SE24’s Harriet Lamb shares her belief in community power

During January we are  using our blog space to give each of the SE24 team the opportunity to share their vision. Harriet Lamb, vice-chair of SE24, shares her vision of what people can achieve when they work together in community.

This year is not going to be easy. Everyday, we will be dealing with the consequences of seismic changes in governments globally, and their actions will be harder to predict. We may see hard-won social and environmental progress blown off course. So now more than ever, instead waiting or hoping for governments to do the right thing, we need to nurture small-scale local initiatives in the community, organising at the grassroots the change we want to see in the world. That’s as true of countering climate change as it is of making trade fair or building peace.

I have always believed in community power and in these three personal examples, I have sought to put those ideas into practice.

1. Sustainable Energy – SE24

Believing in the power of ordinary people is why I got involved in forming SE24 as a tiny local solar power company – a community benefit society 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: just a handful of volunteers. 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 by more than half the rate paid for solar energy. It was a serious blow to all our well-laid plans, and to the whole UK solar industry. 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 other community institutions as we seek to operate with the new lower rates. Government policies will always set the conditions for initiatives. But community initiatives can build popular support for change from the base, whatever the climate.

As Mark wrote in his recent blog, in 2015 the UK produced a quarter 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. Community power is a reality.

2. Fair trade

Likewise, I spent 16 years seeking to grow the Fairtrade movement. We were never going 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 rose 16% 2014-15, 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 which took away 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.

3. International Alert

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 whose 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 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 this year, with so much uncertainty about what Governments will do, it is more important than ever, 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.

Harriet Lamb 

Vice-chair of SE24 and CEO of International Alert 

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