13 Feb

One of the great things I’ve learned throughout the research and travel I undertook for my book on social movements is the way good ideas in one country or context could well be applied in another. After all, they represent solutions that poor people have come up with to deal with problems often endemic to the developing world – and are very inexpensive to implement.

Just recently for example, I saw an article about how Rio de Janeiro’s Public Security Secretariat plans to establish a better police presence in some 40 of that city’s most violent favelas, what with upcoming World Cup and Olympic games (a colossal waste of money, in my view, but I won’t get into that now).  The favelas are impoverished, jerry-built communities where millions of people live. And this reminded me of the Indian Alliance, (an organization embracing the national Slum Dwellers Federation and the womens’ group, Mahila Milan, among others) and how it worked with municipal police to set up panchayats, or community police stations, in scores of slums in Mumbai and Pune.

How do they work? Communities elect committees of ten people, seven women and three men, to liaise with an officer assigned to a particular area. A room is set aside for them to work out of, and people can bring complaints to it feeling free of the prejudice and lack of interest often found in typical police stations. The combination of authority and sympathetic neighbourliness usually helps to resolve small issues, before they escalate. What’s more, the police volunteers have taken on some illegal activities, such as brewing cheap liquor, wanting to be rid of both the practice itself and the problems of drunkenness they instigate. They even looked for ways in which brewers might find alternative methods of earning a living.

Can this work in Rio, where drug gangs control many slums? That’s an open question, one that can only be answered if such a project goes ahead, and undoubtedly with input and suggestions from those communities themselves. But the central idea – that people have a hand in making their communities safer as a collective with the support of police  — is a good one. I’ve sent an article community policing in India to Dirceu Viana, media relations officer at the SESEGRJ in the hope it might work there.

Meanwhile friends in the Peasant Union of Indonesia wanted to know more about a Canadian organization – the Unitarian Service Committee – and whether it might help it promote organic farming using traditional Minangkabau practices in West Sumatra as it starts its post-earthquake reconstruction. The SPI’s Daulat Institute has the local knowledge, the need and the plans; USC has the funds, experience in doing similar projects in other countries and the mandate to promote food sovereignty in the developing world. I put them together through cyberspace and am hoping that, once again, some positive convergence ensues.

My research for the book on grassroots social movements taught me all kinds of interesting concepts and methods that these organizations have discovered, from the role of value change among the poor in India to the importance of autonomy from even progressive political parties in Brazil. What has been present in every movement, however, is the significance of democratic internal structures that place decision-making in the hands of their members. And that’s an idea which should spread around the globe, in poor nations as well as rich ones.


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