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Mutual solidarity

Linda Dunion

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

Linda DunionIn the late 1980s a Honduran peasant farmer sat by the fire with an elderly Scottish crofter swapping stories of forced evictions and land grabs. She had no English, he knew not a word of Spanish. Until that meeting their paths had never crossed. They were literally worlds apart. Yet within minutes of striking up conversation, through an interpreter, both found common ground in their relationship with the land and their daily struggles to make a living from it. Polite questions and answers had quickly become a real dialogue, a sharing of problems and solutions, mutual revelation and inspiration. The encounter which took place that day was the inspiration for the radical approach to development education which SEAD pioneered and which it ultimately called ‘mutual solidarity’. The bringing together of direct counterparts became, and remains, SEAD’s trademark.

Over the years we witnessed many such exchanges. Activists in Scotland’s poorest communities were humbled and inspired by counterparts from Chile, Bangladesh, the Solomon Islands, Nicaragua, South Africa and many more. Visitors brought to Scotland for SEAD study tours arrived expecting to find answers and instead found themselves offering as much expertise, knowledge and inspiration as they received.

There was a thirst amongst Scottish-based activists which seemed at times unquenchable. Traditional notions of just who the real ‘experts’ are were challenged as SEAD made the case for inclusive decision-making where those who lived decisions taken by others 24 hours a day had a real say. We pointed to countries in the so-called ‘Third World’ where governments and development agencies had discovered the folly of developing projects and policies which failed to reflect the reality of those they were designed to benefit. SEAD brought into focus the Scottish experience of domestic development decisions which similarly had minimum input from, but major impact on, those who suffered marginalisation because of income, gender or geography. All countries, SEAD argued, are developing. As a nation, as communities and as individuals, the argument goes, we have much to learn from those who successfully tackle greater problems, with fewer resources, sometimes running the risk of physical harm or even death.

SEAD has been part of a movement for inclusion whose roots lay not only in overseas experience but also in community development approaches at home. The rhetoric of participation emanating from Europe as ‘subsidiarity’ – devolving power as close to the people as possible – fuelled this movement. Ironically it was unintentionally reinforced by evangelical political rhetoric of a ‘share-owning society’ where the individual, not the State, held sway. Government talk of ‘parent power’, ‘patient power’, ‘consumer power’, and the rest inadvertently created an expectation of participation. What the Government of the eighties had not foreseen was the emergence in the UK of the people power which saw off the hated poll tax, fired the campaign for greater autonomy and led ultimately to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Throughout the period, SEAD was the only Scottish development agency not only consistently to support devolution as a matter of policy but also to make the case for a Parliament which was transparent, accountable and participatory. Theories of inclusiveness were as applicable to Scotland as they were to the so-called ‘Third World’. In the course of the Shifting the Balance: People, Power and Participation project, SEAD carried out consultations with community groups throughout Scotland which led the organisation to promote the formation of a Civic Forum to help set the political agenda and facilitate participation by the breadth of civic society – particularly those most marginalised. It is thanks to the efforts of SEAD and like-minded groups that Scotland ends the millennium with its own Parliament committed to open and inclusive ways of working and a formally recognised (if under-resourced) Civic Forum. Making our new democratic structures work well is a challenge not just for the politicians but for the whole of Scottish society.

Our new democracy has much still to learn from abroad and we have a real opportunity to develop new kinds of international relationships. Such relationships will be the stronger if they are based on the principle of mutual solidarity. Foreign affairs may be reserved to Westminster but it is inevitable that Scotland’s Parliament will reflect in its operation the many links which already exist with the wider world. In 1996 SEAD published Living in the Real World. Its author, Kevin Dunion, made the case for the Scottish Parliament to have a role in certain areas which would normally fall within the traditional definition of Foreign Affairs. From inward investment to international maritime negotiations, from development education to Scotland’s role in honouring the UK’s commitments to globally agreed sustainability targets, Living in the Real World addressed a range of issues where Scotland’s people will expect their Parliament to play a part. Scotland exists in a world which is interconnected, where decisions taken at home affect people elsewhere, where generations to come will live with the consequences of actions taken today.

In this context, mutual solidarity is relevant to Scotland’s future both at a national and at a community level. We have a unique opportunity to act as responsible neighbours in the global village by knowing our neighbours better. We can learn from and be inspired by countries like South Africa which cleverly used cash machine displays to publicise clauses of its new constitution among the general public. With voter turnout in some parts of Scotland running as low as 20%, we desperately need to rediscover democracy. With a Parliament committed to introducing education for citizenship, we have a real opportunity to learn from international best practice. Money spent on bringing to Scotland some of the inspirational community educators from countries such as South Africa to work with disaffected sectors of Scottish society, would be money well spent.

Such a programme would not only be of direct benefit to Scots, it would also help foster a more informed approach to the development of policies which impact upon the wider world. Scotland clings to a version of itself as a nation which is internationalist in outlook, identified with the oppressed and compassionate to the less fortunate of the Earth. Whether this is popular mythology or not, it nevertheless creates an expectation upon our Parliament to reflect such values in the decisions it makes and the policies it pursues. Whether it be trading or environmental decisions, the importance we attach to the consequences of our actions is directly affected by the extent to which we know the people who will have to live with those decisions. There is no substitute for personal contact and the Scottish Parliament is in a position to bring that about either by itself or through support for the many groups and organisations like SEAD with a track record in mutual solidarity exchanges.

SEAD’s analysis of Scotland as a developing nation in a developing world remains as valid today as it was when the organisation was founded 21 years ago. That we have more in common with each other as human beings, regardless of differences in nationality, race, creed, age or gender, is self-evident, yet not always recognised. Scotland faces the challenge of shaping a new democracy which takes full responsibility for its actions and their impact both at home and abroad. SEAD has a key role to play in making that possible.

Linda Dunion was Director of SEAD from 1991 to 1997.

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