War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin’

Globalisation’s promise to avert World War III has triggered a wide range of other wars. As well as wars between Sovereign states, since Bretton Woods in 1944 where globalisation as we know it today was hatched, we have seen other quasi-wars play out, most notably the war on drugs, global poverty and, more recently, the war on terror. The commonality of approaches across all of these ‘wars’ is striking. They each have been top-down and working to the managerial myth of command and control. They all have used the giant-like machinery of the state at their disposal, and they have also included the weight of corporate interests (which for the most part they serve), science and expertise in order to vanquish their enemies. It is equally clear that these ‘wars’ have failed even on their own terms to deliver on their respective promises.

War on terror and drugs

The war on terror has served to erode civil liberties to a far greater extent than the proponents of terrorism could ever have hoped to achieve in their own right. The war on drugs has inadvertently added to the misery of the poor and inflated the profit margins of those that exploit them.

These wars have criminalised, marginalised and incarcerated tens of millions of poor people, and they have turned prisons into the largest and worst mental health institutions in the world. They have wrecked havoc on low-income communities and the families that live in them. Repressive measures directed at producers have been equally unsuccessful. The so-called war on terror, the war on drugs and its ugly step-sister, the war on gangs, look like a game of ‘whack-a-mole’ where each time a trafficker or terrorist is apprehended or a cartel or cell is broken up, two more pop-up in their place, more incessant and insidious than the last.

War on poverty in the Global South

With echoes of former US President Lyndon Johnson’s “war declaration” on poverty in 1964 in Nairobi, Robert S. McNamara in 1973 declared war on Global Poverty-especially in the Global South. He was then President of the World Bank. Thirty years and more on, and a growing body of public commentators, economists and activists are reaching an uneasy consensus: this war, too has failed.

Both Paul Collier’s erudite analysis in The Bottom Billion -William Easterly’s impassioned assault on The Tyranny of Experts- and Jeffery Sach’s commentaries on corruption, provide usefully varied insights into this overall failure. These include a lack of emphasis on human rights, poor governance, corruption, and an over reliance on top-down technological solutions as among the many reasons for the current malaise.

Dambisa Moyo

But in my opinion, it is Dambisa Moyo, the Zambian-born author of Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa (2009)[1] who gets to the root of why we have failed to end poverty. For Moyo the reason is simple: patriarchy. Her observations in this regard are pertinent on both sides of the hemisphere. Her commentary also illuminates the abundance that lays hidden behind the multi-layered veil we discussed above. She mounts an elegant assault on the technocratic arrogance and scarcity mindset that is so deeply embroidered into the economic paradigms of industrialised countries. These have generated and continue to sustain an obscuring and perverse map of the Global South, especially Africa. In contrast to the prevailing deficit map, Moyo considers each of the 55 countries that make up the continent of Africa, to be replete with all the resources, skills and talents needed to ensure a flourishing life for all its citizens.

Ploughing a similar furrow to that of Asset Based Community Development, Dambisa Moyo starts with a different set of assumptions than that of most economists, policy makers and politicians, in that she views poor communities in terms of their abundance, not their deficits. For her the primary challenge does not relate to the paucity of institutional solutions, or the quality of those that are already in place, but the extent to which institutions have become ersatz producers of health, wealth and happiness. Not to mention the extent to which they have displaced the abundance and irreplaceable functions of communities they purport they serve.

The sickness idiom that perpetuates a view of people not as citizens with producing capacities, in the areas of health, wisdom, justice and sustainable livelihoods, but as passive, broken consumers of predetermined goods and services, is all at once ubiquitous and utterly unsustainable. This is true not just in the Global South but across the world.

In each of the above instances the extreme has become the mean.

War on loneliness?

In dramatic contrast to the maladies of the Global South, in the UK, loneliness and dementia are proving to be early fault lines along which the limits of a top-down systems-led approach are becoming apparent. Forward projections of the number of people who will require long term care services in the UK, for example, are pointing toward a tsunami of need. This will render the current deficit, service-based model, redundant. With a population of 65 million plus and rising in the UK, it is estimated that 2.9m will live longer into older age, but with three or more long term (often complex) conditions, by 2018, while it is anticipated that 1.4m people will be living with dementia by 2030. Currently, older people account for 60% of hospital admissions, 65% of hospital bed days, and 56% of social care spending. Mistakenly these issues are being viewed solely as clinical, when in fact they are political, social, environmental and economic.

If you listen closely you can hear the early mutterings of a declaration of war on loneliness.

We do not need more war; we need more peace building, which is centrally about building community. But the road to peace is not found in the language of war. The notion that we will defeat the human condition, whether death or otherwise, is delusional and dangerous, as is the idea that we will enhance it using professional top down interventions.

The wisdom needed to live well within the bounds of the human condition, exists in the shadow of war, corporate interests, technocrats and globalisation, where the extreme will always become the mean. Community Builders, in working with that tacit wisdom, accept that world as it is, not as it should be, so that they can support citizens to come together to create the world as it should be, not as it is. They know that they will achieve little if their starting point is solely aimed at changing external forces, while ignoring internal resources. Saul Ailinky once famously said, ‘if you don’t have money power, you better have people power’. But for what, exactly? To declare war on the war-merchants? In part yes, but Community Organising has grown and evolved since the early days to recognise that there is work to be done at citizen level, for which there is no external proxy, or external oppressor.

Growing a base of powerful citizens for whatever reason is essentially an inside out affair.

From an ABCD perspective, the critical precepts for people power to grow, inclusive of all, are:

  1. It must be relationship-based: gifts and capacities, when exchanged, grow people power. Hence relationships are at the heart of community and political change.
  2. Citizen-centred: in a democracy people are at the centre of invention.
  3. Asset-based: start with what is strong to address what is wrong; and make what is strong, stronger.
  4. Place-based: place is where everything can come together, while staying close to people’s doorsteps. Inside-out change.
  5. Be grounded in inclusion of all: there is nobody’s gift we do not need.

People power is much more nuanced than recruiting foot soldiers; it is about creating places where citizenship prevails.

Of course not all outsider helpers, or inside change makers are mobilising for the war effort. As I wrote last week, many are peace builders.

I’ll finish this post with four questions for peace builders, myself included, who come to community/people powered change efforts with the intent of being helpful, but mindful that sometimes helping can be harmful:

I have developed these questions by relating McLuhan’s classic questions on ‘mediums’ to community:

  1. What does the helping/community building technique enhance in local communities?
  2. What does the helping/community building technique make obsolete in local communities?
  3. What does the helping/community building technique retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier in local communities?
  4. What does the helping/community building technique turn into when pushed to extremes in local communities?


Having the courage to ask these questions of our practice and deliberate on them in the public domain, may open many new heretofore uncharted waters, where small can become the new big, and people can enjoy practicing the politics of small things, for their own sake. Put simply, helpers must learn to stop doing that which no citizen wants. Starting, by ending declarations of war. War! What is good for? Absolutely nothin’… Say it again!

Cormac Russell

[1] Moyo also authored: How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly – And the Stark Choices that Lie Ahead (2011)

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