Pandemic provides opportunity to make meaningful investments in social infrastructure

When the pandemic began, the federal government turned to community organizations to channel $350 million in emergency funding to areas of need. This should not only be the case in emergencies, but also in shaping and implementing the larger transitions ahead.

Governments, businesses and community sector need collaborative innovation focused on systemic change

As we recover from the pandemic, it is imperative to broaden the scope of infrastructure funding beyond the physical to catalyze socio-economic transition at the regional, community and household levels, Diane Roussin, Andrew Chunilall and Julie Gelfand write. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Diane Roussin, project director for the Winnipeg Boldness Project, Andrew Chunilall, CEO of Community Foundations of Canada, and Julie Gelfand, former commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

When the pandemic began a year ago, the federal government turned to community sector organizations — the Red Cross, community foundations and United Ways — to channel $350 million in emergency funding to areas of need across Canada.

With this support, food banks, women's shelters and other community organizations were able to quickly meet increased and changing demands for their services.

With lean operations and extensive community connections, the charities, non-profits, social enterprises and foundations that comprise Canada's community sector are governments' natural partners.

This should not only be the case in emergencies, but also in shaping and implementing the larger transitions ahead in the post-pandemic period.

Public policy and finance are understandably focused on resilient recovery and rebuilding, with unprecedented investments in physical infrastructure to create green jobs that address the imbalance between humanity and the natural environment.

COVID-19 reveals injustices, vulnerabilities

To fulfill the potential of this great transition, our social infrastructure needs attention too.

Social infrastructure includes policies, practices and relationships that enable us to create a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable society, from the grassroots to the global, and spanning health care, education, culture and our democratic processes.

COVID-19 has revealed systemic injustices and vulnerabilities, including institutionalized racism, substandard seniors' housing, lack of paid sick leave and inadequate child care. To this list we can add Indigenous reconciliation, the income and wealth gap and life- and budget-sapping increases in chronic disease.

In the values-based economy that Mark Carney, Mariana Mazzucato and others are calling for, solving these challenges defines pathways to inclusive economic well-being.

It is imperative to broaden the scope of infrastructure funding beyond the physical to catalyze socio-economic transition at the regional, community and household levels.

The 2018 Inclusive Innovation report from the federal steering group on social innovation and social finance provided a modernization agenda for the social sector that could function as a blueprint as we transition through a post-COVID world. It calls for a federal social finance fund, announced in the fall 2018 budget update but not yet implemented, to invest in social enterprises — focused on such things as the construction of affordable homes, Indigenous entrepreneurship and micro-credit for immigrants.

The report calls for investment in improved data management capacity in community organizations for designing and measuring interventions in social systems and to support development of a solutions marketplace, where public and private investment can complement grants and donations by financing improved outcomes on issues ranging from homelessness to youth employment.

'What works' centres

In addition to capital and data, we need evidence. The report calls for the creation of "what works" centres, similar to those in the U.K., where policy-makers, program designers and the public can access plain language summaries of current research on issues such as chronic disease prevention, early child development and mental health.

Government oversight needs to evolve from the current regime, where the Canada Revenue Agency micro-monitors activities around charitable donations, to one that recognizes that the sector is increasingly networked, linking grassroots civic engagement to national priorities, in collaboration with all levels of government, the private sector and academia to effect systemic change.

We are all stronger if we work together. In this time of societal transition, governments, businesses and the community sector alike need tools for collaborative innovation focused on systemic change.

The most important recommendation in the report — and something we need urgently — is a permanent social innovation council with government, and eventually the private sector too, so that Canadians know the organizations they support with their donations and their tax dollars are being heard on matters critical to social and economic well-being while we transition to a zero-carbon economy.

In light of the current crisis, we suggest that this be framed as a transition innovation council, involving all sectors in supporting community transitions in line with Canada's commitment to UN sustainable development goals. It should be similar to and complement the recently announced net-zero advisory body reporting to the minister of the environment and climate change.

Just as Canada's health-care system integrates contributions by the public, private and community sectors, so too must efforts to recover and build a more inclusive and sustainable society.

As governments and the private sector plan multibillion-dollar investments in physical infrastructure, it's important to involve the community sector in building better social infrastructure too.


Diane Roussin is project director for the Winnipeg Boldness Project. Andrew Chunilall is CEO of Community Foundations of Canada. Julie Gelfand is former commissioner of the environment and sustainable development.


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