Following a period of dramatic social and political change in the UK, Diana Mitlin says we should consider the EU Referendum result as a beginning, not an ending. It is, she argues, an opportunity for political elites to better recognise the needs of disadvantaged people and to remember that development is needed here, not just in the ‘global south’.
It is hard to find the words even to summarise events in the United Kingdom in recent weeks, let along comment on them.
A divided nation
At times like this it seems to me to be more important than ever to be clear about vision and values, and to create commonalities and a broadly-based consensus. Values and vision help to establish a direction. Commonalities and consensus help to prevent misunderstandings, reduce unnecessary tension and manage potential conflicts.
The problems are fairly clearly established. As one of the columnist in the Financial Times concluded “globalisation is not working”. What is also evident is that we are a divided nation – young vs. old, educated vs. less educated, urban vs. rural. Hence our problems go beyond globalization. These are problems of an elite that has failed to understand the difficulties that people face, has exacerbated such realities, and has failed to address them. The perception of at least some is that experts are part of that elite.
An anti-expert discourse has been part of the recent discourse. While I believe that this problem has been over-stated, expert failures are also evident. One example is the failure of the financial sector to manage lending, the additional vulnerabilities it has precipitated for many households, and the heavy financial and political demands for its rescue. A second example, central to well-being, is the failure to address the sanitation needs of some 2.4 people – see my blog post from last year. While there have been global development successes, considerable challenges remain.
Whether celebrating the result or disappointed at the outcome, there has to be a recognition that people voted for solutions that they thought would enable them to have more voice with decision-makers, and to create better opportunities for themselves and their families. This does not mean that there is any consensus. The result shows that the UK population is divided about how those goals can be achieved.
What values will serve us now?
Values of inclusion, recognition of the strength offered by diversity, a celebration of difference, and the nurturing of open, creative, interactive societies remain important to me and central to the work of The Global Development Institute that I work for. I feel a need to state that within the Institute non-UK EU citizens and those from beyond Europe are welcome. We recognise how much we are enriched by their presence and the contribution that they make both in our day-to-day interactions and more substantively as we collectively address the challenges and opportunities facing global development.
Vision of peace and security have to be particularly present in a month when we’ve been remembering the Battle of the Somme and First World War. Last week I was at the People’s History Museum where Southern Voices launched an exhibition, From the Shadows of War and Empire, that explores the experiences of people in the colonised nations of the global South in these conflicts. Understanding the causes of conflict and recognising individual suffering and collective tragedies seems even more important now. The costs of violent conflict and the need for Europe to ensure security and promote its values of respect and its practice of dialogue to resolve differences were reinforced again by the shocking events in Nice last week.
Recognising the inter-dependencies that exist between people at multiple scales seems particularly relevant. In our day to day life, we have to recognise many of the ways that we are connected to each other. Global challenges cannot be addressed solely by managing markets but require us to find new stronger ways of managing our common interests. For example, at the global scale, climate change has reinforced the reality that collectively we have to nurture the planet that is home to us all. Hence we need a vision that recognises the value of the collective, and we need practices that helps us work more effectively together. And that vision has to be strong enough to tackle the sources of xenophobia, understanding and addressing the insecurities and fears that lie behind prejudice and subsequent discrimination.
Knowledge is powerful
Knowledge and expertise matters. . The anti-expert polemic cannot lead us to conclude that the the solution is ignorance. At times of national crisis (and I believe it clearly is a crisis that the UK faces), policy directions and processes have to be based on our knowledge about what is more likely, rather than less likely, to take us where we want to go. Knowledge helps us understand the underlying tensions and contradictions that are going to stop us getting there.
However, how we offer our expertise is important. The University of Manchester is a civic university, born with pride from the successes and challenges of the Industrial Revolution, and relations with people across Manchester and beyond are important to us. Academic knowledge is relevant but it is not enough. We have to respect the knowledge of others, engage with them, learn from them, and cultivate a dialogue. The University of Manchester’s commitment to widening participation within its student body is important in spreading and sharing expertise.
Critical theory teaches us that spatial distinctions are neither pre-determined nor inevitable. Borders are outcomes of geography and history rather than fixed intrinsic divisions. However, irrespective of theory, experience and scholarship teaches us that belonging matters. It matters to our sense of safety, security and well-being, helps us understand ourselves within the communities in which we live and work, and provides the basis for us to engage with the world. Belonging is central to who we are, how we become who we are, and what we leave behind. Whatever the benefits that globalization has or has not brought, localities and homes continue to be important.
A new beginning
It is easy to see the referendum as an end point; and the significance of the political moment and its statement has to be recognised as substantive. But it is also possible to see the referendum as a beginning. Is this the point when UK recognises the need for political elites to be connected to citizens across the nation particularly those who are disadvantaged? For economic outcomes to be inclusive, for wealth and related opportunities to be shared?
We all have to rise to this challenge. The search for credible and competent political leadership in the UK has been intense over the last month. The UK now has a new Prime Minister but the substantive challenges remain. These challenges go far beyond Brexit although that is complicated enough. More fundamentality, we can see that we need to debate more consciously the processes of globalization, identify its winners and losers and do something about the resultant intensification of inequalities. We can also see that in this and other challenges, democracy has to engage with all citizens, finding ways for them to meaningfully to share their experiences, understand diverse perspectives and express their collective preferences.
Looked at in this way, we can understand something more. This is an opportunity for the UK and its citizens to recognise that governance challenges are shared and that development is not something just for others but also something for ourselves. Development has to be about creating new options and opportunities for all citizens, and particularly for the most disadvantaged. From this perspective, democracy and development are work in progress, in the UK as well as beyond our shores.