It’s nearly Christmas. Time to get cinema tickets for the seasonal showing of the classic yuletide movie, It’s A Wonderful Life.
My now grown up kids and I have been going to see this gloriously sentimental Frank Capra film for years at the start of the festive season. We all love it. We all cry. After the global financial meltdown in 2008, we’ve all had even more reason to feel inspired by it, and to want to live in the imaginary town of Bedford Falls where the story unfolds.
George Bailey (James Stewart), facing ruin, is driven to the brink of killing himself after years of giving up his dreams in order to carry on working for his community. Tragedy is averted through the intervention of George’s apprentice guardian angel, Clarence, and joy is once more restored through the love – and financial generosity - that George’s neighbours show him.
Amazingly enough, George runs what is known in the UK as a building society and in the US as a Savings and Loan firm or ‘thrift’. In 1946 that’s what passed for an American Everyman. He has looked after people’s savings and helped them buy decent homes. His sacrifice is rewarded in a glow of mutuality and Clarence graduates to full angel status with a tinkle of the Christmas bell as he's finally awarded his wings. Those were the days, when person A put their savings in the pot, person B got a loan, usually to buy a house, paying it back at a sustainable interest rate, and the community who owned the firm, run by honest, decent George Baileys who lived locally, thrived on a relatively simple model of mutual support. According to Frank Capra’s idealised view of small town life, the people of Bedford Falls really were ‘in it together’.
How things have changed. The UK dismantled most of its member-owned building society mutuals over a decade ago, turning them into shareholder-owned banks run by overpaid plutocrats. The US Federal Reserve and governments undermined their savings and loan sector with a series of policies on interest rates and deregulation that arguably led to the sub-prime mortgage horrors at the heart of the ongoing financial crisis and austerity. It would be hard now to find a set of people more loathed by the public than George Bailey financial services types, other than perhaps tabloid journalists and politicians.
I got to thinking about ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when listening to panellists at the women and finance session at the Trust Women conference, the two-day event convened by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and International Herald Tribune in London, December 4-5.
There was a good showing for mutuality and co-operative, member-owned, social and not-for-profit businesses on the panel – although none of those representatives were from mature, struggling Western economies, rather telling in its own way. Lamiya Morshed, Executive Director of the Yunus Centre, described the origins, workings and current tribulations of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Chetna Sinha, founder and chair of the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank in India, told delegates how women benefit as both customers and owners from the co-operative bank she set up.
So far so good. But the longer micro-finance initiatives like these exist, the more the big predators have them in their sights. The Bangladeshi government is famously trying to wrest control of the Grameen Bank from its community of 8.3 million member/owners (97% female) and other micro-finance enterprises have been bought up by commercial banks once they've reached a certain scale, so that the debts of the poor are being used to make profits for shareholders. Isn’t that how the sub-prime problems and everything that followed began?
Lamiya Morshed warned that the micro-credit sector needed to reorientate back towards its original mission of empowering small, women-owned enterprises through a renewed commitment to social micro-finance businesses that do not feature profit-making for commercial owners.
This cautionary note about a valuable but globally relatively small sector was welcome. The problem with the session was that no-one thought it necessary to spell out the bigger picture that provides the most significant context for a discussion about women and finance: that the experiment with free market finance and economics over the past few decades that has led to globalisation and near collapse has been fuelled by making working people exist on low wages supplemented by unaffordable credit. Nor that the solutions to capitalism’s crisis involve the poorest, who globally are women, paying the price while public money props up banks’ balance sheets and executive pay, and investment in real economies - where women work if they can – mostly stagnates or falls.
Info-graphic from the 'Third Billion' campaignWhat we heard instead was that women, after China and India, are the third largest ‘emerging economy’ – the workers and consumers of the future. A 2010 report from global management consultants Booz and Company, ‘The Third Billion’, has launched the notion that women will provide the wherewithal on both supply and demand sides of the equation to carry capitalism into its next incarnation.
Beth Brooke, Global Vice-Chair for Public Policy at Ernst and Young, another huge management consultancy, said ‘investment in women’ by corporate businesses was the way forward. But the investment seemed to be in ensuring that women play the part business wants of them.
Brooke advised women activists and elected politicians to stop talking about topics like trafficking and rights with private sector representatives. Those campaigning on behalf of women should use business language, language that CEOs can understand, she said. ‘Some of the largest ‘economies’ in the world are private sector companies,’ said Brooke. ‘The private sector can be a huge force for change. But business is motivated by its own self-interest.’ So the language business wants women’s NGOs to use is the language that will help it adapt so that it can better ‘utilize women as key drivers of economic growth’ as the Booz website puts it.
‘NGOs can see what the private sector can’t,’ said Brooke. ‘The ability to see needs on the ground and innovate is exciting and women have an important role to play.’ The old model of HQ people from big firms going into emerging markets and hoping to succeed locally is ‘done’, she said. ‘It doesn’t work.’ Business is trying to find new methods of deploying talent that will work in a more diverse world and lead to growth and profits, and it will co-opt women’s insights if it suits them – this is evidently to be another aspect of women’s role.
Michaela Bergman, Chief Counsellor for Social Issues at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, at least brought delegates’ attention to the topic of women’s employment – after all, few women are ever likely to be entrepreneurs and may have their own thoughts about being the workforce, growth drivers or change agents for multi-national companies. She reported that where the remuneration of what were previously ‘women’s’ jobs in post-Soviet states went up while services like childcare fell away, women disappeared and men took the jobs. ‘Shouldn’t we talk about plain old sexism?’ asked Panel chair Chrystia Freeland, Editor of Thomson Reuters Digital. ‘Women were only allowed to be in jobs when they were 'bad' jobs. When they were perceived as better jobs, women were out and men were in.’
Beth Brooke disagreed. In her view there seemed to be no conflict likely were women to claim their right to equality in capitalism’s bright ‘third billion’ future where growth is driven by women being both the workers and the consumers: ‘The concept that empowering one group involves disempowering another is a myth that is bust,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it possible that power without competition is a comfortable place to be?’ asked Freeland sweetly. ‘Yes,’ replied Brooke. ‘But if you make the pie bigger it’s better for both women and men.’
I’ll remember that when I next imagine living in Bedford Falls and hear the sound of bells tinkling – someone pulling the other one rather than angels getting their wings. In the real world it might be wise to keep talking the language of rights and equality – women’s interests after all are not the same as the self-interest of business.
Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50 covering the themes at the Trust Women conference