31 July 2010

Big Society or Big Con?

By Charlotte Du Cann

We are, though we may not be aware of it, taking part in a social experiment. It's called the Big Society and formed a key part of the Conservative electoral agenda. But is it what it promises: an enlightened "devolution of power to the man and woman in the street", or is it an offloading of governmental responsibility?

Yesterday in Bungay a small band of people gathered in the Library courtyard and began to shovel earth into raised beds made from recycled bricks. We were laying foundations for a "Living Library", a garden that will showcase "Transition" principles ranging from carbon reduction to the restoration of the honeybee. This is one of many community gardens that have sprung up in towns and cities around the world. All of them made by people who know that engagement in neighbourhood projects brings social cohesion. And that in challenging times, the ability for people to hold together, is vital.

This is an entirely different scenario however to the one David Cameron envisages. Most self-organising initiatives work towards creating a new, fair and sustainable world. The dismantling of the public sector in favour of charities and volunteer groups is framed within an old philanthropic paradigm. It pays no attention to urgent planetary issues such as climate change or peak oil. It hands over decision-making about energy and planning to local people without regional or governmental strategy or resources to back them. It does not seek to reorganise society along more equitable lines, let alone ecological ones. Because the real power structures, steered by the interests of big business, are guaranteed to continue. It is localism firmly set within the global economic growth model.

Although this experiment clamours to dispense with State bureaucracy, its main function is to mask the public sector cuts already underway and devalue the meaningful nature of work. Our corporate-shaped world has already reduced workers to replaceable “human resources”, giving them almost no say in their destiny. Our civil liberties have been eroded - our rights to strike, to protest, to stand up for ourselves. We have been told to work harder for less money. Now we are being told: work for nothing.

Like "Care in the Community" the Big Society presupposes there are local people who are willing and competent to take on the skilled work of librarians, teachers and healthcare workers. It presumes anyone can do your job. And though there is no doubt that grassroots activism can unleash enormous potential both within individuals and communities, it is another thing to rely on volunteers for essential services within a top-down framework. Volunteers can be notoriously unreliable, having no obligation to turn up or consider their fellows. Within a hierarchical structure, volunteers are sometimes esteemed more highly than workers. This puts a huge strain on the "real" staff who often have to carry their load.

This may seem a small thing to consider, but it is these everyday working relationships that make for happiness in a society. The fact is without respect for what you do, you falter. Depression and defeat set in and this affects the mood of homes, workplaces and enterprises everywhere. For the want of a happy librarian, the whole town was lost. A real Big Society would cherish its workers and be empathic towards the unemployed. Fellow feeling unites us and makes us resilient. Divided we fall big time.

So the Big Society would make sense if it included everyone in its remit. If it were designed by people who really cared about the community. But the reality is it's a decree from on high, declaimed by millionaire politicians who do not depend on public services - a hazy piece of marketing that opens up the organising structure of the collective to further privatisation and fragmentation. The idea is Big, but its not much to do with Society.

For more information about Bungay Library Courtyard Garden http://www.sustainablebungay.com/.

17 July 2010

Growth and death

By Rupert Read

Death. Death. Death… Have I put you off yet?

We don't like thinking about death. We'd rather think about life. But death is of course an inevitable feature of life.

At least: of individuals' lives. Our hope for our species, and for this wonderful living planet, is that it will go on and on. That our individual lives (and deaths) are just part of the story of that common life without end.

I've been reading a fine book lately: Jeremy Rifkin's The empathic civilisation. Rifkin argues, controversially, that human civilisation is marked by a gradually increasing level of empathy for our fellow beings. The problem is that this increasing empathy has tended to fuel and be fuelled by increasing energy-use, increasing pollution – what the physicists call increasing 'entropy'. Because, as people's fellow-feeling spreads from their local area further afield, they want to go to those places, to trade and communicate with them, and so on. The huge challenge now facing us, according to Rifkin, is to turn a corner never turned before: to increase levels of mutual empathy, while decreasing the energy-use, resource-use, and pollution that is killing our planet. We have to achieve a new level of empathy with people living in vulnerable tropical locales, with many many species of non-human animals whose well-being is tied inextricably to our own, and (most crucially and most challengingly of all) with future people, those generations not even born yet. Unless we achieve an empathy – a genuine solidarity - with them, we will surely not do enough to reduce the entropic burden we are currently producing, that threatens to snuff them out before they are born…

The biggest obstacle to doing what is necessary to achieving this solidarity with our own descendants is the 'common sense' that our economy must keep growing and growing. We need to ask the question: What is our economy growing into? Well, as the economy grows, it eats up more and more of the Earth, colonises more and more of its treasures, and turns them into (harmful) junk and waste.

Something that has to keep growing in order to survive – whether it be a capitalist economy, or a cancer – cannot be indefinitely sustained.

Why are we so reluctant to countenance an end to economic growth? Why aren't we thinking more, at this time of profound ecological (and financial) crisis, of creating a new, prosperous economy that can be sustained indefinitely, a 'steady-state' economy that is not like a shark, but more like a stable woodland or a peaceful people, changing without needing to grow, without needing to invade more and more of the planetary ecosystem?

Jeremy Rifkin has a fascinating answer to this question. He believes that the idea that 'You can't stop 'progress'', and the connected idea that 'Growth is good' are tacitly ways of trying to avoid death. If we invest our - secular, materialist - faith in the fantasy of endless material 'progress' and endless economic growth, then we can distract ourselves (at least temporarily) from the harsh truth: that nothing can go on growing forever; that we as individuals are destined to die; and that if our society tries to go on growing, then it will destroy itself, through killing off its 'host', the living Earth.

We don't like to think about death – so we escape into New Age fantasies about reincarnation, or materialist fantasies about endless economic growth / 'progress'. There is a better way. Through empathic feeling and solidarity-in-action with one another, and with those who have come before us and those who will come after us, we can be part of something deathless. A 'steady-state' society, which will be able – wonderfully - to go on, indefinitely, giving new life to our children's children, and new hope to our imperilled civilisation.

10 July 2010

Football gives a suffering people joy

By Trevor Phillips

Tomorrow's FIFA (world football association) World Cup final will unite a billion people in a shared global experience. What the great Brazilian footballer Pele called 'the beautiful game' is now undoubtedly the world's favourite sporting entertainment, a multi-billion pound global business and a major cultural phenomenon. Love it or hate it, football affects the lives of millions of people around the world.

What's its secret? Well, according to George Weah, former Liberian footballer, FIFA World Footballer of the Year and possibly Africa's finest ever player: "Football gives a suffering people joy".

Hosting the World Cup has been a mixture of joy and frustration for South Africans. To stage such a prestigious global event has been a 'triumph' according to Desmond Tutu. For sure, the government and the nation have won great prestige for the organisational success and superb venues. The tournament has also boosted the sense of dignity and confidence of millions of citizens, proud to have brought the world to their new nation. The impressive performances of Ghana's team also united supporters across Africa, enhancing their shared sense of Africanness.

It has been less than joyous for some other South Africans. The construction of new stadiums has caused widespread dissatisfaction amongst many poor black communities. According to Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu–Natal, (in Red Pepper magazine), more than a thousand pupils demonstrated against Mbombela stadium when schools displaced in the construction programme were not rebuilt. Markets which have traditionally served football crowds were banned as police enforced the government's agreement with FIFA that only FIFA endorsed items could be advertised within a one kilometer radius of stadiums – a deal estimated to bring FIFA an astonishing £2.2 billion. Riot police used tear gas against world cup stewards protesting over alleged pay cuts. Other World Cup related protests have been held against construction companies and local authorities and many peaceful protests have been banned.

New stadium locations were carefully chosen to create a positive image of the tournament and of South Africa. The £380 million stadium in Cape Town could have been built more cheaply, nearer supporters, but this was rejected according to a FIFA official because "a billion TV viewers don't want to see shacks and poverty on this scale".

Costs have spiraled. Durban's new stadium, budgeted at £160 million, will cost £275 million. The tournament may cost South Africa as much as £3.2 billion, leaving it with several stadiums which may never again be filled. Estimates of returns to the national economy have been considerably scaled down. Little of the generated wealth from the tournament is expected to trickle down to South Africa's poor, in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

The biggest winners of the 2010 World Cup will be the global corporations which secured the construction contracts for grounds and infrastructure upgrading, local entrepreneurs and the global brands which used the tournament as a televised shop window.

Some of the inequalities and social tensions in South Africa have been contained or disguised while the world's eye has been on the World Cup. But when the tournament is over and the euphoria has dissipated the real issues will remain.

Football certainly brings joy, however transient, but there is a danger that this joy can obscure more enduring problem. With its millionaire Premier League players, rising club debts and seat prices, multi-million pound TV and sponsorship deals, and its power to clinch lucrative deals with tournament-hosting governments - not always to the benefit of ordinary local people – is football is becoming a global business beyond the influence of supporters and regulators? It's disturbing, but for now let's share the joy and settle down for Spain vs Holland. What a pity Ghana didn't get there. Now, where did I leave my vuvuzela?

3 July 2010

Resilient and courageous women

By Marguerite Finn

On the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom stall at the 5th annual Peace Camp in the Forum last Saturday I had an interesting discussion with a lady about Afghanistan. She remarked that despite it having claimed a multitude of British military lives over two centuries, we know relatively little about the country itself or what it is like for women living there.

I did a bit of research and found resilient and courageous women who knew exactly what they wanted from life. Take for example the secret girls schools, now emerging in Afghanistan. These small schools, some based in homes, are blossoming because girls are subjected to violence on their way to and from school. There is little security and threats come daily from either the Taliban or from kidnappers.

Female education was banned under the Taliban and school-going girls continue to be hassled by Taliban supporters. In response, a number of parents have set up underground schools to allow their daughters to continue studying despite the current escalating campaign of insurgent attacks around Kandahar. This is a particularly brave decision on the part of the parents, especially as districts in Kandahar are dotted with 'safe houses' used by Taliban insurgents infiltrating the city. The risk of being found out is great in areas where neighbour dare not trust neighbour. Nevertheless, the desire for knowledge and an appreciation of the benefits of education for women are even greater.

In another part of Afghanistan a similar spirit of defiance and creativity can be found. Parwan is a province to the north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, with a rich culture originally founded by Alexander the Great in 329BC. Today, Parwan is the site of a new skills centre set up with a grant from the Parwan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to empower female breadwinners. There are 2,500 members of the Agricultural and Handicrafts Association of Parwan, a unique organisation which has helped pull women and their families out of poverty. What makes the association special is that from in 2007, when it was set up, it thought big and bold – not really what was expected from women in Afghanistan's male-dominated culture !

The female Director, Saleha Zarin, brought in 500 women with a broad range of existing skills and set about improving these and teaching them new, marketable ones. The activities include making jams, pickles and cakes, weaving carpets, tailoring, and farming saffron and livestock. The range has since been broadened to include new farming techniques. Membership costs around 80p for which the women become part of a ready-made cooperative. The association also takes on trainees with no existing skills and makes them self-sufficient in a matter of months.

At long last, things are beginning to improve on the ground for women in some parts of Afghanistan – but not everywhere. In Herat in the south of the country, officials report a 50 percent rise in female suicide over the past year. Many of these incidents involved women recently returned from Iran where they had fled to avoid the Taliban’s rule and where they had enjoyed a relatively better life. Returning in the hope that things had now improved, they found this was far from the case; they faced unemployment, poverty and violence.

However, this situation is not going unchallenged. Hamida Husseini, Director of the cultural department of the government’s directive for women's affairs in Herat, says they will be sending teams of people from house to house talking to young mothers and girls about their daily lives and problems, to learn how to support vulnerable families.

While the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to end anytime soon (especially now that 'vast, untapped mineral riches' have just been reported there), is it not encouraging to see Afghan women taking their lives into their hands?