Miatta Fahnbulleh, a former academic turned policy wonk who has worked for three prime ministers and the Labour party, is not your typical thinktank chief.
Fahnbulleh arrived in the UK from Liberia in 1986 and her family successfully claimed asylum in the UK, settling in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. “My childhood in Liberia had a massive impact,” says the 38-year-old. “You see abject poverty and extreme wealth, you see how the family you were born into affects your life and you understand why inequality is wrong. It’s not just that it perpetuates itself, it’s that it’s fundamentally wrong and it needs to be changed. And that’s my core, that pursuit of economic justice.
“Coming from two of the poorest countries in the world [Fahnbulleh also witnessed the deprivation in her mother’s home country, Sierra Leone] and seeing kids forced to fight in the civil war and being robbed of their childhood can’t help but colour your values,” she says. But while the economic and social injustices in Liberia are extreme, the UK is far from an egalitarian oasis, she says. “Whether you take the Brexit vote, or whether you take the shock results of the last election – you know there is something happening in the country. My read on it is that people are fed up. They are frustrated by an economic model that they think doesn’t work for them. The social contract defined the postwar period: if you worked hard, if you did the right thing, you would get on – but more importantly, your kids would do better than you. The fact is, that is now crumbling. And people have said, ‘we’ve had enough and we want change’.”
Fahnbulleh joins the New Economics Foundation(Nef) as its chief executive in mid-November from another thinktank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), where she was director of policy and research. “For progressive politics, both are really important, but they play two different roles,” she explains. “IPPR has worked within the system and secured some really great changes and wins on social justice – on issues around the minimum wage, for example. Nef has always been the outlier, the radical outsider proposing ideas long before they become the status quo. And you need both for societal transformation: within-system change and without-system change.”
Nef also spends a considerable amount of time on community organising – helping community groups, workplaces and local people both run campaigns and feed into policy reports. This bottom-up approach also attracted Fahnbulleh to the job. “We’ve just done a big piece of work on housing, and new models of ownership and how we can drive that – but also on tenant voice. And we’ve been working on the Blue New Dealfor coastal towns, looking at how we can empower local – often really deprived – communities to bring in new, sustainable jobs. It’s about economic and social justice. We need an economic model that puts the environment front and centre in the fight against inequality.”
Fahnbulleh thinks the election has heralded Nef’s moment. “The fact that every single party went into the last election and said the economy doesn’t work for all signals a massive shift. I think that creates the space for the kind of change that we haven’t seen in a really long time. If you look across the political spectrum, the big questions are: what’s the alternative to this broken system – and how do we get there?”
The living standards crisis, which became integral to Labour’s 2015 general election campaign, still hasn’t been resolved and is key to political apathy and disgruntlement, she argues. “There are reasons why the public are so cheesed off. We’ve basically had a sustained period of declining wages: between 2008 and 2021, we will have seen the longest period of earnings stagnation for 150 years. And people are just fed up with that. You then add the fact that we’re also seeing huge increases in inequality. From 1979 to 2012, the share of income growth that went to the bottom 50% was 10%. The share of income growth that went to the top 10% was 40%.
“My sense is that people are willing to put up with that if they are seeing incremental improvements in their living standards. But as soon as you get to the stage where we see our wages flatline, it means you have these huge divides in wealth and people are feeling poorer, year after year. Their tolerance for a system that is fundamentally wrong has hit a buffer.”
If Labour is a government in waiting, Nef will clearly have a huge role in influencing the economic policy put forward by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. And Fahnbulleh will be key to steering that ship. “We have got an opportunity, in the next five years, to be at the forefront of a lively debate about what kind of economy we want – and what an economy that actually works for the many and not the few looks like. Nef should be leading that debate, because, quite frankly, we started it.”
Family: Married, one three-year old son.
Lives: South-east London.
Education: Beechwood Sacred Heart school, Tunbridge Wells; PPE BA Lincoln College, Oxford; master’s in economic development, London School of Economics; PhD in economic development, London School of Economics.
Career: 13 November 2017: chief executive, New Economics Foundation; December 2016 to November 2017: director of policy and research, IPPR; October 2015 to December 2016: consultant on devolution and local economic growth; May 2013 to September 2015: policy adviser to the leader of opposition, Labour party; July 2011 to May 2013: head of cities in the policy unit, Cabinet Office; June 2008 to July 2011: deputy director and previously senior policy adviser, prime minister’s strategy unit; December 2006 to 2008: consultant, International Projects Group, PKF (UK); October 2005 to November 2006: Post-doctoral research fellow and lecturer, LSE.
Interests: Reading, travelling and basketball.