Freeing Ourselves from the ‘Free’ Market: An Interview with Nabeel Ahmed

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This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

By: Jane Zhang

Nabeel Ahmed

In your view, what are three (or key) elements of "new economies"?

  1. At the core, new economies have to be focused around people and protecting public interests, not falling prey to short-term, profit-driven private interests. They are designed with the real experiences of people in mind and both accessible and accountable to those people – not just the relative minority that most of the market caters to.
  1. We are often told that the current mainstream economic system is theoretically focused on the most efficient allocation of resources, which is pitched as the equivalent of maximizing returns to the greatest number of people. But we also know that structural failures, varying political interests and simple lapses and incompetence lead to massive inequity. So the second element is that new economies understand and take into account questions of power and privilege. They are grounded in an understanding that the economy and power are intimately linked and changes in one have powerful implications for the other.
  1. New Economies are normative, based on a set of values that center around questions of fairness, such as preventing oppression. Too often we hide behind shaky claims of objectivity and shake our heads sadly at the outcomes that follow. An approach that claims to be objective often fails to protect the basic values and rights that should be at the foundation of our society.

How does this relate to cities?

As sites of concentrating both people and ideas, cities are ideal grounds for piloting new economies that are connected and accountable to communities. Those who are supporting the development or adoption of these new economies can garner feedback from communities even in the process of trying out new ideas. It can be easier to track and measure the progress of a system in a dense area - and easier for people to hold others accountable.

And of course, cities are where most people already live and where power relations are most clearly visible - this supports the development of the new economies I began to describe above.

How have your personal experiences shaped the way you view economies?

Living in the big, city of Karachi, Pakistan is what drove me to think about and understand political economy. It's where I first understood how alternative models could flourish, when I learned about social enterprises and when I first began to poke holes in the mainstream economic system we live within. Since then my work has focused around helping great non-profits and social enterprises flourish, and in this I have been reminded over and over again of how pervasive economic and political structures are.

Even when initiatives think they are somehow free of , even when entrepreneurs resolve to stick to their values and never compromise on their beliefs, they eventually succumb and either submit or fail. The most stable, well-funded and well-respected organizations are and don't ruffle too many feathers. Large multinational non-profits know that it is risky to be too outspoken, to be too honest. This is deeply frustrating to me because it means that markers have been laid down about what constitutes acceptable speech or not, and clearly shows how economic dependence stifles freedom.

What does real wealth mean to you?

Real wealth is knowing that you and your loved ones are safe and comfortable. That's a peace of mind that I think really gives people the freedom to pursue their dreams and passions (beyond having the means necessary, of course - but safety and comfort are based on material well-being). Most people in this world struggle for basic security (broadly defined) and a minimum level of comfort, so can never be the best versions of themselves because they may never have the opportunity to explore what that means, let alone meaningfully pursue it. That's a huge loss and I think a feeling of safety, broadly defined, is something that all truly wealthy people enjoy.

Real wealth leads to real freedom.

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Nabeel Ahmed helps non-profit social enterprises launch target-based sustainability programs in Ontario as Member Experience Manager at Sustainability CoLab. Nabeel worked at the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing as the Managing Editor of SocialFinance.ca before a fellowship with Aga Khan Foundation Canada in Kyrgyzstan. He is currently a Guest Editor on the New Economies theme with Cities for People and volunteers for a number of local and international non-profits. Nabeel studied public policy and administration at the University of Toronto after business school in Karachi. He enjoys cricket, culture (especially from the subcontinent) and good arguments.