, to get involved, to dare and ‘get their hands dirty to repair the house’ we live in.

On the final day of the conference, participants sent out the following message to the world:

We young economists, entrepreneurs and change makers of the world, summoned to Assisi by Pope Francis, in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, want to send a message to economists, entrepreneurs, political decision makers, workers and citizens of the world…

We are convinced that a better world cannot be built without a better economy and that the economy is so important for the lives of peoples and the poor that we all need to be concerned with it. For this reason, in the name of the young people and the poor of the earth, we ask that:

  1. The great world powers and the great economic and financial institutions slow down their pace to let the Earth breathe. COVID has made us all slow down, without having chosen to do so. When COVID is over, we must choose to slow down the unbridled race that is suffocating the earth and the weakest people who live on it.
  2. A worldwide sharing of the most advanced technologies be activated so that sustainable production can also be achieved in low-income countries; and that energy poverty – a source of economic, social and cultural disparity – be overcome to achieve climate justice.
  3. The subject of stewardship of common goods (especially global ones such as the atmosphere, forests, oceans…) be placed at the centre of the agendas of governments and teaching in schools, universities and business schools throughout the world.
  4. Economic ideologies should never again be used to offend and reject the poor, the sick, minorities and disadvantaged people of all kinds, because the first response to their poverty should be to respect and esteem each person: poverty is not a curse, it is only misfortune, and it is certainly not the responsibility of those who are poor.
  5. The right to decent work for all, family rights and all human rights be respected in the life of each company, for every worker, and guaranteed by the social policies of each country and recognized worldwide by an agreed charter that discourages business choices based solely on profit and founded on the exploitation of minors and the most disadvantaged.
  6. Tax havens around the world be abolished immediately, because money deposited in a tax haven is money stolen from our present and our future and that a new tax pact be the first response to the post-COVID world.
  7. New financial institutions be established and the existing ones (the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund) be reformed in a democratic and inclusive sense to help the world recover from poverty and imbalances produced by the pandemic; sustainable and ethical finance should be rewarded and encouraged, and highly speculative and predatory finance discouraged by appropriate taxation.
  8. Companies and banks, especially large and globalized ones, introduce an independent ethics committee in their governance with a veto on the environment, justice and the impact on the poorest.
  9. National and international institutions provide prizes to support innovative entrepreneurs in the context of environmental, social, spiritual and, not least, managerial sustainability because only by rethinking the management of people within companies will global sustainability of the economy be possible.
  10. States, large companies and international institutions work to provide quality education for every girl and boy in the world, because human capital is the first capital of all humanism.
  11. Economic organizations and civil institutions not rest until female workers have the same opportunities as male workers because, without an adequate presence of female talent, businesses and workplaces are not fully and authentically human and happy places.
  12. Finally, we ask for everyone’s commitment so that the time prophesied by Isaiah may draw near: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (Is. 2: 4). We young people can no longer tolerate resources being taken away from schools, health care, our present and our future to build weapons and fuel the wars needed to sell them. We would like to tell our children that the world at war is finished forever.

All this – which we already experience in our work and in our lifestyles – we ask, knowing that it is very difficult and that perhaps many consider it utopian. Instead, we believe it is prophetic and therefore that we can ask, ask and ask again, because what seems impossible today will seem less so tomorrow thanks to our commitment and our insistence.

Pope Francis closed the conference with an inspiring talk. Readers can find this at the official website:
www.francescoeconomy.org

The whole conference is available on YouTube (see Economy of Francesco).

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