Any volunteers?

At election time every politician faced with a drubbing claims to have no time for opinion polls. For the rest of us, the general view seems to be that consultation is all very well but there’s a lot of it about and nothing much seems to come of it. More cynical people talk about government by ‘tick box’ or ‘focus group’.

And to be fair, there may be something in this. After all, in the absence of any wider legitimacy with the electorate, and a very shaky popular mandate, how else is the political elite to know what we are thinking, or to have a hope of re-connecting with us? Chancellor Gordon Brown expressed this anxiety in a recent piece in the Guardian, with his worries over ‘low turnouts, youth disengagement, falling party membership and a long-term decline in trust’. Elsewhere, Labour’s 2005 election supremo Alan Milburn observed: ‘People are becoming disengaged because they are disempowered’.

Just last month two reports – both, funnily enough, called Power to the People – echoed these sentiments. One by Progress – a self-styled group of ‘Labour Progressives’ – is concerned that David Cameron’s Conservatives will succeed in portraying them as ‘out of touch with the aspirations of Modern Britain’. The other report, from the Power Inquiry, and backed by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, thinks that citizens are ‘rarely asked to get involved and rarely listened to’. It goes on to recommend reducing the voting age to 16, and exploiting the apparent success of the Make Poverty History campaign to engage young people.

In a similar vein, the voluntary and community sector have latched onto the issue, seeing it as an opportunity to enhance it’s own role. According to Oxfam, it ‘is up to charities like us to … keep young people engaged’. A survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations comes to the same conclusion. As ‘local councillors [are] elected on turnouts of 20 per cent and MPs on less than 50 per cent’, it is clear that young people are choosing charities over politics to find their grass-roots, as it were. The Home Office Citizenship Survey for 2005 confirms that 16 to 19 year olds are involved in more voluntary activities than any other age group (although ‘volunteering’ can simply mean doing something to help someone who is not a relative).

Make Poverty History also inspired Oxfam’s ‘I’m in’ campaign to recruit a million new volunteers. The most interesting thing about it is the accompanying survey of 16-25 year olds. The questions that Oxfam asked reveal the preoccupations of the ‘engagement’ industry even more than the answers.

In 2006, pledged the respondents, two-thirds will sign petitions and join email campaigns and nearly half will attend rallies and other similar events. If all this ‘activism’ can be decided in advance, and apparently regardless of the particular causes or issues in question, then what is the motivation for being involved in it – whatever ‘it’ might be?

It is perhaps, at this point, worth reminding ourselves that there is nothing inherently good about just getting involved. The Hitler Youth spring to mind, closely followed by flash-mobs, the crowds outside court who throw things at paedophiles in police vans, and the audience that turns up to boo the Big Brother contestants on eviction night. At times the involvement imperative – as I like to call it – seems, like flash-mobs, to be an end in itself.

But in the end what are we supposed to gain from the experience? For all the grand rhetoric, participation tends to involve getting ‘real’ (ie, not worrying our little heads about the big abstract stuff that politicians talk about); getting ‘local’ (eg, joining the residents committee and throwing noisy neighbours off your estate); or getting ‘personal’ (that is, treating your local community as a kind of self-help group). Oddly enough, volunteering initiatives seem to entail all three.

2005 may have been the Year of the Volunteer but there will be no let up, it seems, in the promotion of activities – any activities – that facilitate community involvement, on whatever grounds. According to the Respect Action Plan ‘there is no better example of respect than voluntary activity’ because ‘it brings people together, helping to create common values and strengthening our society’.

But the Home Office website reassures us that ‘it’s not just about helping others – you can also help yourself’. Last year, a Barnardo’s press release on Make a Difference Day claimed, ‘it’ll improve your love life, and your chances of getting a job’ and ‘you’ll be helping vulnerable children. Now there’s a line to prove your sensitive side’.

The same goes for the rest of us. We are no longer just being asked for our views about this or that, but are being mobilised as newly ‘active’ citizens participating in our ‘active’ communities, as the Home Office would have it. In her foreword to People and Participation: How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making, home office minister Hazel Blears says ‘Public participation has become key to achieving goals as diverse as sustainable development, social inclusion, and democratic renewal.’ 

It is certainly true that the need to involve us is now seemingly all-pervasive. Increasingly public services only seem of interest to reformers if they play a role in the civil renewal agenda. But this leaves the big political questions unresolved and puts in their place management by delegation. In their introduction to Together We Can, the government’s involvement action plan, Blears and her boss Charles Clarke, rather give the game away: ‘the best ideas often come from the people at the sharp end’. In other words, we haven’t got any so it’s over to you. 

It is their isolation, not our failure to participate or the lack of opportunities to get involved, that is driving this agenda. It is borne not out of social exclusion, apathy or civic illiteracy but political exhaustion, drift and disorientation. We are in danger of trading the narrowness of the ‘consumer-citizen’ for a far more intrusive and coercive notion of participation. Far from enriching democracy these initiatives are at best a distraction.

In the absence of people actually claiming power, rather than being ‘empowered’ – not a prospect the authorities would in reality embrace – those in charge must resist the urge to reach for their clipboards. It is only when they come up with ideas that begin to grapple with the fundamental issues about the way we live our lives, and the way society is organized, that a public life worth participating in will truly emerge.

Holding up a mirror to society will not take us beyond what already exists. If we are to breathe new life into politics, we need to break free of the orthodoxies of empowerment, participation and civil renewal, and have a real debate.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the session ‘Constructing Communities: Consulting or Faking Civil Society’ as part of the Future of Community Festival, held at Central St Martins College of Art and Design.

Accounting for community spirit

2005 is the Year of the Volunteer – and if you listen to the UK government, altruism has never been so good for you. Feeling a little low after the return to work? Still haven’t got around to joining the gym? Need to lose a bit of weight, or gain a few pounds of self-esteem? Then volunteering is for you.

It may seem a little odd to sell good deeds on the basis of individual self-interest. It is a sign that the government has little faith in our ability to manage our own behaviour or relations with each other, never mind engage with the ‘big issues’ of the wider world, that it should define our motivations so narrowly. The Year of the Volunteer’s website even suggests that volunteering could help to get you out of bed in the morning: ‘improving someone’s life is also a pretty powerful motivator.’ (1)

Launched by home secretary Charles Clarke and chancellor Gordon Brown at the Local Heroes awards ceremony on 10 January 2005, there was more than a little humbug in the latest installment of the government’s ‘civil renewal’ agenda. For Clarke, volunteering ‘builds confidence and skills, raises self-esteem and self-worth’ (2). The government’s aptly named ‘More Than Good Intentions’ report, published to coincide with the first ‘Health Month’ in January 2005, claimed that volunteering is good for your mental and physical health (3).

Officials are worried that young people will want to know what’s in volunteering for them. A government survey found that a quarter of young people would be put off getting involved without some pecuniary award. The government subsequently established the Russell Commission, which was charged with turning around the low levels of voluntary work among young people.

Announcing the setting up of the Russell Commission, then Home Secretary David Blunkett said that young people are often put off by voluntary work because it seems ‘too complicated and confusing’ (4). Officials are now rumoured to be considering proposals for paying volunteers, with the Home Office minister Hazel Blears already endorsing the idea (5). The upcoming Youth Green Paper has been delayed until the Russell Commission reports its findings early in March 2005 (6).

A volunteering industry is booming. A study conducted by researchers at Essex University found an association between voluntary work and ‘life satisfaction’ (7). And activity is frenetic, as organisations such as Volunteering England (8) develop codes of conduct in an apparent bid to professionalise selflessness in good time for ‘Volunteers Week’ in June 2005, and ‘Make a Difference Day’ in October 2005.

But this cost-benefit approach takes the life out of genuine volunteering – which involves helping somebody else for their benefit, or for the sake of broader moral or political goals. And volunteering is supposed to be, well, voluntary, rather than the result of official carrots or sticks. The government machine is trying to reconnect society from the top down, rather than allowing people to build from the bottom up. At a conference earlier this month the chancellor pledged to recruit a million young volunteers from what he described as a ‘goodwill Mountain’ (9), and was cynical enough to exploit the Asian tsunami disaster in search of some ersatz revival of community spirit (10).

It is impossible to reconnect society through these kinds of bureaucratic initiatives, in the absence of a broader vision that might inspire and cohere it. In the government’s desperation to get us involved we are not only being patronised, but volunteering as an intrinsically worthwhile pursuit is being defined out of existence.

When helping others is explicitly promoted as a route to achieving your New Year’s goals you know something is amiss. But volunteering is more than a lifestyle choice. Those who do work for free in the interests of their local neighbourhood, or a cause they believe in, are short-changed by this cynically instrumental approach.

(1) Year of the Volunteer 2005 website

(2) Ministers launch volunteering drive, Guardian, 10 January 2005

(3) Report reveals that volunteers have more than good intentions, Community Service Volunteers, 7 January 2005

(4) Boosting youth participation in communities, Home Office, 17 May 2004

(5) Cash incentives for volunteers, Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 28 December 2004

(6) Youth green paper delayed further, Amy Taylor, Community Care, 10 January 2005

(7) Happiness is a WI, choir and charities, David Derbyshire, Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2004

(8) Volunteering England website

(9) Russell Commission enables young people to drive volunteering

(10) Brown encourages young volunteers , BBC News

Off the Beaten Track

Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers a book written by travel writer and Guardian columnist Dea Birkett, accompanies the exhibition of the same name at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Dea Birkett was talking with Austin Williams (Director, Future Cities Project) at Stanford’s Bookshop, Covent Garden.

The exhibition charts pioneering travelers from 1660 to 1960 in portraits and through the souvenirs they brought back with them. Only a handful of these women are generally known. Amongst them are the anthropologist Mary Douglas and Agatha Christie, not only writing her detective fiction but working with her husband on excavations. Marie Stopes, famous for her pioneering birth control work, spent time studying coal and fossil plants on an Island off Japan. But most are anything but household names, a testament to their lowly status compared with that of men. Though many of those featured in the book and exhibition were clearly privileged, they tended to travel out of necessity – for financial reasons, on doctor’s orders, or as a means of escape from a relationship or the constraints of domesticity.

But perhaps something else took hold, a curiosity that sustained their interest and continues today. Birkett described how she loves the sensation of movement and the feeling of going somewhere. She understands the restlessness of these women and the sense that ‘arrival is almost a disappointment’. Perhaps the author had in mind Amy Johnson, unusual in so far as her interest began and ended in the cockpit of her airplane, beating the distance world record in 1930 before her untimely death in another pioneering flight. But all were undeniably extraordinary women. Many, often unmarried, were frowned upon. Some were lucky enough to be accepted as ‘honorary males’.

These women endured much greater physical discomfort than we do today. They were sometimes sent to far off countries to recuperate from debilitating illnesses. For us, leaving the country supposedly brings with it endless perils to our health, from the air rage, 9/11 groupies and vein trouble associated with the flight to the risks wherever we are foolish enough to venture. But today’s explorers make a ‘show of risk’, Birkett said, when they are doing little more than mimicking the pioneers of the past. She thinks the rest of us live out our fantasies through them. Perhaps there is something in this. Since the relatively recent boom in world travel with ever-cheaper package holidays and economy flights available to more and more, most of us to travel ‘with a small ‘t”, as she put it.

The Victorian period dominates the exhibition, providing a suitably stern rebuke to our meek times. Isabella Bird, considered an ‘invalid’ at home, developed photographs while hauled by opium-fueled boatman on the Yangtze River. Bird is an imposing figure, pictured in austere Victorian garb outside wrought iron gates. Similarly a poignant photograph of Margaret Stevenson, mother of novelist Robert Louis, looks as majestic as the ‘Empress of India’ herself, on an informal visit to her fatally tubercular son in Samoa. There is also Mary Kingsley – the rather spooky voodoo-like power figure (or ‘Nkisi’) collected on her trip to the Congo in the 1890s is punctured with nails and blades that were thought to ‘activate’ it. Her canoe apparently was prone to overturning in crocodile infested waters, and a only ‘good thick skirt’ saved her after an unfortunate fall into a pit of stakes.

But despite her exploits and hardy nature she insisted ‘no woman equals a really great man’. Gertrude Bell, alongside Laurence of Arabia, traced the line in the sand that led to the formation of ill-fated Iraq. However, her more than womanly deeds abroad didn’t stop Bell opposing the extension of the franchise at home. The first woman to visit Timbuktu, Dorothy Mills, ‘remained elegant throughout’. But Florence Dixie, war correspondent on the Zulu War in 1879 promoted sexual equality at home. Barbara Bodichon was a keen advocate of women’s rights and was to found Girton, Cambridge’s first college for women. And Clare Sheridan, also ahead of her times, caused her cousin Winston Churchill much embarrassment with her advocacy of free love and adoring sculptures of Lenin and Trotsky.

Attitudes to slavery, and even on occasions aspects of empire, were rather more hostile. Harriet Martineau spoke out against slavery in a tour of America, as did the author of anti-slavery novel ‘Oroonoko’ (1688), Aphra Bean, and Fanny Trollope, mother of novelist Anthony. Fanny Kemble was to divorce her rich American husband when she discovered his vast wealth a consequence of his involvement in the slave trade. Flora Shaw, Colonial Editor at The Times, and responsible for the naming of Nigeria where she was to live with her husband the first Governor General is the exception, described as a ‘firm believer in the benefits of the British Empire’. In 1836, Emily Eden abroad with her brother, India’s Governor General, was clearly more troubled, declaring ‘We horrid English have … spoilt it all’.

Eden’s outburst has a contemporary ring. The ecological footprint of the boot of the humble backpacker is often cited as taking a step too far even by those intent on minimizing their impact on virgin soils. The pioneering spirit itself is implicated in the destruction of bio- and cultural-diversity alike. As if to illustrate this, as one contributor from the invited audience saw it, travel and exploration are as much a ‘subset of trade’ as they are personal journeys into the unknown. Consequently, today’s trekkers and tourists are arguably required to lug an altogether weightier baggage around with them than their forbears despite what Birkett rightly described as their comparatively luxurious starting points.

Travel doesn’t need to be angst-ridden or have a higher purpose, she said. Some of us enjoy going away and there are others who feel compelled to go beyond the experience and somehow document it. Many of the women described did just this, sustaining their travels through painting, photography, writing, or were otherwise driven by a desire to know – doing archaeological digs, embarking on scientific studies – or else keeping detailed diaries for personal consumption back home. But these were unusually driven individuals with stories to tell of their exploits. The point is, said Birkett, we shouldn’t feel obliged by ‘morally loaded’ travel writing to go beyond the purely recreational.

But despite this defence of travel as something other than a guilt trip she was far more ambivalent towards the women themselves. They were actually cowards – the brave ones stayed at home, she said. In the invited audience, Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, though sympathetic to Birkett’s criticism of their allegedly indulgent escapism (a view not evident I have to say in either the book or the exhibition itself), was nonetheless inclined to embrace the ‘romantic’ adventures into the unknown that they have come to embody. These women were going beyond themselves. Today’s travelers, in contrast, are typically self-indulgent with far narrower horizons than those that went before them, she said.

Birkett conceded there had been a narcissistic turn. Western travelers increasingly exhibit ‘deep self hatred’ and yet, as she had the earlier insight to note, think indigenous cultures are so feeble that they can’t cope with our presence. What is regarded as entirely positive and rather cosmopolitan over here is seen as wholly destructive and something to be stopped when it’s over there. ‘They’ are much more resilient than we give them credit for, she insisted. But what about us?

I passed on the opportunity to dress up like an Arab boy riding in the Syrian Desert; and refused to try on a corset whilst learning to say ‘hello’ in the languages of the countries visited. I wasn’t convinced that by rearranging a broken piece of imitation pottery I would somehow feel like Kathleen Kenyon, credited with rewriting the history of Palestine through her excavations in Jericho. Yet, irritating as the obligatory and infantilising ‘activity bays’ were, more striking was the continuity with the child playing in a section where we/they were invited to assemble building blocks in the shape of a temple, mosque or church. Though not explicit – perhaps for fear of excluding the inner-child in us gallery goers – this was presumably to keep the kids quiet whilst providing them with an appropriately multi-faith grounding in architecture.

Freya Stark’s camera, passport and notebook presented in a glass case were far more engaging, and they just sat there. Stark was quite a woman, still traveling at 90 years of age, saying ‘to awake quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world’. And this is the question I was left with after listening to Birkett and wondering around the National Portrait Gallery Exhibition. What did these women have in common? Were they really ever fellow travelers? The format of the book and the layout of the exhibition suggested not. Chronology and geography were, I think, adopted by default. For all their similarities they lived very different lives.

Indeed, one might simply conclude that the personal ain’t political and leave it at that. Certainly, however progressive or enlightened some may have been or appeared to be, in the end they were still very much creatures of their time. But this is not necessarily to say this was a bad thing. These women’s endeavours are, and almost without exception – if you put the politics aside – inspiring. They make you wonder what exactly has gone so wrong that their sheer determination to find things out, to dare to immerse themselves in the entirely foreign now seems so problematic in spite of the air miles we routinely tot up today. Despite their very individual and gutsy, extraordinary journeys they were to a greater or lesser degree – and gender aside – going with the grain of the prevailing ideas of their times. ‘Progress’ wasn’t tainted in the same way as it is now – (indeed, the scare quotes are very much of our own making). These women weren’t obliged to find any significance in their travels beyond their own curiosity. And yet evidently found more because of it.

National Portrait Gallery till 31 October 2004

Civil Society

The perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre had spent the morning bowling with their victims-to-be. Timothy McVeigh and his fellow bombers were similarly intent on strikes of a recreational character before they eventually unleashed themselves on Oklahoma City.

Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s thesis on the ‘decline of civic engagement’ is flawed says Michael Edwards, director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Programme. The ills of society cannot be arrested at the level of voluntary association. So much for social capital, he suggests.

But the ‘associational model’, of which Putnam is the most prominent of advocates, does offer up some useful insights. Despite the rise of ‘self-help’ groups, for instance, traditional mass-based organisations, from the trades unions to the Catholic Church, are apparently in free-fall. Those that have found a footing have done so at the expense of a distancing from their ‘social base’, as Edwards puts it.

The author complains that ‘dilemmas remain embedded in polities that cannot resolve them’. True, but instead of radical solutions Edwards’ are of a kind with the Third Way ethos of ‘enforcing the civil’. His proposals for revitalising public life are already adopted by governing elites desperate to engage with their electorates. Indeed, ‘civic education’ and obsessing over political finances and voting procedure are already de rigueur both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite alluding to the vacuity of public debate, Edwards fails to address the problem head on. ‘Associational life was radically reshaped in the West at the end of the nineteenth century’, he says, and ‘it can be reshaped again’. But in the absence of the intellectual or political contestation that so characterised this earlier period, the revival of such a salon sensibility is surely a long way off.