As a believer in openness, tolerance and international cooperation, I am shocked and saddened by the British vote to leave the European Union. Huge cracks are forming in an alliance that has brought people together, resolved differences peacefully, and built and sustained just and fair societies.
Holding a referendum is the ultimate form of civic engagement – the best way that democratic nations have of hearing people’s voices and putting power in the hands of citizens. It’s inspiring to see the level of civic engagement in Britain. Empowering people with an equal voice is the only way that we will create the just world for everyone that Plan International strives for.
However, the result paints a worrying picture of deep division - between ‘have’ and ‘have nots’, between in and out, between urban and rural, and between young and old.
The need to overcome division
This division chimes with wider trends across Europe and globally – rising hostility towards immigrants and an angry populism that seems increasingly attractive to electorates unnerved by the pace of change in our globalised world. Extremes of wealth in some quarters have led to rising inequality within states rather than between states as was the case in the past.
Why does this matter to Plan International?
Firstly, because more than 70% of 18-24 year-olds voted for Britain to remain part of the European Union, clearly seeing their future differently from older groups in society.
Listening to the voices of young people is at the core of what we do at Plan International. We empower them to be agents of the change they want to see in the world so that change is long-lasting and sustainable.
To realise our vision of a fairer world for all, it’s vital that we overcome division. This depends on decision-makers listening to all groups of society, especially young people who are often most affected by change.
Standing up for marginalised youth
Secondly, as a rights-based organisation it is critical that we speak up for children who are marginalised and excluded. In the current European political climate, hostile to refugees and migrants, we have a duty to stand up for those who are denied their rights and pushed to the fringes of society.
Taking action for children in crisis is in our DNA. We were founded in 1937 to rescue children orphaned by the Spanish civil war, and to offer them homes and fresh hope in other countries. Bridging divides and uniting people continues in our work today, where supporters globally sponsor over 1.4 million children in other countries, building better futures across frontiers.
We must be accountable
And thirdly the result is a warning to well-established institutions not to become disconnected from their roots and grow remote and unaccountable.
Civil society too must heed that lesson if it is to lead on the promotion of human rights and tackling discrimination.
While Britain and the European Union consider how to reform in response to the referendum result, without compromising the core European values of tolerance, equality, understanding and respect for human rights, so too must we consider our own role in society.
Plan International believes deeply in advancing the rights of all children and equality for girls. That won’t change.
But we must stay accountable, open and responsive if we are to retain the legitimacy and support that are vital to our mission.