12/01/2017 08:30 GMT | Updated 13/01/2018 05:12 GMT

The Power Of Building Change From Below


The year 2017 is going to be a tough one. We will be dealing, day in and day out, with the consequences of seismic changes in governments globally, and their actions will be harder to predict. We may see much social and environmental progress blown off course. So now is the year when, more than ever, we need to nurture local, small-scale initiatives in the community, go back to the grassroots and organise for the change we want to see in the world. That's as true of building peace as it is of countering climate change - or making trade fair.

Having, always believed in building change from below, I have sought to put that into practice in these three personal examples:

1) Wanting to build change from below is why I spent 16 years building up the Fairtrade movement. We were never going to be able to change global trade rules, or stand against the tsunami of trade liberalisation that was sweeping all before it - even if now the free trade chickens are coming home to roost.

But we thought we could build the living alternative that showed how trade could be run differently, that showed that farmers could organise and produce outstanding quality, and that consumers were ready to step up to the plate and pay that little bit more to put Fairtrade on their plates, and that companies would respond. The continuing rise of Fairtrade across the globe (sales grew by 16% between 2014- 2015) is a powerful testimony to the fact that the alternative can work, and to popular support for fairer trade rules. We always said that global trade was leaving too many people behind; a fact that may have contributed to the Brexit and Trump successes last year. And we wanted to prove it could be done differently, to encourage governments to change.

In fact, of course, time and time again, we were negatively hit by government rules - most notoriously, the change in the EU sugar regime, withdrawing special access to countries such as Fiji which have depended on it. But Fairtrade has always been able to pick itself up and push on - because of the power of support from ordinary citizens around the world.

2) Believing in the power of ordinary people is also why I have been involved in forming a solar power company, SE24 - a community interest company snuggling into Herne Hill in South East London that aims to put solar panels on community buildings so they get cheaper electricity, contribute to reducing carbon and we make a small profit to invest in local charities. We are tiny. And I mean tiny - we have the grand total of four directors. That wasn't our plan initially. We wanted to have lists of local investors and our first share offer was way oversubscribed. But then the UK Government, fresh back from signing the Paris deal on climate change in 2015 and opining wisely about the greatest threat to our people and planet, promptly cut more than in half the rate it pays for solar energy. It was a serious blow to all our well-laid plans (and to the whole solar industry in the UK). We were down - but not out.

Determined to keep going, we have already installed solar panels on two local church buildings and are in discussions with numerous schools and a hospice as we seek to operate with the new, lower rates. Government policies will always be critical - but community initiatives can build popular support for change from the base, whatever the climate.

In 2015 the UK produced a quarter (pdf) of its electricity from renewables, up from 6% just a few years ago, helped along by the fact that there are now 5,000 community energy projects, showing that our power does not have to be controlled by large companies who largely act in the interests of their shareholders. In Denmark, 75% of wind turbines were community owned in 2013, while in Germany one third of renewable energy is owned by community schemes.

3) That is also why I now work for a charity, International Alert that seeks to build peace from the people upwards. For example, supporting civil society in Syria, where work on the ground with communities, can help make a final peace deal more likely: the more charities can work with communities, the more they can build a consensus for peace and put pressure on the warring parties to settle. As a leading activist said to me last year: "We need to work at different levels: at the level of the peace table in Geneva, at the UN and at the villages."

The Colombian referendum last year showed the importance of such grassroots initiatives. The FARC guerrillas and the Government spent over four long years hammering out a comprehensive peace deal. But it was rejected by the Colombian public in a tight referendum, pushing negotiators back around the tables. Which is why communities have to build the constituency for peace - even before any peace deal is signed, even sometimes in the midst of war.

And the more progress people make on crossing divides, the more chance that any peace deal will hold. It is a shocking global fact that half of all peace deals collapse (pdf) after just five years. The Syrian people have been locked in a brutal war, leaving deep ravines of revenge, and many people are nursing resentment. So work has to start now to help them talk through their trauma, open out their feelings in a safe place, meet with those on the other side of the war - and consider living and working together again. I have heard of one man whose flat overlooks the dividing line in Aleppo; he came to a group seeking help - "How am I going to live with people on the other side of the line once the war is over?", he asked.

Building such community peace at the grassroots is not easy, and too often overlooked. But in 2017, with so much uncertainty about where governments are going, it is vital. And we need to make sure that the voices of all those who believe in justice and peace, and in caring for our planet, are heard loud and clear.

Photo: Mónica Echeverría Burbano (Colombia, 2015)