The Biggest Society

Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Peter Smith

In the post-Olympics euphoria, much was said about the resurgence in volunteering. In part, interest was driven by the wide acclamation given to the Games Makers, those Adidas-clothed retirees and students (and the simply curious) who happily steered lost visitors around venues, checked tickets and sold programmes. It was also thanks to the success of Team GB, whose sporting prowess propelled Britons off the couch and into the swimming pool, onto the running track and out to the playing field, creating a mini-boom in sports club participation and membership.

Now Britain has come down from its Olympics high, it is right to ask, what made the Games such a success four months ago, and what political applicability does this have?

It is obvious that the Conservatives need new approaches if they are to win an outright majority in two years – and it’s not just the economy, stupid. Amongst a smorgasbord of ideas, much ink has been spilt assessing whether the flagship Big Society idea should be ditched altogether or just in parts. It’s too hard to explain, moan some; it benefits the middle classes and ignores the poor, grumble others. Yet, if its energy is tapped into, the Olympic success should see off much of this criticism, as will the development of concrete Big Society projects like expansion of the Reserve Forces, the inauguration of the Big Society Bank and the promotion of mutual and co-operative societies.

There is another salient lesson from last summer’s triumphs at the Olympics and the Jubilee Celebrations: Britannia has a global image which she must foster and renew. This is not optional. International trade is a mainstay of the economy and the UK economy is more globalized than most. The projection of soft and hard power is essential to retaining benign influence, protecting British interests and shaping future strategic and industrial partnerships. There is presently a huge amount of goodwill for the British brand, which diminish if it is not nourished.

One of the principal ways nourishment can be sustained is through international development. It is short-sighted to see development as a frippery that only an affluent nation can afford and as something to ditch during a recession (even one as prolonged and deep as the present storm). All three parties pledged before the last Election to peg Official Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income (GNI), a target soon to be enshrined in legislation. This will mean that by the end of 2013, total UK ODA will rise to £12bn, up from around £9bn today.  

Once the ODA/GNI link has been established, it is unlikely any more money will be forthcoming for years to come as the Government’s economic priorities are debt reduction and growth. Andrew Mitchell is to be commended for improving the transparency, accountability and efficient delivery of ODA, reducing aid to space-exploring India, adopting the ‘UKaid from the British people’ logo, and for focussing aid more closely so as to maximise recipient (and donor) benefits. But Justine Greening will have far fewer tricks up her short sleeves. It is time, therefore, for DFID, to embrace the Big Society project, and for the Government actively to encourage and facilitate British groups who do good work overseas.

The Conservative Party itself is a pioneer of this approach. David Cameron set up Project Umubano in 2007, an overseas social action project in Rwanda and now Sierra Leone (another project, Maja, goes to Bangladesh and Bosnia). In 2012, over 100 Conservative activists volunteered to teach children, treat the sick and provide business education and sporting opportunities. A group including lawyers, nurses, young professionals and students, went to Sierra Leone for a fortnight. Using contacts fostered on previous trips and through the offices of Stephen Crabb MP, we taught community activists (who provide free local legal advice and advocacy), gave lectures on mining agreements, alternative dispute resolution and other law topics to the national bar association, and provided training to senior government law officers including a negotiation exercise for the Solicitor General and her team. Developing these aspects of legal practice is essential if Sierra Leone is to exploit fairly its largest source of wealth, its extractive industries.  

Umubano is not unique, but it shows how British volunteers can be co-ordinated to provide useful work overseas. But for our actions, none of this would have been provided. Because we were only ‘quasi-official’ we had no targets to meet, and could be adaptive to local conditions like the difficulty of travel (Freetown’s potholes are horrendous) and flexible timings. We were largely self-funded, and took time off work to attend (most using up their holiday allowance). The Party administered the Project centrally, and it helped to have their backing to liaise effectively with the FCO and NGOs locally.

In his analysis of the Big Society, Jesse Norman MP stresses the importance of institutions – like membership of sports clubs and political parties – in developing a community of active participation and volunteering, or the very ties that bind us as equal citizens in a nation. In expanding the Big Society to international development, the Government would harness the cultural and emotional power in the Olympics and Jubilee and project it into the world, while enriching the domestic Big Society concept. The initial steps could be simple, like creating a comprehensive database of projects and points-of-contact overseas (similar to what Advocates for International Development does for the legal profession or the VSO’s list of employed positions).

In time, embassies could provide assistance akin to UK Trade and Investment’s help to businesses. In the end, once the recession has ended, Britain would have a worthwhile legacy of social and cultural participation and a network of personal ties that, albeit not without risk, would serve this country well.