Economists to study role of voluntary work in UK’s virus recovery

A group of economists led by a former head of the civil service and the Bank of England’s chief economist are launching a commission to examine how best to utilise civic society in Britain’s recovery from coronavirus.

Gus O’Donnell and Andy Haldane are using significant additional philanthropic funding for the charity they founded, Pro Bono Economics, to examine how volunteering and the charitable sector can play a more important role in the economy, helping the country turn buzz phrases such as “levelling up” and “build back better” into reality.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Lord O’Donnell said the charitable sector was facing a “double whammy” resulting from Covid-19. “Needs have gone up and funds have gone down with the possible exception of charity shops,” he said.

He and Mr Haldane insisted, however, that the crisis had also demonstrated the unmeasured but high value of volunteering and the need to ensure that some of the few positive developments in recent months could be long-lasting.

Gus O’Donnell: ‘This stuff’s not measured in any sensible way’ © Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

“In my London street, lots of people didn’t know their neighbours at all and there were lots of older people living alone,” Lord O’Donnell said. “What the crisis created was the situation where people put leaflets through doors saying they were willing to do shopping, collect medicines and help out . . . It developed social networks which probably won’t go away.”

“That was a need but it wasn’t met by anybody before. It was just left. And individuals [in the crisis] invented a sort of market [to help out] and the question is how do we build up infrastructure to make that work [after the crisis].”

A volunteer delivers leaflets for local community support group Mutual Aid on a housing estate near the Caledonian Road in North London © Jonathan Perugia/In Pictures/Getty Images

The Office for National Statistics last week reported that a sense of national unity was created by the crisis in March and April, but it had dissipated in recent months with the public sensing that divisions were reasserting themselves.

Mr Haldane said one task of the commission, which would include representatives of the public and private sectors as well as civic society, would be to examine the appropriate boundaries between these sectors.

“We are having a debate about the size of the state in light of Covid and the role and size of the private sector, and it is crucial that the role of civic society is not ignored,” he told the FT.

The commission would look at the role of all three sectors and because it was often an afterthought, civic society was often “underinvested” and lacked technology, funding and better forms of organisation.

Volunteers at a soup kitchen in Muswell Hill Baptist Church in north London © Tolga Akmen/FT

It would be different from the government’s review of how best to make use of volunteering, led by MP Danny Kruger, because it would take a holistic and economic view of the way the whole economy worked, Mr Haldane said, as well as having input from the public, private and social sectors.

“My reading of history is that the growth of [civic society] is every bit as important as the growth in the role of the public and private sectors in bringing about the transformation of fortunes and living standards after the industrial revolution,” Mr Haldane said.

One important element of the work will be to estimate the size and importance of volunteering in the economy, they added. The lack of the inclusion of volunteering in gross domestic product because there are no monetary transactions involved often left it ignored in public debate.

Lord O’Donnell said: “This stuff’s not measured in any sensible way. When you look at our national statistics, one of the things I rant on about is that in GDP, we introduced prostitution and illegal drug activity but volunteering doesn’t show up at all.”

The commission will also look at access to civic society because volunteers tend to be either young people of richer families before they start careers or older richer adults after they have stopped working. Other countries, Mr Haldane said, were often better at arranging for volunteering to be a life-long part of many people’s lives.

Funding for the work will come from the Law Family Charitable Foundation, founded by Andrew Law, the financier, and his wife Zoe, and it will run for two years from this autumn.

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