• The term 'abolition' connotes the struggles of a bygone era, but the need for abolition has never been more alive than it is today.
  • Countries have failed to address the existential crises of our time, including economic inequality and climate change, leading to a recession in global democracy.
  • We must examine closely the ways in which our systems are set up to stratify and exclude.

Are you an abolitionist?

If you’re taken aback by the question, you’re not alone. Casual students of US history might recall the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, and figures like Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Others might think about efforts to end human trafficking and forced labour that still afflicts some 40 million people. But for many, the term 'abolition' connotes the struggles of a bygone era.

Abolition, however, is not a relic of history. It is an ongoing movement to rethink the systems that produce inequity and build a society that values the lives of the most vulnerable. It permeates almost every issue that the World Economic Forum includes on its 2021 Agenda, from COVID-19 to tax policy.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s 2021 Annual Report evaluated the work of its 2019 and 2020 Awardees. It shows that despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation’s community has found new ways to join forces, respond and develop the movement of social innovators.

Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

In his seminal 1935 work, “Black Reconstruction in America”, the black scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “abolition democracy”. He used it to describe the post-slavery struggle for a society that offers each member the “economic, political, and social capital to live as equal members.” In other words, abolition democracy isn’t just the fight to destroy oppressive institutions. It’s the fight to build just ones in their place.

In that context, the need for abolition has never been more alive than it is today.

Worth saving or burn it all down?

We are in the midst of a global democracy recession. Representative governments have failed to address the existential crises of our time, including runaway economic inequality and climate change. Authoritarians around the world stand emboldened by those failures. Just weeks ago, in the US, a defeated president incited a white supremacist riot that temporarily brought the federal government to a halt.

Young people are asking whether the building blocks of society are meant as a common foundation — or as a wall to keep them at bay. They are, fundamentally, thinking about abolition. They are asking whether what we have is worth saving, or if it’s time to burn it all down.

The people who annually find their way to Davos, myself included, need to ask these questions, too. Whether we come from the private sector or philanthropy, government or advocacy, we need to think about the ways in which our systems are set up to stratify and exclude. If we do not at least take seriously an abolitionist mindset, our solutions will be nothing more than Band-Aids on democracy’s sucking chest wound.

In my own work as the CEO and Co-Founder of the Center for Policing Equity, that means fundamentally reimagining public safety. It means removing police from enforcing laws meant to punish people without housing and investing in institutions that prevent housing insecurity. It must also mean preventing police from having to show up in the first place, not just improving practices when they do. It means measuring justice along with crime, and aligning our mechanisms of public safety with the values of the communities — particularly communities that have historically faced discrimination and disinvestment.

Rebuilding systems with equity at their core

This year illustrated the consequences of our past failure to take abolition seriously. Our inability to redress racial inequities in our essential systems and protect the most vulnerable has fueled the spread of COVID-19, costing more than 420,000 lives in the US alone. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, entire neighborhoods went up in flames because of the unpaid debt owed to black communities after generations of white supremacy and neglect.

Do you believe in democracy? If the answer is yes, the best way to revitalise it may be to embrace the work of abolition democracy, from whichever powerful perch you occupy.

—Phillip Atiba Goff

Even before the pandemic, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has disrupted the ways we work, learn and live. That disruption is an opportunity to build equity into the base of our evolving systems, from internet access to public education to corporate governance. If we fail, we will have — literally — built them to burn.

So, ahead of this year’s forum, ask yourself a different question: Do you believe in democracy? If the answer is yes, the best way to revitalise it may be to embrace the work of abolition democracy, from whichever powerful perch you occupy.

Charity alone, kindness from those who have benefitted most from institutions that marginalise the vulnerable, cannot lead us to justice. Abolition democracy, the working of rebuilding our systems with equity at their core, just might be able to.

After all, in the long view of history, our choices are simple: build systems that empower the least of us, or prepare to watch them torn down until we do.