Social Policy, ideology and the crisis: Who’s vision of society is the State creating?

This is the first of two articles which began life as essays for a community work course.

This article explores the influence of ideology in the social policy decisions of the State. It highlights how, since the 1960s, the State has pursued a capitalist programme based on foreign direct investment while it has ofloaded its responsibilities onto increasingly socially controlled communities.

Community work, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a distinct form of organising for social change, more information on which can be found here, and here.

Who’s interests are protected by the social policies of the State?

The Converging Crises

Today in Ireland and globally we are faced with multiple and converging economic and ecological crises that match the most severe post-war conditions of 1940s Europe (IMF, 2009:28) and present unprecedented challenges in the form of peak fossil fuels and climate change (Kuecker et al, 2010).

In seeking to explore the influence of ideologies in the development of social policy I will note the national and international social policy responses to these multiple crises. I will explore the policy decisions of the Irish State in response to the market crisis and contextualise these by drawing some comparasons with the United Kingdom. In doing so I seek to show the overarching trend in social policy responses to the crises serve to further imbed systems of global neoliberal capitalism to the detriment of social and environmental justice.

Social policy measures are an ‘intervention in reality’ –a la Freire (1993:62), if not quite in his spirit- which at some level attempt to shape the world according to the ideals of those who implement them; social policy therefore necessarily reflects the ideologies of those who create it- whether consciously or not.

I will therefore approach this discussion by noting that the central question for any community worker committed to equality and social justice is “who’s ideology is implemented in social policy?”- in other words, “which vision of society is the State working towards?” Developing an analysis of this influence of ideologies supports the development of an effective praxis (Friere, 1993; Ledwith, 2005) which enables the voices of the most marginalised to be heard in the development of social policy.

Ultimately, it will position social justice advocates to challenge the hegemonic discourses evinced to explain the crisis. Gamble (2009, 141-3) notes that this is essential: ‘one of the main aspects [of dealing with the crisis] is the battle over how [it] is to be understood, because that determines what can be done, what should be done and who has the legitimacy to do it’.

The Hegemony of Capitalism  

‘Ideas by themselves rarely change the direction of public policy: for them to have any lasting and real effect they must conspire with circumstances’ (Lavalette and Pratt, 2006:11). Today we are beginning to see the effects of policy decisions taken when the circumstances of a crisis meet neo-liberal ideas which would have been impossible to implement without such a crisis.  The Irish state has followed historical trends towards market liberalisation since its acceptance of Marshall Aid forced it to dismantle its protectionist policies in the 1950s (O Hearn, 1997: 92). From this point the State built a system that pursued industrialisation through the attraction of ‘ready made capital’ in the form of multi-national companies based on TK Whitaker’s 1958 Programme for Economic Development.

However these historical ideological trends towards neoliberalism have traditionally been censured by the need to maintain welfare capitalism to temper the residualising effects of the free market economy (Boden, 2006; George and Wilding, 1986: 17). In effect this has meant reluctantly collectivist responses such as the creation of the welfare state in Britain or the development of the community development projects in Ireland to counter the worst of the 1980s recession.

All the same throughout the Celtic Tiger period attempts to shape social policy discourse which challenged the “Whitaker Paradigm” were ignored. Mjoset’s (1992) NESC report noted the frailty of building our economy on MNCs. In the globalised world economy, created by the Bretton Woods agreement, companies shift capital from where wealth creating activities occur to where tax rates are lowest, with ‘long term negative implications for low-tax juristictions’ as a race to the bottom occurs (McNair et al, 2009: 78, 80; Crowley, 1997: 41).

Now though, circumstances “conspire” in order to negate the necessity to temper the free market as the Government uses the economic collapse to generate a debilitating discourse of debt which precludes any critical opposition to the social policy choices the State is making by framing these choices as necessary steps to foster recovery.

Allman (2011) analyses the roots of the crises in the failure of neoliberal capitalism itself, and in an evincement of Marx (2003:8) the crises are being overcome by the ‘conquest of new markets and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.’

One social policy response of the Government has been to begin to privatise property and services previously held in the national interest (Tasc, 2012). Privatisation does not particularly benefit the state; ‘the republic went down this road before with the sale of Eircom and the state continues to bear the costs of that ill-advised divestiture’ (Irish Times, 2012[1]). Florio (2004) has studied the welfare impact of UK government privatisations in the 1990s and noted that the net beneficiaries were the wealthiest fifth of the population.

In effect this means that public assets are removed from their position in serving the common good and made to serve owning class elites. Similarly, the Conservative-led coalition have championed the ‘Big Society’, the creator of which notes his belief that ‘capitalism is the greatest tool of wealth creation, social advance[ment] and economic development ever known’ (Norman, 2011).

As a community worker I strongly critique this position, noting the uneven distribution of fiscal, social and economic benefits accrued by this ‘tool’. These inherent inequalities are masked by the Big Society. In this way the party has placed well established Tatcherite anti-collectivist policies in a new frame, allowing them to justify policies which will essentially adversely affect the majority of the population by appealing to the “natural” sources of welfare- the family, voluntary and market services (George and Wilding, 1985:40).

The Irish Government has pursued similar approaches in seeking to have the community and voluntary sector take direct responsibility for service provision. Today the ‘Active Citizen’ (Taskforce on Active Citizenship, 2007) who has a range of responsibilities to provide self-help solutions in the community, represents the appropriation of civil society space by New Right discourses (Ledwith, 2005; Mayo, 1999: 3). In this way the state can neglect responsibility for the protection and promotion of the common good.

Potentially radical community work, which might question this obfuscation of responsibility, has been subsumed into Local Development Companies and tasked primarily with labour market activation (Government of Ireland, 2011). In this vein, NESC (2005) has stated its belief that government’s role is to act as a ‘regulator […] harnessing the characteristic contributions of non-profit organisations’ while reassessing its own role in direct service provision.

Ordered society in jeopardy

Youth work in particular is a civil society space which has been greatly affected by these developments in social policy. Lavalette and Pratt (2006: 182-3, 200) note how ‘a desire on the part of the state to exert greater control over the behaviour of working-class children and their families [shapes] the state’s regulation of childhood. With the ‘hallowing out of the state’ (Jessop, 1994: 262), youth work organisations have been left to fulfil the state’s social policy objectives for young people, which operates out of a broad concern for controlling the deviant “Hoodied Other” from whom ‘authority itself [appears] to be under attack [meaning that] all of the conventions on which ordered society is based will be in jeopardy’ (Government of Ireland, 1993: 26).

Increasing emphasis on youth work to “get the kids off the streets”, a particularly strong sentiment of the Garda Youth Diversion Projects, highlights how youth work has become ‘part of the State’s ensemble of measures geared towards [controlling] those most marginalised to labour markets’ (Bowden, 2006: 29).

There is, therefore, a clear link between the reluctantly collectivist policies of the state and the need to negate challenges to inherently unequal free-market system from those which the system marginalises. (George and Wilding, 1986: 62) Heald notes that this is a basic principle of Keynesian economics, the archetects of which ‘were not political or social revolutionaries; rather [they were] far sighted members of the old order, they saw how much else widespread misery and unemployment put at risk (Heald, 1983: 4).

Social policy approaches in this vein will never be instrumental in achieving social change for social and environmental justice, at best they will “keep a lid on things” and occasionally fail to do even that- as was the case with the recent UK riots. Community work’s values as established by Towards Standards (CWC, 2008)  highlight the central values of equality, freedom and solidarity as part of a commitment to democracy and radical social welfare (George and Wilding, 1986: 69-70). This has created an ideological schism between community work and the state which has long been a point of conflict..

However with the increasing hegemony of the neoliberal ideology, its proponents no longer need to placate the opposition and can therefore act with relative impunity under the cover of the austerity discourse. Hence we have seen mergers, such as the Combat Poverty Agency being subsumed into what is now the Department of Social Protection, and funding cuts across the sector- notably to the Community Workers’ Co-operative who lost all funding having been an extremely vocal opponant of many of the state’s social policy decisions over the past twenty years.

Through an exploration of the social policy decisions made by the state here and in the UK as we face into another annus horribilis it is clear that ideology underpins social policy and demonstrated that understanding the influences of ideologies is central to understanding the development of social policy. Community and youth work which attempts to work towards equality and social justice will fail to make progress without such an analysis of the hegemonic discourse which has found its expression in social policy.

While it is essential to foster prefigurative politics, where community workers live in congruence with the values they espouse, it is not enough. Analysis will enable community workers to go further and fight the ‘battle’, as Gamble suggests; to challenge the “common sense” of austerity. This is essential because ultimately the state is not some distant entity. It is a creation of its members[2] and social policy and government expenditure should be made to reflect our common interests, rather than the economic and political elite.


Allman, P. (2010), Critical education against global capitalism: Karl Marx and revolutionary critical education. London: Sense Publishers.

Boden, M. (2006), ‘Youth, governance and the city: towards a critical urban sociology of youth crime and disorder prevention’ in Youth Studies Ireland 1 (1), 19- 39.

Crowley, N. (1997), ‘Solidarity based on a mutual struggle for development in Ireland and Mozambique’, in Common cause. Dublin: Printwell.

CWC (2008), Towards standards for quality community work: An all Ireland statement of values principles and work standards. Galway: CWC.

Florio,  M. (2004) The great divestiture: privatisation in the UK. London: MIT Press.

Freire (1993), Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

Gamble, A. (2009), The spectre and the feast. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

George, V. and Wilding,P. (1986) Ideology and social welfare. London: Routledge.

Government of Ireland (1993), Urban crime and disorder: report of the Interdepartmental Group. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Government of Ireland (2011) Comprehensive review of expendature: Environment, Community and Local Government. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Heald, D. (1983) Public expenditure. London: Robertson.

IMF (2009), Ireland: IMF country report. Washington D.C.: IMF

Irish Times (2012) ‘Incoherent privatisation policy a cause for concern’, available at

Jessop, B. (1994) ‘Post-Fordism and the State’, in A. Amin (ed) Post-Fordism: A reader, 251–279. Oxford: Blackwell

Kuecker et al, (2010) ‘Turning to community in times of crisis’, in Community Development Journal, 46 (2): 245-264.

Ledwith, M. (2006) Community development: A critical approach. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Lavalette M.and Pratt, A. (2006) Social policy theories concepts and issues. London: Sage.

Marx, K. (2003) The communist manifesto. London: The Merlin Press.

Mjoset, L. (1992) The Irish economy in a comparative institutional perspective. Dublin: Stationary Office.

McNair et al, (2009) ‘Tax justice: the impact of global tax policy on developing countries and the role Ireland can play’, in Trocaire Development Review. Maynooth: Trocaire.

NESC (2005) The developmental welfare state. Dublin: Stationary Office.

Norman, J. (2011) The case for real capitalism. London: Free Enterprise Group.

O Hearn, D. (1997) ‘Global restructuring and the Irish political economy’ in Clancey et al (eds.), Irish society: sociological perspectives. Dublin: IPA.

TASC, (2012) The strategic role of state assets: reframing the privatisation debate. Dublin: TASC

Taskforce on Active Citizenship, (2007) Report of the taskforce. Dublin: Stationary Office.

[2] I use ‘members’ rather than ‘citizens’ in acknowledgement that not everyone who contributes to the development of the state has been admitted to citizenship.


Bordering on Madness

If people are people…

‘Please don’t come to Laâyoune,’ said the voice. ‘It’s too dangerous with all the secret police and army here.’ With that the receiver went dead and I was left standing alone in a dark and dusty Marrakech internet cafe. The whole incident was like a cliché from a 60s spy novel; but this was the year 2012 and very real. I had been speaking with a representative of the Polisaro Front in Laâyoune, the capital of Western Sahara.

The Polisaro Front are the government of the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara who have been occupied, repressed and tortured by Morocco since it invaded that state in 1975. Western Sahara is recognised by the UN as Africa’s last colony. The body has deployed a tiny, under-resourced and overstretched force of peacekeepers to the region to monitor a 1991 ceasefire between the Sahrawi people and Moroccan army.

Since the invasion, 75, 000 Sahrawis remain in torturous stasis. They survive in refugee camps in the desert, physically hidden from sun-seeking tourists by the omissions of the Moroccan tourist board and a little mentioned defensive wall called ‘the Berm.’ At 2,500 kilometres the Berm is the world’s longest continuous minefield, with missiles, tanks and soldiers pointed into the desert ensuring Sahrawi subjection and silence. Reminiscent of Gaza, and the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in the 70s, this is the world’s forgotten struggle.

The Polisaro representative was right, of course. Just last year, Sahrawi community organisers attempted to join the Occupy wave which took its cue from the Arab Spring in Tunisia and spread out across the world from New York’s Zuccotti Park. Their attempts to create a Sahrawi Occupy camp resulted in violent clashes with the police ending in the burning of the camp and the murder of a number of the Sahrawi organisers by Moroccan security forces.

The Polisaro representative explained that our presence in the Western Sahara, off the usual surfers’ trails, would incense security forces and bring their unwanted attention onto Polisaro activities.  The only alternative would be to enter Polisaro controlled lands form Algeria, behind the Berm, but the border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since Algeria supported the Sahrawi during Morocco’s invasion.

Western Sahara remains a physical and political anomaly, a tragedy evinced in daily struggle for the Sahrawi people. The possibility of visiting and learning from the Sahrawi community workers fighting for their rights in these harsh conditions is what had attracted us to get off our flight home from Liberia in the first place. Now, with the safety of the Polisaro activists uncertain it would be stupid to arrive in Laâyoune and start making political soundings that could jeopardise their safety even further.

As we left the internet cafe and faced the blinding sunlight of Marrakech we realised that we now found ourselves in Morocco with hardly any money, our plans scuppered. We decided to hitchhike to Fes, across the foothills of the great Atlas Mountains, and from there to make it to the coast and the boat to mainland Spain. This fall-back plan evolved into a wonderful experience which exposed us at every turn to the warmth and generosity of the Moroccan people; loving families, retired couples, young people and children. Everyone we met was curious about where we were coming from, how we enjoyed Morocco and if we wanted to share some delicious mint tea and food with them. Being tired and hungry hitchhikers these reminders of the generosity of the human spirit kept us going. Each experience left us smiling in amazement that these strangers could be so kind.

The humbling kindness made the realities of the situation in the Western Sahara all the more strange. How could we experience such wonderful hospitality from beautiful people while the same people were supposedly happy to force the Sahrawi to live a sub-human existence confined behind a minefield, tortured and disappeared for speaking out? Being Irish I thought of our island’s perennial contestations between multiple traditions of culture and religion, all of whom call Ireland home but have different visions of what ‘Ireland’ should be.

Hence, centuries old struggles continued into modern times so that by the 1960s there was effectively a civil war between the IRA and unionist paramilitaries, often supported by the British Army and Northern Irish police. My mother tells a story about my granddad, who at the height of what became euphemistically known as ‘the Troubles’, went missing in a Protestant area of Belfast. As a Southern Catholic, he would have been expected to be in serious danger. Yet, when found, he was in a pub laughing and joking with other men from this Northern Protestant area as if they were old friends.

People are people everywhere, really quite generous and wonderful when we meet face to face. Why then do they do such terrible things to each other?

‘The other’

‘Well it was ours all along’ said one of our Couchsurfing hosts when we questioned him about the Western Sahara. Moroccan history is possibly even more complex than Irish history! Various layers of Arab empires, Berber tribes and European domination by France and Spain all lead to a history from which it’s hard to decipher in a black and white way what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. So yes, at one stage the Sahrawi peoples were under the control of Moroccan sultans. But when it comes to human rights and freedom from oppression such historical empires hardly matter. If that were the case then Sweden could lay claim to Dublin because it was founded by Scandinavian Vikings and the Irish in turn could lay claim to the west coast of English which they once occupied back when St. Patrick was a young boy.

In reality, people simply move about. For thousands of years this was done without regulation. Then borders were created as artificial and arbitrary boundaries of power which were then legitimised by cultural otherness (‘we are different from you because of x, y, z’) and inculcated with fear of ‘the other’; the enemy who supposedly sought to destroy the culture and this new imagined community now called the nation.

Today, the United States is the classic example of this. It is a nation almost entirely held together by the myth of what it means to be American- a myth which is so often defined not by what it is but by who is ‘out there’ trying to destroy it. This myth has gone into overdrive in the post 9/11 world. It holds the nation together despite huge disparities of wealth, the continued ghettoisation of people of colour and a huge oppressed working class who survive on measly wages and minimal social protection. Rather than questioning or challenging this, young guys from the impoverished and marginalised doldrums of America are encouraged to consider a career in the Army. Many of them take it up given that there are few other chances to escape. Rather than asking why they have been dealt a shitty hand in ‘the land of opportunity’ they are diverted to thinking about those terrorists who will put an end to their way of life.

But what is this ‘way of life’ only the internalised oppression of ‘common sense’ capitalist exploitation? These myths of culture and history are very powerful. They control the way in which we approach all situations because ‘history is the space in which every man [sic] approaches his [sic] consciousness’, and elite interests are the ones who decide what story the history books will tell. So we have nations-and nationalism- which protect elite interests.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century millions of the poorest British and Irish working class men fought in the British Army across the globe. They were sold a story of empire which was spun from the twin webs of ‘race’ and nationalism. This was a hideous obfuscation of the reality that British Government was a collection of extraordinarily rich men who used their army of the desperate poor to secure access to natural resources and cheap (slave) labour across the globe. They did this by exploiting the myth of the other.

In order to sustain the myth, protecting the fragile imagined community, some people must necessarily be denied membership. Those who have membership must be encouraged to feel different from those who do not. This is done by asserting that particular cultural traditions, languages, religious beliefs and in the extreme skin colour are allowed or disallowed in the imagined community. This, of course leads to racism, oppression and dehumanisation of ‘the other’. The creation of the myth of ‘the other’ perfectly suits the elites of our world, whether British aristocrats, American political classes or Moroccan kings.

By socialising the poor and marginalised who suffer under their rule to fear ‘the other’, elites can ensure that the working classes can become amongst the most violent oppressors. This can be seen time and time again. Today in Belfast Loyalists are rioting over when the Union Jack is flown on city hall. The piece of cloth is just that, nothing more, but what the fight fudges is the fact that those communities are facing increasing social residualisation in depressing council estate conditions; they are working class communities with no opportunities turning once again on ‘the other’ to protect what little they have.

And of course, our wonderful Moroccan hosts. The power of the myth of ‘the other’ is clearly at work with them. ‘Ours all along’ says the Couchsurfer, almost conscious that the history and culture are so often evoked to wrap a legitimising veil around terrible injustice. It is that creation of borders, at first imagined and then constructed with barbed wire and minefields, which allows us to justify the pain we cause to those outside our imagined community, our nation, our border.

Thus the people who showed us such warmth unquestioningly condemned the Sahrawi to such brutal torture, repression and oppression. People just like them are stationed on the Berm, are working in gulag-like prisons and are the ones who murdered the Sahrawi Occupy activists. Their actions fuelled by racism, their racism fuelled by the myth of ‘the other’.

Europe’s only land border with Africa

The air was thick with smog, billowing from the exhausts of hundreds of waiting cars which sat, engines purring, waiting for their passengers to clear the border crossing between Morocco and Spain at Melilla. The artificial glow from the floodlights high above gave the whole scene an eerie feeling as fluorescent yellow mixed with the grey haze of the cars. It was a very tense situation. Despite there being a seemingly omnipresent armed police presence, disorder reigned supreme. The border crossing seemed to bring out the worst in everyone.

Crowds gathered around check-point booths clutching passports, pushing, shoving and shouting. Some men were controlling things at the top of the mass of squabbling people, and for a fee you could get your passport to the top of the queue. Every so often someone would be angered by a supposed queue skipper and a fight would break out. The tightly packed crowd would be pushed apart with bodies and barriers crashing loudly to the ground. This violent cacophony was met with little more than a few disinterested whistle blasts from the police and a lecture on how to form a queue, which was, of course, ignored.

In the midst of this suffocating chaos, the police caught a woman who had been hiding in a car and trying to cross the border. She was dragged, screaming from the boot. At the same time, taking advantage of this distraction, a group of people started to hop the fence, perhaps hoping that at least one of them would make it. Police sprang from everywhere, whistles piercing through the shouting. At it’s not bullets, I thought.

The Mediterranean crossing is the most dangerous in the world. Every year hundreds of refugees die or disappear, presumed drowned, as they attempt to get from Africa to Europe and the chance of a better life. Yet because of the colour of my skin, an accident of birth, I survived this crossing. The absolute injustice of borders is unbelievable, and when seen first-hand at one of only two land borders between Africa and Europe it cannot be ignored. It must not be ignored! The close like between neo-colonial development models, neoliberal exploitation of the Global South and the converging environmental crisis require transformative changes.

The issue of borders is at the core of this. There is no border seperating nationalism, racism, colonialism, neoliberalism and the destruction of our environment.

Metro Eireann on the Western Sahara situation, ‘Africa’s last colony’:,3695

Western Sahara Resource Watch:

Meeting an old friend for the first time

    I was a weird child. I can see that clearly now from the safe distance of a decade since I entered my teens. I read a lot. I was in the scouts. Jesus, I even practised first aid for two hours a week! This list, combined with an utter absence of style, secured my position squarely amongst the losers.
    Coming, as I did, from a rough working class primary school, it was even harder to engage with people in my new secondary school. Even the freaks scrambled to disassociate themselves from me. The teachers at my primary school came from what might best be called the crowd control school of pedagogy. They didn’t believe their young charges would ever amount to anything, and this lack of belief was reflected in a lack of respect for the children.
    Secondary school was a complete counterpoint; a liberating experience. But not being used to any form of freedom, let alone a modicum of respect from a teacher, I found it difficult to know how to act amongst my new peers. It took me quite a while to tame my madness to suit the mores of this new middle class space I found myself occupying.
    Throughout all these troublesome late childhood experiences there were two things which brought a comforting continuity. One, of course, was the scouts. The other was a 30 year old woman from Norfolk in England. Her name was Beth Orton. She was a beautiful woman who often she wore a red string top which contrasting sharply with her milky skin and flowing jet black bangs. Her freckled face wore a tight-lipped sylphic smile.
     It was a mischievous expression, which suggested that she was about to break some rule or other and it certainly seemed to me that rules could not be made to constrain her. She often talked about staying up all night and dancing home the next morning, drinking cider on her porch, adventures to Paris, sunshine, love and beauty. ‘Live as you dream’, she’d say.
    She’d had a troubled childhood. Both her parents had passed away. When her mother died she was barely 19, and in coping with the loss she even ran away to Tibet and became a Buddhist nun. She was shy and self conscious when talking, yet quirky and funny; a really strong woman in her own retiring way.
    And here she was. In my room: this incredible, breathtaking woman so full of sunshine yet tinged with tragedy. I could hardly believe it.
   Now. Let’s stop here to clarify a few things about our relationship, Beth and I.
   I was eleven years old. She was twenty years my senior. Our relationship, I’m willing to admit now, was very wrong. Or at least it would have been if it had been any more physical than the worn-out tape of her songs I listened to on repeat alone in my bedroom. Alas our love affair was even more fictional than the digital radio station of Beth’s native Norfolk.
   Yet she is an indelible part of my life. Her songs have formed so much of the soundtrack of my growing up. Perhaps what makes her so special is that I share a love of her music with no one else I know? While the other tweleve year olds were listening to Eminem and preparing for a long life of socialised violent misogyny I was singing songs about freedom, love and heartbreak in Orton’s trademark ‘folk-tronica’ style.
   By now Orton has accompanied the weird kid of my childhood as he adventured through years of ups and downs before finally maturing into the socially awkward pop culture vacuum I am today. Her lyrics have wrapped themselves around so many of my memories that I often find myself singing her words as I recall the people, places and events which have shaped my life.
   Orton has grown a lot since her time in Thailand. She’s given up the parties and drugs, she no longer finds herself walking home on the ‘central reservation’ of the road wearing last night’s red dress, able to smell her lover and taste him on her breath. She’s been a single mother. She’s struggled not to be typecast in a music business filled with chauvinism. She’s battled with the degenerative Crohn’s disease, which has no known cause or cure
   Now Beth is married to New England folk singer Sam Amidon. Her little family is growing and together they’re touring her beautiful new album Sugaring Season. Last night, her tour came to Dublin. Beth was quite sick, but carried on defiantly through coughs and sneezes. It made me smile to see how happy she is, playing alongside friends and the man she loves.
   As for me, the weird little kid has grown up too, and while I looked on mesmerised by great tunes and Orton’s sweet, self-deprecating humour I realised that I was finally getting to meet my old friend for the first time. The weird little kid in me was grinning ear to ear.

Young people are not ‘citizens of the future’, they are citizens now

I was angered at the most recent Eircom billboards and television adverts. They portray young people going to music concerts and getting into trouble with security guards, as well as generally being unable to cope or be trusted in a variety of situations. The inference is that they’d be better off if they just went online, rather than experiencing the real world, which the young people in the ads are seemingly incapable of doing.

In a society such as ours where ageism exists that systematically excludes young people from meaningful involvement in social, political and economic life, youth work that justifies its existence by claiming to solve the ‘problem’ of young people contributes to a belief in young people’s inferiority and indirectly, the conception that they are a threat needing control. Youth work that panders to government by speaking the language of young people as victims or threats in order to receive funding unconsciously reinforces this status quo. Commendable as it is for the positive media coverage of young people, the TV show Ireland’s Top Teens is a patronising symptom of this ageism: where is Ireland’s Top 40 Year Olds? Yet it would be remiss of me to suggest that the projects showcased on the programme did not make a significant contribution to the lives of the young people involved. The problem, therefore, stems from the way in which youth work engages with young people and how this is perceived by society.

The National Youth Council of Ireland suggests that youth work is an empowering process and that it is one of the few places that young people have the power to make decisions. This qualification of empowerment as something that occurs only within youth work highlights the compartmentalisation of young people which is embodied by another NYCI supported initiative, Dáil na nÓg. Of course it is beneficial to those young people involved, and it is important to create spaces such as this for young people, but as a consultative body with no decision making power it belittles young people’s ability to make decisions in their own lives.

Young people will only be empowered if they are facilitated, not only to develop their skills, knowledge and attitudes, but to critically explore the society they live in- and be given the power to make real and meaningful changes to society. They are not, after all, future citizens. They are citizens now! 

The shelved 1980s Costello report on youth work advocated this model of Critical Social Education. Recognising that young people are equal citizens, the youth worker’s role must be to ensure equality of outcome for young people’s engagement with society both amongst young people and in comparison with those legally defined as adults. We have yet to achieve even equality of access. 

‘Our future is now’: Communities in Liberia meet this week to discuss options after large-scale land grab

This blog piece first appeared on the Friends of the Earth International website.

Between 2009 and 2010 the Government of Liberia allocated more than a million acres of land to transnational palm oil producers Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia without consulting or securing the consent of those living on and using the land. Following the launch of a groundbreaking report from the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI)/ Friends of the Earth Liberia, Uncertain Futures, the affected communities are holding a major conference this week to demand that their voices be heard in decision making.

The ‘Our future is now’ conference will take place in Bopolu City, Gbarpolu County, Liberia, from 27-29 November, bringing together communities affected by Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia.

The SDI report highlights how, as over a quarter of Liberia’s land area is now given over by the Government to rubber, oil palm and logging companies, Liberia risks becoming a land ‘lost in concessions’ with an uncertain future for the communities who are the original custodians and owners of the land.

These concessions are part of Liberia’s attempt to attract Foreign Direct Investment in the natural resource sector. Large plantations are promoted as a means to create jobs, bring development, and increase the government’s budget. However, they also risk the entrenchment of systemic economic and social injustices against poor and marginalised communities.

Large-scale land allocation to foreign corporations can give transnational companies enormous political power which can subvert local democratic decision making. At the same time as corporate power silences communities, the associated dispossession of rural people from their land contributes to increased poverty in rural areas, widens the gap between the urban elites that benefit from these business transactions and the rural poor who suffer the impacts, and entrenches inequality across Liberian society.

Both the Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia plantations are clear examples of this. According to the SDI report, ‘the situation facing communities impacted by the expansion of Sime Darby’s plantation in Garwula District, western Liberia is dire: the plantation is on their doorsteps, and their farms and farmlands are being swallowed up by it. There are very few alternative livelihood options.’ According to locals interviewed for the report, Sime Darby did not pay compensation for farm lands taken by the company. They also claim that compensation paid for crops that had been destroyed was inadequate and that forest areas used for cultural practices had also been destroyed and planted with oil palm.

SDI campaigner Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor points out that ‘the situation on the Sime Darby or Golden Veroleum Liberia plantation is about much more than the impacts of a single company.’ He warns that ‘allocating large swathes of fertile agricultural land to foreign companies for several decades is dangerous because as these companies expand their plantations, communities’ ability to cope will be stretched to the limit. It will push people further into poverty, as their income generating activities are curtailed and earning capacities become limited.’

During the course of the three day conference community representatives will have the opportunity to discuss this issue. More than 150 delegates from the counties affected by Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum Liberia Sinoe, Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, and Gbarpolu counties will be in attendance, along with a number of Monrovia-based civil society groups and international experts on agriculture, land, and community rights.

Led by local leaders, participants will be offered the opportunity to break into small groups to discuss their perspectives on the issue. At the end of the conference, community representatives will draft and adopt a document that details what they expect from palm oil concessionaires and the government.

For more information
Uncertain Futures (PDF)

Fairy Stories turn to Nightmares: Young Friends of the Earth and the Fight against Fracking in Ireland

This blog piece first appeared on the Young Friends of the Earth Europe website

One blustery, sunny Sunday morning last November, I took a walk with a local person in a community threatened by fracking. Walking along winding country roads, over hilltops and past gushing brooks, she shared with me a little of the rich history and folklore through which we traipsed.We passed ruined cottages whose former inhabitants still occupy the memory of the place and ancient forestswhich the fairies, mythical creatures of Irish folklore, are said to still inhabit.

This sense of folklore, culture and history is very important. In a very real sense the land does not belong to the people- the people belong to the land on which their families have lived for generations. This is why they are fighting against fracking and all forms of unconventional gas extraction which will destroy the environment and tear apart communities.

If fracking takes place then the fairy stories of this beautiful countryside will be replaced by the nightmare of irreversible human health and environmental damage.

Fracking is a process where water, sand and toxic chemicals are injected into the earth at high pressure. The aim of this process is to fracture rock formations deep underground to release shale gas that would otherwise be inaccessible.

A report by the European Parliament has noted that fracking causes ‘groundwater contamination by methane, in extreme cases leading to explosion of residential buildings, and potassium-chloride leading to salinisation of drinking water is reported in the vicinity of gas wells.’

In Ireland the proposed fracking sites are in areas well-connected to our water table and river network. Ireland and Northern Ireland’s largest rivers, the Shannon and the Erne, flow through the areas which fracking is proposed.

The EU report also highlights ‘unavoidable’ high land occupation that fracking requires. The landscape is taken over by drilling pads, parking and manoeuvring areas for trucks, equipment, gas processing and transporting facilities and access roads.

Fracking will result in a land grab (or ‘compulsory purchase’) as it takes over the landscape that is home to thousands of families in hundreds of communities. Many of these communities are sustained by farming and eco-tourism – the two sectors most threatened by fracking.

As a grassroots network of young people, Young Friends of the Earth Ireland, is mobilising  in solidarity with communities across Ireland to oppose fracking. YFoE Ireland held its recent network gathering on the shores of Lough Allen in fracking-threatened County Leitrim. At the gathering we learned more about how fracking will destroy the countryside from Leah Doherty of No Fracking Ireland, campaigner Dr Aedin McLoughlin of the Good Energies Alliance Ireland, and Chairperson of the Leitrim Organic Famers’ Association, Tommy Earley.

Saturday 22 September was Global Frackdown day. YFoE Ireland held actions in Dublin, Cork and Galway to send a clear message to the Irish government that young people do not want their futures destroyed by fracking. Future generations of Irish people must be able to enjoy our beautiful landscape and rich heritage. They might even manage to catch a fairy, as long as they haven’t been fracked!

Why I’m Already Looking Forward to Rio+40

This blog piece first appeard on the Young Friends of the Earth Europe website.

In 1992, when the nations of the world came together at the Rio Earth Summit, the closest thing to pollution I was thinking about was my dirty nappy. Now, as Rio+20 gets underway, I am a graduate about to head out into the world as a community worker. During my journey from cot to climate activism a lot has changed in the world. Yet the principles of the 1992 Rio Declaration stand as a radical and inspirational avowal from 172 nations-representing 98% of the world’s population- that they no longer wanted to build a world on unsustainability, injustice and inequity.

Those visionary leaders acknowledged for the first time that social and environmental justice are inextricably linked (Principle 5). They asserted the rights of affected communities, indigenous peoples and subaltern populations to be included- and listened to-in the dialogue (Principle 10, 20, 21, 22). They enshrined the idea of intergenerational equity at the core of sustainable development (Principle 3).

However their most important affirmations were, without a doubt, Principle 7 on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ and Principle 9 on scientific exchange and technology transfer. Both of these principles, which are so crucial to creating the better world we called for in 1992, are now under serious threat.

Principle 7 emphasises that ‘states shall co-operate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.’

It acknowledges that the countries of the Global North are primarily responsible for the multiple crises affecting climate and biodiversity, accepting that they have a moral and historical obligation to do the most to prevent the crises and alleviate their effects. By incorporating the triple bottom line of sustainable development (social, environmental and economic), principle 7 highlights the fact that we cannot have sustainable development unless the Global North accepts its role in perpetuating unsustainability. Without North-South equity the systems of exploitation that have led to poverty and environmental degradation will never cease to sustain unsustainability.

In preliminary negotiations before the conference opens officially, many Northern actors, with the US leading the charge, are now actively trying to undermine common but differentiated responsibility- destroying any notion of North-South  equity- according to a draft of The Future We Want (the conference outcomes document) leaked to the Guardian in the UK.

The leaked draft is a telling snapshot of how the EU is taking sides with the US and other leading polluters in backroom negotiations to act against the interests of the Group of 77, the negotiating block which includes the Least Developed Countries and members of the Alliance of Small Island States.

Meanwhile, Principle 9 underlines that ‘states should co-operate to strengthen endogenous capacity-building for sustainable development by improving scientific understanding through exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge, and by enhancing the development, adaptation, diffusion and transfer of technologies, including new and innovative technologies’

This principle acknowledges the reality that key information and technology which is essential for the mitigation of and adaption to climate change is held in the Global North. It is as close as Northern governments are ever likely to go in acknowledging they have cut the Global South out of scientific and political discourses on climate change and development.

Once again, the leaked draft of The Future We Want shows how the US, backed by the EU and others is seeking to delete or dilute all references to technology transferral. Where Northern actors have not demanded outright deletion of the phrase ‘technology transfer’, the US has insisted it be replaced with the words ‘voluntary transfer on mutually agreed terms and conditions’, as in paragraph 18 of the draft text which again seeks to underscore the role of North-South equity in the achievement of the triple bottom line of sustainability.

The abandonment of common but differentiated responsibility and the denial of the North’s moral obligation for technology transfer are extremely worrying on the eve of negotiations that will set out, supposedly, The Future We Want. Now more than ever people all over the world need to stand up and remind our leaders that a future without sustainability, justice and equity is absolutely not the future we want. Our leaders knew that in 1992, we cannot let them forget it.

At the original Earth Summit, Canada, perhaps stirred by the moving speech of 12 year old Canadian citizen Severn Suzuki stated their hope that the Rio Declaration would be something that all children could understand and hang by their beds. The Pakistani delegation reminded Canada that for many children living in poverty there was no bed to hang a piece of paper over. The sad reality is that for many young people who have grown up in the two decades since the Earth Summit the rhetoric of Rio remains hallow.

There is so much still to be done to achieve the world envisioned by the declaration. However it stands as a shining example of what our leaders can resolve to do when they are not guided by narrow self-interest but rather imagine a world build for people rather than profit.

I am graduating now in a world that recognises the North’s responsibility to the South, the importance of the voices of the marginalised and the needs of future generations. In twenty years time, will these fundamental principles still be acknowledged? By Rio+40, I may even have my own polluting toddlers. I wonder what sort of future they will want, and I hazard a guess that it is not one where the Northern leaders of today have abandoned the citizens of the world for a future favoured by an elite few.

That, surely, would be more disgusting than a dirty nappy could ever be.