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 Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR