Thursday, 20 November 2014

People Change Things!

Martin Johnstone reflects on his recent trip to Rome for the Global Meeting of Popular Movements

The Church of Scotland and Faith in Community Scotland have recently made submissions to the Smith Commission. The Smith Commission has been given the task of getting agreement on the specifics of the new powers that will come to Scotland following September’s Independence Referendum. At the heart of both submissions lies a plea: “Let’s make our democracy better, stronger and much more engaging.”

At the Global Meeting of Popular Movements, Pope Francis committed the Catholic Church to walk alongside the poor in their struggle for justice. He also stated clearly what I certainly know to be true: those who struggle against poverty have clear insights into how it can be effectively addressed. And over these last days, I heard that on a global scale:
  • In the wisdom of waste pickets who talked about the contribution that they are making to recycling and care for the planet; 
  • In the experience of slum dwellers about how to make our homes and lifestyles much more sustainable and community-focused;
  • In the experience of rural farmers warning about the dangers of genetically modified crops which are designed to feed profits rather than stomachs.

We also heard from Evo Morales, President of Bolivia. President Morales would not be on the Christmas card list of too many western leaders but his government – now in its 9th year – was re-elected with 60% of the popular vote. What I found most inspiring about his speech was that he spoke about how he had needed to change his views (and his government’s policy) in the light of insights from those who are amongst the very poorest in his country. He seemed to talk about a genuinely participative democracy at work – and one where real change and progress was happening.

As the Smith Commission deliberates on future powers for Scotland, my heartfelt plea, emboldened by what I have heard over these last days, is that we have the courage to trust the people. Democracy is too important to be left to politicians! 

Martin Johnstone

Monday, 10 November 2014

Is what we call poverty, what you call poverty?

The following blog is a personal reflection from Dr Peter Kenway of the New Policy Institute who attended the second conversation of the Poverty Truth Commission at the end of October.

From a distance, other people’s lives are our numbers. In a world made up of statistics, what matters is to be measured. Something called poverty is measured; so it matters. But is what we call poverty what you call poverty? Is what we say matters what you say matters? Not just at any time, but now?

I have been using statistics to make arguments about poverty and social exclusion in the UK since around the time when Tony Blair first promised to abolish child poverty within a generation. Centred on low income but ranging widely, we measure everything from poor schooling and substandard housing to ill-health and a social security system whose principal purpose is now punishment.

In truth, work like this always involves plenty of conversations. Statistics and the how they are used require choices. The conversations which affect these choices are almost always with others of a similar background, trained in the same ways, in government, universities and the large voluntary sector charities.

So a PTC Conversation is not unique but is still unusual. The high point for me of last Friday’s Conversation was the reading of a testimony, one paragraph a person as the story travelled from hand to hand round the circle, the life story of one of the new commissioners from early teenage years until now.

This story made a great impression on all who heard it, MSPs among them. The story itself, a hard struggle punctuated with moments of triumph, was memorable enough. But the manner of its telling added to it. Relieved of the task of reading ourselves, the pace set by the speaker, we are free to hear and not just listen, free to feel and not just think.

At the time and afterwards, I drew my own conclusions. But these Conversations are part of the PTC deciding itself what its new priorities are to be. I am eager to hear. But as an outsider I won’t use this platform to say what I think they should be.

But I can say this. The value of the PTC’s testimonies doesn’t just lie in what they point to: most of the big changes are quite clear in the statistical world. But how these changes feel, why they matter – we can guess as fellow human beings but only testimony can really say. How and why, not just what.

That such testimonies are rare is a compliment, a compliment to their power.

Peter Kenway
New Policy Institute