The great absentee

Publish date 27-01-2023

by Mario Deaglio

The world is going badly due to the joint effect of various types of crises, from the environmental to the economic-social one, from wars to Covid. We are facing a new type of inflation, caused by the weakening of the "global value chains" which, in a few decades, have transformed the world into a single large market; and behind inflation peeks out the threat of a productive stagnation-recession with the prospect of a sharp increase in poverty in every part of the planet. Governments and central banks, international organizations and specialists are scrambling to try to develop new economic cures to get out of this bad situation but they don't have, for now, any winning recipe. The current "economic disease" is like an epidemic caused by a little known virus and against which, for now, there is no vaccine; only old medicines, starting with interest rate hikes, which, in order to be effective - and with the current economic situation they are only moderately effective - must first push the world towards a relatively long period of economic suffering, and beyond.

From this framework of tools to get out of the crisis (particularly pronounced in Italy, the advanced country which has grown the least in the last 20-25 years), the third sector is the great absentee; not because voluntary associations do not have opportunities to work on a non-profit basis in an economy that pursues profit, on the contrary. The PNRR, just to give an example, opens horizons of activity also to the third sector. The third sector, however, is considered an accessory element and we start from the undeclared premise that only private companies, which tend towards profit and public companies, to which various production and employment objectives can be assigned from time to time, can really get the economy going again.

This is a formally correct vision, but which in reality proves to be limited as it does not take into account important structural elements of our society and our economy.
They are characterized by a set of problems – some long-term, others that arise suddenly – that the market alone cannot solve. And the public administration succeeds only in part and at a very high collective cost.
These problems concern, in particular, poverty: the "old" ones, of course, on which something is done but with effort and difficulty and the "new" ones, linked to the transformations of ways of working and which are leading to a more weakness of the past in the distribution of added value.

A world entirely absorbed in the analysis of costs, in the "sharing of the cake", seems to have largely lost the concept of gratuity which is also the basis of many human and civil progress, as the Gospel abundantly recounts. Yet gratuity appears like a flower in the desert when one least expects it, as seen with the very large participation in aid initiatives for Ukrainian refugees and with multiple human solidarity initiatives, which rarely receive the attention of the news. such as support for young people who, even when they have a regular job, receive an income that makes them live poorly and does not allow them to start a family.

Fortunately, alongside the "hidden needs" there are also "hidden availabilities". It is not true that man is individualistic and materialistic to the point of expressing all his desires in monetary terms and therefore seeking to maximize his income and capital, as claimed (or rather, claimed) by a certain "hyperliberalism" ”. There is a large amount of human (and even monetary) energies ready to make themselves available for objectives that do not involve any personal gain (or, to achieve which personal gain is not the main element). There are many things that many people do directly to help others and also a certain amount of savings, large and small, ready to participate in social projects, such as those that go by the name of crowdfunding, "bottom-up microfinancing" without expecting an advantage, at least in the short term.

The main elements of the third sector activity appear to be divided into two broad categories.
The first is that of personal commitment: the consolation offered to those who have suffered a misfortune, assistance to the sick who have no one, teaching disadvantaged children. Like everything that is free, these activities are not among those monitored by economists.
However, they are essential to explain why some societies, some countries manage to hold on in difficult situations while others fall into disorder and risk falling apart.

The second category is that of the organization of economic activities, usually apparently secondary, capable of efficiently occupying certain production spaces; in this sense we have a very large variety of organizations, mainly structured in cooperative societies or similar, capable of replacing or integrating activities of a public nature which, otherwise, would be too cumbersome or expensive to operate and which the public sector outsources, paying them regularly. They are many: from garbage collection to the management of libraries and public sports facilities that would otherwise remain closed, to the preparation of school meals and so on. The objective is generally twofold: on the one hand to resolve deficiencies, especially of local authorities - and therefore bring a benefit to society - and on the other to create jobs for employees and members of cooperative companies, often in difficult personal situations.

This is the "third sector" for which a policy is currently lacking.
It appears sporadically in the various economic decrees and in administrative instruments but perhaps it could be treated as one of the essential elements for the functioning of society. In other words, we have a reserve of submerged energies that can make the difference between the increase, which is observed today, of inequalities and social tensions and the creation of a society capable of recovering various levels of humanity that we have lost in the spasmodic search to possess more and more “things”.

Mario Deaglio
NP November 2022

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