Swords into ploughshares

Jonathan reports from Sierra Leone where he finds much hope in place ravaged by recent war

For a good number of us, an important part of living at Findhorn is leaving it from time to time in order to make some money. This is more or less inevitable for a community with a population of around 450 people living in one of poorest parts of Great Britain.

We have been able to do a lot in terms of strengthening our local economy – a study undertaken a few years ago by our local enterprise company estimated our contribution to the economy of the north of Scotland as being over 400 jobs and around £5m per annum.

Still, as long as we have a global economy distorted so as to make it more profitable to cut down forests than nurture them back to life, we will be obliged to look outside for some of our income. Not that I am complaining. Self-reliance in its more purist form is greatly overrated and all healthy systems need flows of information and exchanges with their surrounding areas. Plus, it is fun to get out of the hothouse that is intentional community once in a while.

This is especially true if, as in my case, such trips take you to truly interesting and inspiring places. So it is that I find myself in the second city of Sierra Leone, Bo, doing an evaluation of a Comic Relief-funded project being implemented by MAPCO (Movement for the Assistance and Promotion of Rural Communities) with support from its British-based partner, APT – Enterprise for Development.

The words ‘Sierra Leone’ and ‘war-torn’ have become more or less inseparable in recent years. The country was engulfed in an atrocious civil war for the duration of the 1990s, fuelled by puppet-masters outside the country competing for access to its huge diamond reserves.

In some areas, between 70 and 90 per cent of the buildings are reported to have been destroyed, and there is plentiful evidence of this in the villages that the evaluation team moves through.

Times of hardship bring people together in most wonderful ways. (I find this insight most cheering when considering the kinds of changes in lifestyle that the coming energy famine will impose on us all in the near future.) Here in Sierra Leone, something akin to the ‘blitz spirit’ prevails.

This is best reflected in a resurgence in cooperative, community-wide initiatives.
Much farming is now done cooperatively, as the villagers realise they need large teams working together to re-claim land that has been lost to wilderness over the lost decade of the war.

Great work teams are also engaged in re-building the community infrastructure.

One of our meetings is curtailed when someone arrives from a neighbouring village to say that they need help laying the floor of their new mosque. All hands are needed – even pregnant women and those with young children – and within minutes, the village is empty.

Revolving savings funds generated by the villagers themselves are allocated among the members to help pay for hospital bills, funerals and school fees. Tools and equipment are shared between all.

There is an air of happiness in the communities we spend time in – that great vibrant sense of well-being that will be familiar to all who have spent time on this astonishing continent.

Until recently, hunger was daily reality and the terror of war only recently passed. So many child soldiers. So many young women with children resulting from rape. So many that have lost limbs or parts of limbs in the gruesome conflict. So many stories of people fleeing their homes in the dead of night for the safety of the forests as the word passes through that the rebels are coming.

Now, all that is ended and the process of reconstruction, supported by organisations like MAPCO, is in full swing. MAPCO’s team of workers is as devoted to their work and to the communities they are serving as any that I have seen in 25 years working in Africa. The extension workers are often away from their families three weeks out of four, out in the villages teaching new farming techniques or how to operate the new soap-making equipment, weaving looms and other small enterprise technology that MAPCO’s engineers have designed and built.

Just in front of MAPCO headquarters in Bo, there are the half-dismembered carcasses of what was a fleet of armoured personnel carriers operated by the UN Peacekeeping force. Over time, this is being cut up and converted into agricultural implements, village-level food-processing equipment and tools for local enterprise. Swords into Ploughshares indeed.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.