2013: year 5 of the financial crisis which is – no surprise – still top of the agenda in Brussels. “We need to boost economy,” “break the vicious cycle,” “help the most deprived.” Not one day passes without somebody proposing or initiating measures to get out of the trough. But the only measure which has effectively taken is austerity. Its consequences are headlines in the daily news:
- Greece has become the first developed nation to be cut to emerging-market status by MSCI as of mid-June 2013.
- The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates the potential for social unrest in European Union countries as higher than anywhere else in the world.
- Austerity leads to an increase in suicide rates and serious cuts in health care.
As people don’t seem to be getting a lot of support from their governments which are responsible for cuts in social welfare and fail to create jobs in the current situation, the only way out seems to lie in self-help. Even the European Commission is jumping on the bandwagon and promoting social innovation as THE new business model to address unmet social needs. Unfortunately, what European leaders want to make sound like support is more a confession of failure.
Poverty on the rise in the EU
Some committed politicians from the European Parliament recently wrote a report aimed at creating a fund for the most deprived citizens within the European Union. At stake, the EU target of reducing the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 20 million by 2020. Their report states that the continued fallout from the economic and financial crisis is exacerbating poverty and social exclusion across member states as there are not enough measures taken on a national level. Headline figures from the report include:
- Almost 120 million Europeans, a rise of 6 million in two years and now nearly one quarter of the total population, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2011.
- Over 40 million people suffer from severe material deprivation. One in ten people under 60 years of age lives in a household with low work intensity. Almost six million children only have one well-fitting pair of shoes.
- 43 million Europeans are unable to afford a meal with meat, chicken, fish or vegetarian equivalent every second day (as WHO proposes as a basic need).Children are particularly sensitive to food poverty and poor eating patterns can adversely affect brain development and capacity to learn as well as their future health.
- One estimate puts the number of homeless people across the Union at 4.1 million in 2009/10. The crisis is seen to be a factor in the increase in homelessness, with families with children, young adults (up 20% in Denmark and 15% in the Netherlands) and people with a migrant background increasingly featuring among the homeless.
Limited access to health care
Access to medical care is a fundamental right in the European Union – and often mentioned among the key achievements of social improvements on the continent. Unfortunately, it seems less important in times of austerity. Economic pressures are making it harder for an increased number of people to afford medicine or medical treatment, while mental sicknesses are also on the rise.
“Our politicians need to take into account the serious and in some cases profound, health consequences of economic choices. But so far, Europe’s leaders have been in denial of the evidence that austerity is costing lives,” say political economist David Stuckler and the physician-epidemiologist Sanjay Basu, authors of The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills.
They continue to point out, for example, that in Greece as one of the countries hardest hit by the crisis, HIV infection has risen by over 200% since 2011 as prevention budgets have been cut. Intravenous drug use has grown amidst 50% youth unemployment while Greece also experienced its first malaria outbreak in decades after budget cuts to mosquito-spraying.
In addition, suicide rates are rising across Europe: A recent study demonstrated that an increase of 1% in unemployment is accompanied by an increase in suicides of 0.79%. When the unemployment rate rises by more than 3%, the suicide rate goes up by 4.45%, said Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at an expert conference a couple of months ago.
What can we do?
Even though we might not be suffering serious harm ourselves as a result of the crisis, do we want to live in societies that appear to be crumbling? Do we have trust in politics to prevent us from worse? Do we think NGOs, some social funding (EU or national level) or time will get us out of the downward loop? Or should we better look for other solutions?
Fortunately, there are some good examples of solutions which can address unemployment, poverty and healthcare issues. Interestingly, many are based on the idea of self-help or re-enforcing entrepreneurial spirit, which is apparently what is needs in these times. The following three projects recently got awarded the EU Social Innovation Prize (to be just a little cynical, at least a small contribution of politics).
Community Catalysts: This UK project works through local support coordinators across the UK. They help people to use their talents and imagination to set up sustainable, small-scale social care and health services (micro-enterprises). These micro-enterprises are offered by a wide range of people, including disabled and older people and family carers. They currently work in 28 local authority areas in England and with health trusts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where they have proved to be an accessible route into entrepreneurship for local people and an important source of local income and services.
Economy App: This barter idea from Germany is made to improve access to the job market for the economically deprived by making their skills more widely visible: This can be anything from home-made cheese to carpooling to computer support or any other product or service that can reasonably be provided in a home or small business setting. Economy App collects information from users on what they could offer in a local economy and what their economic needs are. The software keeps a record of the value of products and services provided and accepted for every person in this economic network, so no money ever needs to change hands.
MITWIN.NET: Not surprising this idea comes from Spain which has one of the highest youth unemployment rate. MITWIN:NET wants to get more young people into work by job sharing among young and older employees. It proposes an intergenerational professional network conceived to facilitate contact between people in order to share a job post and knowledge. The platform proposes that older workers share a job with younger people, allowing those approaching retirement to share knowledge with those being incorporated into the job market, easing both entry and exit from the job market and addressing the youth unemployment challenge.
Let’s hope, that such grass-root ideas grow and build the ground for further innovation and finally get people into jobs again and keep them healthy. We all know: Health is wealth and wealth is health.
Report on the proposal for the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived
Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on suicide rates
EU Social Innovation Competition