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Can impact investments build popular support for inclusive, sustainable and, yes, global prosperity? (podcast)

Many impact investing types, it seems, are proud globalists. That optimistic, connected, cross-border approach to challenges, solutions and human relationships puts them in a unique position in this peculiar historic moment when walls are going up and strangers are suspect.

At the same time, the essential precondition of investing – having capital to invest – means most investors are largely distant from the lived experience of many of the people their investments are purported to benefit.

“There is a paternalism in impact in alot of the dialogue around globalism that is condescending and alienating to the very people we’re trying to help,” said Imogen Rose-Smith, an investment fellow with the University of California, in the latest episode of Returns on Investment. “To me, that’s the biggest problem.”

Rose-Smith is a regular in the podcast roundtable that picked up on themes in ImpactAlpha’s three-part series last week. The scenes at the U.S.-Mexican border, the waves of migration into Europe, the prospect of a trade war and the accelerating climate disruption make clear there is no ducking global issues, we wrote. The choice is how we respond: Closed, divided and driven by scarcity and fear? Or open, connected and abundant?

The first piece rounded up a half-dozen contributors under the headline, “Why I am a globalist.” Village Capital’s Ross Baird, for example, wrote, “As an American, I believe globalism is being smart and realistic about how the world works, and nativism is naively idealistic at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.”

Agents of Impact speak out: “Why I am a globalist”

The second part suggested an America 2030 plan as an answer to China’s Made in China 2025 initiative. “A massive buildout of clean-energy infrastructure…the dramatic expansion of U.S. entrepreneurship…tech innovation to drive down costs and open up solutions…investments in talent, both homegrown and newly arrived….good, competitive, 21st century jobs, all over the country” –– what’s not to like?”

America 2030: Inclusive, sustainable global growth is the Deal of the Century (so don’t blow it, Mr. President)

Finally, we note that nearly every company, country, city and state are inching, if not racing, toward an innovation-driven, low-carbon, inclusive and globally connected future. What choice do they have?

Global agents of impact bet on 21st-century regeneration, with or without Washington

In the podcast, I argued that not enough work has been done to build popular, even populist support for that platform, however. “Bringing people into the economy, raising their livelihood, better communities –– that’s a parade any politician in any country should be jumping to get in front of.” That’s the promise of impact investing, yet it gets marginalized as some elite affectation. “And that’s a big problem, because we need this to be a popular movement, not an elite affectation.”

Countered Imogen: “To the extent it’s a movement of investors, it’s going to be elitist. Impact investing privileges capital and capitalism.”

The challenge ahead is to deepen inclusion, engagement and participation of stakeholders in the global project, and expand the popular constituencies in support of the Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.

To let such hard-won global consensus around sustainability and inclusion get lumped with the negative social and environmental impacts of exploitive globalization would be a major strategic defeat.

“I want to keep that abundant, open, opportunity innovation direction vibrant and strong in the face of what seems to be pretty strong countervailing forces,” I argued in the podcast. “We have the wherewithal to give everybody abundant clean energy. We have the wherewithal to give everybody decent healthcare. Those are not expenses, they’re huge opportunities to invest and rebuild systems.”

“That is the global platform, and it’s on the run, and we need to shore it up. What’s our alternative?”

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