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A radical agenda

by Joyce McMillan

This article was written for SEAD’s 21st Birthday in 1999, but it is still relevant today

Joyce McMillanThe definition of ‘development’ has come a long way in the 21 years since I first sat in a SEAD office, typing up grant applications, and writing the text of an early SEAD publication about working conditions on the Indian and Sri Lankan plantations of the Glasgow tea company James Finlay. Then, most people still thought of ‘development’ as just another word for rapid economic growth on the western mode: industrialisation, urbanisation, and the extension of western patterns of consumption over the whole of the planet.

But today, even governments accept (at least in theory) that universal global development on the western pattern is neither a realistic nor a humane project; and that much more complex indices of human development have to be used in assessing which kinds of strategies really work best for the people involved, in terms of increasing their chances of living decent and fulfilled lives. It goes without saying that campaigning organisations like SEAD have been among the key pioneers of changing understanding of what development is, and of the need to listen to the voices of the people most directly affected in trying to improve our definitions of it. No organisation in Britain has been more radical in trying to find new ways of working on development issues, in challenging the gender bias of traditional development thinking, and moving the debate away from short-term economic measures towards those areas of empowerment and confidence building that really enable communities and individuals to take charge of their own fate: and this is an achievement in which SEAD can take a deep satisfaction.

But for a development organisation in Scotland, this is above all a time for looking forward. The election of Scotland’s first-ever democratic parliament will change the climate in which all Scottish organisations work, and provide a new focus for their activities; and although the parliament’s powers do not include foreign and overseas development policies, it is able – through its relationships with other parliaments, and with development bodies in Scotland – to play a part in shaping the 21st century debate on these issues. What excites me most about SEAD’s work since the 1970s is the extent to which, in at least four ways, it has set a powerful positive agenda for Scotland’s future involvement in these areas.

For, in the first place, SEAD’s work seems to me to be based on a sense of the struggles and values ordinary people often hold in common, in widely different parts of the world. This is not to deny cultural difference, or – far from it – to suggest that everyone conforms to a western model. But it is one of the ironies of the post-Cold War world that while multinational companies increasingly operate at a global level, marketing the same products with the same degree of success from Kuala Lumpur to Kansas City, in the world of politics and values we are somehow increasingly disempowered by the idea that we have nothing in common, cannot understand each other’s value-systems, and therefore cannot work together. This seems to me to be one of the big lies of our time; and SEAD’s work of bringing people together across cultures confronts it directly, in a practical and positive way. This affirmation of the strong basis of common values on which we want to build a more just international community should be a watchword of Scotland’s involvement in international affairs in the next generation; it fits our own philosophical tradition, and it fits the crying needs of the world today.

Second, SEAD’s work is not based on a traditional ‘aid’ model, but on an idea of mutual learning and advice which is essential if international relationships are to remain respectful, sustainable and creative in the new century; we in the west now need help in developing a sustainable society and economy as much as anyone else on the planet, and SEAD’s work acknowledges that. Third, SEAD’s way of gathering people together around practical and pressing social issues represents a powerful antidote to the kind of media-driven ‘fantasy football’ ethnic politics that has become such a blight on the post-Cold War world. In a global structure suddenly rife with uncertainties, disorder, the collapse of old centres of authority, it’s perhaps natural that people should turn to dreams of a small, pure, ‘natural’ and unsullied national or tribal community in which they can live a decent life, untainted by the horrors of the outside world. But if there is one thing the 20th century should have taught us, it’s that these dreams are delusions, and ones that can easily turn murderous. SEAD’s work represents a grassroots counterblast of ‘real politics’ against divisive myths that tend to destroy peace and prosperity: the new Scottish government, in whatever form, could avoid many dangers by adopting the same approach.

And finally, SEAD’s way of working helps to challenge the assumption that international politics is somehow a matter for an elite, for people who fly Club Class, stay in 5-star hotels, and have chauffeurs to meet them at airports where they wait in executive lounges, for ever sealed off from the world they presume to shape; look at the salaries and lifestyles of our European Commissioners, to say nothing of the business people who lobby around them. It’s profoundly true that many of the decisions that affect our lives are now being taken at a level beyond the national. But if those decisions are to have a chance of being right – if they are to avoid making mistakes that will sow the seeds for generations of social injustice, hatred, and conflict – then they cannot be left to a small cadre of the wealthy and privileged. SEAD’s struggle has always been about making international relations, international politics, international understanding, a matter for ordinary people facing the toughest social problems now confronting our world; it has been about real democracy and power-shifting in an age of globalisation, and how to make it work. It’s a struggle that SEAD can continue with pride in the decades to come: but also one that deserves to be taken up by our whole society, by our parliament and government, as a badge of the kind of nation 21st century Scotland intends to be.

Joyce McMillan is a freelance journalist and a patron of SEAD

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