The voice of the small is the voice of the many

Originally published 19th Dec 2016


I recently attended two events which made a big impresssion on me. In this article I try to bring together the main things that struck me.

The problems

We all know what the problems are: inequality, climate change, migration, bigotry, ‘terrorism’, warfare, food poverty, obesity/malnutrition, loneliness, alienation and a sense of hopelessness, drug addiction (including alcoholism), etc.

Suggested solutions

What are the solutions? Five proposals are outlined below.

(1) Small is beautiful

Unusually for someone who runs a small charity, I’m going to start by talking about business. When it comes to employment, big businesses are often treated as if they are the be-all and end-all. The truth is that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) employ more people, accounting for 60% of private sector jobs in the UK. Furthermore, they contribute more to the common good because they can’t make use of the elaborate tax-avoidance schemes used by transnational companies. Sadly, they don’t have the lobbying power of big business. Neither do they have the same association with revolving-door nepotism, which distorts policy-making. Fact: large organisations do not necessarily ‘create jobs’; they often destroy them. For example,Walmart (which owns Asda) destroys three jobs for every two it creates.

‘Has the charity sector replicated the business sector?’ – a question posed by someone recently at a workshop I attended. Whilst I’m not accusing the largest charities of using all the tricks big business uses, do they have disproportionate influence, finance and resources? It seems that Scotland’s large environmental charities, which make up a small part of the charity sector overall, may have recognised themselves that this may be an issue and are leading the charge to transform this. Their umbrella body, Scottish Environment Link, has launched Link Local, to help smaller environmental charities find a voice – highly commendable!

We small charities (and I speak now as the voice of Leith Community Crops in Pots, one of hundreds of small environmental charities across Scotland) are coming up with innovative ideas for tackling the gamut of issues that society faces. Many of us are under-resourced and under-represented, so our ideas for making Scotland thrive are often overlooked; I shudder to think how many opportunities have been missed at a time when innovation is crucial.

I was, therefore, delighted to attend the Scottish Environment Link Congress as part of this newly launched Link Local. What most struck me, however, was the fact that Leith Community Crops in Pots was the only small local organisation to make use of this opportunity. Where were the other local oganisations? It is important that we take advantage of these opportunities.

Ernst Friedrich Schumacher wrote the famous book, ‘Small is Beautiful’.

On the topic of size, I was most impressed with what Neil Berry had to say at the Keep It Local, Strength in Numbers social enterprise event in November 2016. Here is an extract from a Guardian article, which summarises what he said:

‘The idea of universally achievable economies of scale is deeply ingrained. It is alarming that this thinking so completely dominates the design and management of service delivery at all levels of the public sector in the 21st century – and yet often it simply isn’t true.’

Finally, on the topic of ‘small is beautiful’, I must, of course, acknowledge Schumacher.

(2) Sharing

Stephen Hawking outlines the dire situation in which we find ourselves. His suggested solution can be boiled down to: we need to learn to share. (3) The concept of the commons

The notion of sharing is actualised in the commons approach. George Monbiot emphasises the value of common ownership. This is imminently practical on a small scale. The ‘enclosure’ of assets by private individuals and companies should be combated and reversed. The notion of the tragedy of the commons – the belief that shared assets will be destroyed due to individuals’ selfishness – is a dangerous myth which has been comprehensively debunked.

(4) Community

Bruce K. Alexander, a Canadian expert on addiction (whose views are widely shared by Scottish drugs workers) argues that ‘psychosocial dislocation’ is at the root of most serious addictions, and that while a ‘galvanising alternative philosophy’ to what he terms ‘hyper-capitalism’ is required, a major element of any solution must be the restoration of community: people need to feel a sense of belonging.

(5) Social enterprise

I have talked about the business and charity sectors, but what I haven’t talked about is where they intersect: social enterprise. A few days after the Environment Link Congress I attended Keep it Local, Strength in Numbers, the social enterprise conference held by Senscot, mentioned above.

I got the impression that the social enterprises represented (most of which were small) were concerned by big businesses donning the mant