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Power, Aid and Impunity: How the Aid Industry Sexually Exploited the World’s Poor

8 min read.

When reports emerged that senior aid officials in OXFAM, the world’s biggest humanitarian charity, had routinely sexually exploited vulnerable young women in Haiti, it touched off a scandal that has left the Western humanitarian industry reeling. It was merely the tip of the iceberg, as a recent UK House of Commons report attests. Impunity is rife within the UN system and the NGOs associated with it. How to rein it in? By RASNA WARAH  



Power, Aid and Impunity: How the Aid Industry Sexually Exploited the World’s Poor
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For decades, sun-drenched Haiti, with its beautiful beaches and Third World-type poverty, has attracted a vast array of aid and humanitarian workers who have set up camp in this Caribbean nation ostensibly to lift its people out of their miserable conditions. Because of the huge number of local and international NGOs in the country, Haiti is often described as “The Republic of NGOs”.

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, however, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. Both natural disasters and political unrest, combined with a culture of aid dependency, have contributed to this state of affairs. A Western journalist writing about Haiti has described the country as “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”.

The presence of large numbers of mostly young, naïve and sexually active foreign and local aid workers has also created an environment where vulnerable women and children are being sexually exploited or abused by the very people who are supposed to be helping or protecting them, including United Nations peacekeepers. According to an internal United Nations report obtained by the Associated Press in 2017, at least 134 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers exploited nine Haitian children in a sex ring from 2004 to 2007. One of the victims said that the soldiers would pass her number along to incoming contingents, who would then call her for sex. One boy claimed that he had had sex with more than 20 Sri Lankan soldiers. Another teenage boy claimed that he had been gang-raped by Uruguayan soldiers who even had the audacity to film the attack on a cellphone. Although 114 of these peacekeepers were sent home after the report came out, none of them was prosecuted or court martialed.

Despite the large presence of NGOs and aid agencies, however, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. Natural disasters and political unrest, combined with a culture of aid dependency, have contributed to this state of affairs. A Western journalist writing about Haiti has described the country as “a poster child for the inadequacies of aid”.

These incidents are not confined to Haiti. A separate investigation published by the Associated Press last year revealed that nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers have been made in other troubled parts of the world. However, this number could be a gross underestimation as the majority of victims of sexual exploitation or abuse do not report their cases.

“Sexual exploitation” is defined by the UN as “an actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”. “Sexual abuse” is defined as “the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions”.

Stories of aid workers, UN peacekeepers and UN employees using their privileged positions to sexually exploit or abuse women and children in poor countries have been in the public domain for a long time but it is only now that the international development community has taken notice and decided to do something about it.

It all started in February this year, when the Times newspaper revealed that staff at Oxfam GB, one of Britain’s most respected charities, had paid local women for sex while carrying out humanitarian work in Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country and which led to widespread internal displacement of the quake’s victims. This revelation, at a time when the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, resulted in several similar exposés, the latest being of a senior UN gender advisor – an Indian male called Ravi Karkara – who is currently being investigated for sexually harassing young men in his office.

Stories of aid workers, UN peacekeepers and UN employees using their privileged positions to sexually exploit or abuse women and children in poor countries have been in the public domain for a long time but it is only now that the international development community has taken notice and decided to do something about it.

The Oxfam scandal also set in motion a series of events, including withdrawal of funding to Oxfam by its leading donors, including the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID), and calls for thorough investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by those working in the aid sector globally.

This particular scandal prompted the UK’s House of Commons to carry out further investigations, not just on the conduct of Oxfam staff, but on the conduct of staff working for other charities and aid organisations as well. The House of Commons’ final report, released on 31 July this year, sent shockwaves across the aid sector, and has led to demands for stricter measures to be taken against those who commit sexual crimes against vulnerable populations. The report states that “sexual violence, exploitation and abuse against women and girls in endemic in many developing countries, especially where there is conflict and forced displacement.”

The UK legislators who drafted the report and carried out the investigations also found that the aid industry’s response to sexual misconduct had been “reactive, patchy and sluggish” and that very few organisations actually follow up on reports that have raised the red flag about sexual exploitation or abuse by their employees. For instance, no action was taken after the release of a 2002 assessment by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR and the charity Save the Children of the effects of sexual violence on children in conflict areas. That assessment documented 67 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of refugee children in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone in which 40 aid agencies and 9 peacekeeping missions were implicated; the majority of the victims were aged between 13 and 18.

And, despite being warned three years ago that internally displaced and refugee Syrian women were being sexually exploited by men delivering aid on behalf of the UN, the UN did little to arrest the problem, even though the UN’s Population Fund had conducted a gender assessment last year that showed that Syrian women were being forced to engage in “food-for-sex” arrangements with aid workers. The House of Commons report, titled “”Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector”, states that “sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers, amongst others, is an entrenched feature of the life experience of women and girls in Syria in the eighth year of the conflict there” and that similar cases around world are merely “the tip of the iceberg”.

The UK legislators further found that a 2007 study for the Humanitarian Partnership conducted in Kenya, Namibia and Thailand found that although the beneficiaries of aid knew that sexual exploitation and abuse was going on, the majority said that they would not report these cases because they didn’t want to risk losing the aid. On their part, humanitarian aid workers were reluctant to report their fellow workers for fear of retaliation.

The House of Commons report does not spare any organisation, not even in the much-revered United Nations, for allowing such abuse to continue. “When it comes to investigating sexual exploitation and abuse allegations, the UN’s approach lacks coherence,” it states. “There is no single body taking an overall interest in the outcomes of investigations or driving them towards resolution…”

What the report failed to recognise is that although the UN has a stated “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, few, if any, of the perpetrators face justice – not only because the UN’s internal justice system is flawed but also because international UN staff enjoy immunity from prosecution, which means such cases are not likely to end up in court.

In addition, because the UN is more concerned about protecting its reputation than about bringing justice to victims, those who are perceived to be tainting the organisation (the people who come out and report such cases) are quickly sacrificed. In 2014, for example, Anders Kompass (who has since resigned as the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) was suspended after he sent an internal UN report to French authorities detailing cases of French peacekeepers sexually exploiting internally displaced boys in the Central African Republic. At that time the UN claimed that Kompass had put the victims at risk but it soon became evident that the UN had no intention to act on the report or to make its findings public. Kompass was only reinstated after there was an outcry in the media about the case, but by then he had already made the decision to resign. He said that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.

The House of Commons report does not spare any organisation, not even in the much-revered United Nations, for allowing such abuse to continue…What the report failed to recognise is that although the UN has a stated “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation, few, if any, of the perpetrators face justice – not only because the UN’s internal justice system is flawed but also because international UN staff enjoy immunity from prosecution, which means such cases are not likely to end up in court.

This is one of the problems afflicting all aid and humanitarian organisations. Because these organisations survive on donations, the whiff of sexual or other type of scandal could mean the drying up of donor funds, which could affect jobs and projects. So to keep the donor funds flowing, incidents of misconduct are quickly covered up or not investigated. In some cases, the perpetrators are allowed to resign quietly or are transferred to a remote duty station. Meanwhile those who report these cases often find themselves out of a job – the UN, in particular, is notorious for not renewing the contracts of whistleblowers.

However, things are likely to change. Aid and humanitarian organisations that fail to report or address the issue of sexual crimes or misconduct by their employees could find themselves having to close shop, especially if their biggest donors pull out. Since the Haiti scandal, for example, Oxfam has been struggling to survive. Bigger multilateral organisations like the UN, which are funded by member states are, however, unlikely to face such threats because “they are too big to fail”, which is a pity because levels of impunity at the UN are extremely high. Whereas small charities and international NGOs have to be accountable to their donors to survive, the UN can basically get away with all manner of wrongdoing because the UN is accountable only to itself. Few, if any, member states have threatened to pull out of the organisation because of its lack of accountability or because its employees are behaving badly.

Former UN employees who have suffered retaliation as a result of their reporting complain that the UN’s internal justice system is heavily biased in favour of the perpetrator, particularly if he or she is a senior manager. Experiences of UN whistleblowers indicate that those who file a complaint against a senior UN official are not tolerated within the organisation and that the majority of whistleblowers suffer severe retaliation, despite the UN’s whistleblower protection policy. For instance, recently the country director for UNAIDS in Ethiopia, who was a key witness in a sexual harassment and assault investigation involving the UNAIDS deputy director, was suspended from her job in March this year, an action that smacks both of a cover-up and retaliation. As a result, several African women activists called for the resignation of the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibé, but he has consistently ignored this call, as has the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Current and former UN employees have reported a flawed grievance system that is stacked against the victims. One woman told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she was raped by a senior UN staff member while working in a remote location but did not obtain justice despite medical evidence and witness testimonies. Because UN staff members cannot take their cases to national courts, (because UN employees enjoy immunity from prosecution), they have to rely on the UN’s internal justice systems, which are deeply flawed and which rarely deliver justice. As I have argued in previous articles, the UN has to overhaul its internal justice system and put in place external independent mechanisms that are more transparent and accountable – and which do not victimise whistleblowers.

Now, finally, such an external independent mechanism might just see the light of day. The House of Commons report makes a recommendation that could radically transform how sexual exploitation and abuse cases are handled within the aid sector: the establishment of “an independent aid ombudsman to provide the right to appeal, an avenue through which those who have suffered can seek justice by other means”. This recommendation, which will be discussed at an International Safeguarding Conference in October this year, could drastically alter the way aid organisations operate and could be a game changer for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. It is undoubtedly one of the best recommendations to be put on the table of an industry that has become a cesspit of impunity and which is more interested in self-preservation than actually doing good in this world.

However, my fear is that if this ombudsman lacks the power to investigate and prosecute, then it will merely become an entity that collects and documents complaints rather than one that carries out investigations and brings cases to trial, or one that has the authority to force aid organisations to dismiss or penalise employees who are implicated in sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse.

My hope is that this ombudsman will not just address the issues of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse, but will also be receptive to receiving cases of other types of abuse within the aid sector, particularly the abuse of power and authority, which allows all manner of wrongdoing, including fraud, corruption, nepotism, and gross mismanagement, to continue.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).


Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy

If Rwanda is to attain its stated ambition to become of a middle-income country by 2035 driven by the knowledge economy, then it must inject significant investments in the education and related sectors.



Education in Rwanda: A Long Walk to the Knowledge Economy
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Rwanda has shown commitment to bring improvements to its education sector. The development of Human capital that involves the enhancement of the education and health sectors was one of the main pillars of Rwanda’s development programme launched in 2000 to transform the country into a middle income state driven by the knowledge economy by 2020. Many developed countries joined in to financially support Rwanda to fulfil its development ambitions.

But while Rwanda did not meet its target to transform into a middle-income state by 2020, it has nevertheless made progress in the education sector that should be recognised. The country has now near-universal access to primary education with net enrolment rates of 98 per cent. There are also roughly equal numbers of boys and girls in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools in Rwanda. Compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, Rwanda has made great improvements in the education sector based on the gains made in primary school gross enrolment, out-of-school and retention rates and considering that the country came out of a genocidal civil war in the 1990s. Those of us living and travelling across the country can also see that the government of Rwanda has built more schools across the country to address congestion in classrooms.

However, education in Rwanda is faced with serious challenges which, if not addressed, the country will not attain its ambition to become a middle-income by 2035 and a high-income by 2050. The World Bank’s comparison with middle- and high-income countries, to whose ranks Rwanda aspires to join, shows that Rwanda lags far behind in primary and lower secondary school completion levels.

The gains made in education are not equally distributed across Rwanda. There are, for instance, wide disparities in lower secondary education by income and urban–rural residence. Whereas lower secondary school gross enrolment ratio level is 82 per cent in urban areas, it is only 44 per cent in rural areas. Moreover, transition rates between primary and lower secondary education are 53 per cent in urban areas, and 33 per cent in rural areas. School completion is 52 per cent among the richest quintile while it is 26 per cent among the poorest. Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

The standard of education in Rwanda is another major challenge. At the end of Grade 3, 85 per cent of Rwandan students were rated “below comprehension” in a recent reading test, and one in six could not answer any reading comprehension question. In my view, the quality of education has been partly affected by the abrupt changes in the language of instruction that have taken place without much planning since 2008.

Any future development strategy is unlikely to succeed if it does not provide basic equality of opportunity for all in Rwanda.

Learning levels in basic education remain low in Rwanda.  Children in the country can expect to complete 6.5 years of pre-primary and basic education by the age of 18 years. However, when this is adjusted for learning it translates to only about 3.8 years, implying that children in Rwanda have a learning gap of 2.7 years. This is a concern.

Education in Rwanda is also impended by high levels of malnutrition for children under 5 years. Although there have been improvements over time, malnutrition levels remain significantly high at 33 per cent. Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings. It also deprives the economy of quality human capital that is critical to Rwanda attaining its economic goals and sustaining its economic gains. In 2012, Rwanda lost 11.5 per cent of GDP as a result of child undernutrition.

Because of low learning levels and high levels of malnutrition in children under 5 years, Rwanda has consistently ranked below average on the World Bank’s Human Capital index since 2018, the year the index was first published. HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens.

If Rwanda is to develop the competent workforce needed to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and bring it into the ranks of middle-income states, the government must put significant public spending in basic education. This has not been the case over the past decades. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s public spending on primary education has been significantly lower than the average for sub-Saharan African countries with similar coverage of primary school level as Rwanda. This low spending on primary education has translated into relatively modest pay for teachers and low investment in their professional development which in turn affects the provision of quality education in Rwanda. The government recently increased teachers’ salary but the increment is being eroded by, among other things, food price inflation in Rwanda.

Malnutrition impedes cognitive development, educational attainment, and lifetime earnings.

Going forward, Rwanda’s spending on education needs to be increased and allocated to improving standards. Considering that the underlying cause of the high rate of malnourishment in children is food insecurity, the government needs to spend more on the agriculture sector. This sector employs 70 per cent of the labour force but has received only 10 per cent of total public investment. Public investment in Rwanda has in the past gone to the development of the Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions sector rather than towards addressing pressing scarcities. This approach must be reviewed.

Increasing public expenditure in education and connected sectors should also be combined with strengthening accountability in the government institutions responsible for promoting the quality of education in basic schools and in promoting food security and livelihoods in Rwanda. This is because not a year goes by without the office of the Rwanda auditor general reporting dire inefficiencies in these institutions.

Strengthening institutional accountability can be achieved if the country adapts its consensual democracy by opening up the political space to dissenting voices. Doing so would surely enhance the effectiveness of checks and balances across institutions in Rwanda, including in the education sector, and would enable the country to efficiently reach its development targets.

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No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States

Adam Mayer praises a new collection, Liberated Texts, which includes rediscovered books on Africa’s socialist intellectual history and political economy, looking at the startling, and frequently long ignored work of Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu and Makhan Singh.



No Imperialist Peoples, Only Imperialist States
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Liberated Texts is a magnificent, essential, exciting tome that feels like a bombshell. This incredibly rich collection is a selection that is deep, wide, as well as entertaining. The book focuses on twenty-one volumes from the previous one hundred years, with a geographical range from the UK, the US, Vietnam, Korea, the Peoples Republic of China, the Middle East, Ireland, Malaysia, Africa (especially East Africa), Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union, focusing on books that are without exception, foundational.

The collection is nothing less than a truth pill: in composite form, the volume corrects world history that Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States offered for the sterile, historical curriculum on domestic (US) history. The volume consists of relatively short reviews (written by a wide collection of young and old academics and activists from every corner of the globe) but together they reflect such a unified vision that I would recommend Liberated Texts as compulsory reading for undergraduate students (as well as graduates!) Although the text is a broad canvas it speaks to our age (despite some of the reviewed book having been written in the 1920s).

Each review is by default, a buried tresure. The writer of this very review is a middle-aged Hungarian, which means that some of the works and authors discussed were more familiar to me than they would be to others. For example, Anton Makarenko’s name was, when the author grew up in the People’s Republic of Hungary, a household word. Makarenko’s continued relevance for South America and the oppressed everywhere, as well as his rootedness in the revolutionary transformations of the Soviet experiment, are dealt with here marvellosly by Alex Turrall (p. 289). In loving detail Turrall also  discusses his hero the pedagogue Sukhomlinsky’s love for Stalinist reforms of Soviet education (p. 334).

There is one locus, and one locus only, where death is given reign, perhaps even celebrated: in a Palestinian case (p. 133) the revolutionary horizons are firmly focused on the past, not on any kind of future. The entire problematic of Israeli society’s recent ultra right-wing turn (a terrible outcome from the left’s point of view) is altogther missing here. Yet it is difficult to fault the authors or editors with this (after all, they painstakingly included an exemplary anti-Nazi Palestinian fighter in the text, p. 152) but it might be in order to challenge a fascination with martyrdom as a revolutionary option on the radical left.

In every other aspect, Liberated Texts enlightens without embarrassment, and affirms life itself. Imperialism is taken on in the form of unresolved murders of Chinese researchers in the United States as a focus (p. 307), and in uncovering the diabolical machinations of the peer-review system – racist, classist, prestige-driven as it is (p. 305).

The bravery of this collection is such that we find few authors within academia’s tenure track: authors are either emeriti, tenured, very young academics, or those dedicated to political work: actual grassroots organizers, comrades at high schools, or as language teachers. This has a very beneficial effect on the edited volume as an enterprise at the forefront of knowledge, indeed of creating new knowledge. Career considerations are absent entirely from this volume, in which thankfully even the whiff of mainstream liberalism is anathema.

I can say with certainty regarding the collection’s Africanist chapters that certain specialists globally, on African radical intellectual history, have been included: Leo Zeilig, Zeyad el-Nabolsy, Paul O’Connell, Noosim Naimasiah and Corinna Mullin all shed light on East African (as well as Caribbean) socialist intellectual history in ways that clear new paths in a sub-discipline that is underfunded, purposely confined to obscurity, and which lacks standard go-to syntheses especially in the English language (Hakim Adi’s celebrated history on pan-Africanism and communism stops with the 1950s, and other works are in the making).

Walter Rodney, Karim Hirji, Issa Shivji, Dani Wadada Nabudere, A. M. Babu, Makhan Singh are the central authors dealt with here. Rodney is enjoying a magnificent and much deserved renaissance (but this collection deals with a lost collection of Rodney’s 1978 Hamburg lectures by Zeilig!) Nabolsy shows us how Nyerere’s Marxist opposition experienced Ujamaa, and Tanzanian ’socialism’. Nabudere – a quintessential organic intellectual as much as Rodney –  is encountered in praxis as well as through his thought and academic achievements in a chapter by Corinna Mullin. Nabudere emerges as a towering figure whose renaissance might be in the making right at this juncture. Singh makes us face the real essence of British imperialism. Nabudere, Babu and even Hirji’s achievements in analysing imperialism and its political economy are all celebrated in the collection.

Where Shivji focuses on empire in its less violent aspect (notably NGOs and human rights discourse) powerfully described by Paul O’Connell, Naimasiah reminds us that violence had been as constitutive to Britain’s empire, as it has been to the Unites States (in Vietnam or in Korea). An fascinating chapter in the collection is provided by Marion Ettinger’s review of Richard Boyle’s Mutiny in Vietnam, an account based entirely on journalism, indeed impromptu testimony, of mutinous US soldiers tired of fighting for Vietnam’s landlord class.

Many readers of this anthology will identify with those veterans (since the collection appears in the English language) perhaps more than with East Asia’s magnificent, conscious fighters also written about in the book. Even in armies of the imperialist core, humanity shines through. Simply put, there are no imperialist peoples, only imperialist states.

Zeilig’s nuanced take on this important matter is revealed in Rodney’s rediscovered lectures. Also, the subtlety of class analysis in relation to workers versus peasants, and the bureacratic bourgeoisie profiting from this constellation (p. 219) brings to mind the contradiction that had arguably brought down Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s anti-imperialist president who nevertheless found himself opposing working class demands. Rodney’s politics in Guyana invited the same fate as Sankara, as we know.

Nabolsy’s review on Hirji’s The Travails of a Tanzanian Teacher touches on very interesting issues of Rodney’s role especially in the context of Ujamaa and Nyerere’s idiosyncratic version of African socialism. Nabolsy appreciates Nyerere efforts but analyses his politics with great candour: Ujamaa provided national unification, but failed to undermine Tanzania’s dependency in any real sense. The sad realization of the failure of Tanzania’s experience startles the reader with its implications for the history of African socialism.

On an emotional and personal level, I remain most endeared by the Soviet authors celebrated in this text. So Makarenko and Sukhomlinsky are both Soviet success stories and they demonstrate that this combination of words in no oxymoron, and neither is it necessarily, revisionist mumbo-jumbo. Their artificial removal from their historical context (which had happened many times over in Makarenko’s case, and in one particular account when it comes to Sukhomlinsky) are fought against by the author with Leninist gusto.

Sukhomlinsky had not fought against a supposedly Stalinist education reform: he built it, and it became one of the most important achievements of the country by the 1960s due partly to his efforts. The former educational pioneer did not harm children: he gave them purpose, responsibility, self-respect, and self-esteem. The implication of Sukhomlinsky and Makarenko is that true freedom constructs its own order, and that freedom ultimately thrives on responsibility, and revolutionary freedom.

As this collection is subtitled Volume One, it is my hope and expectation that this shall be the beginning of a series of books, dealing with other foundational texts, and even become a revolutionary alternative to The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, both of which still demonstrate how much readers crave review collections. Volumes like Liberated Texts might be the very future of book review magazines in changed form. A luta continua!

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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We Must Democratize the Economy

In the UK, prices for basic goods are soaring while corporations rake in ever-bigger profits. The solution, Jeremy Corbyn argues, is to bring basic resources like energy, water, railways, and the postal service into democratic public ownership.



Jeremy Corbyn: We Must Democratize the Economy
Photo: Chatham House, London
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On Thursday, December 15, the Royal College of Nursing went on strike for the first time in their 106-year history. Understaffed, underpaid, and overworked, tens of thousands of National Health Service (NHS) nurses walked out after being denied decent, livable pay rises. Hailed as heroes one year, forced to use food banks the next, nurses’ wages have fallen more than £3,000 in real terms since 2010; three in four now say they work overtime to meet rising energy bills.

People will remember 2022 as the year that the Conservative Party plunged this country into political turmoil. However, behind the melodrama is a cost-of-living crisis that has pushed desperate people into destitution and the so-called middle classes to the brink. We should remember 2022 as the year in which relative child poverty reached its highest levels since 2007 and real wage growth reached its lowest levels in half a century. (Average earnings have shrunk by £80 a month and a staggering £180 a month for public sector workers.) These are the real scandals.

For some MPs, this was the year they kick-started their reality TV careers. For others, this was the year they told their children they couldn’t afford any Christmas presents. For energy companies, it was the year they laughed all the way to the bank; in the same amount of time it took for Rishi Sunak to both lose and then win a leadership contest, Shell returned £8.2 billion in profit. SSE, a multinational energy company headquartered in Scotland, saw their profits triple in just one year. Profits across the world’s seven biggest oil firms rose to almost £150 billion.

Tackling the cost-of-living crisis means offering an alternative to our existing economic model — a model that empowers unaccountable companies to profit off the misery of consumers and the destruction of our earth. And that means defending a value, a doctrine, and a tradition that unites us all: democracy.

Labour recently announced “the biggest ever transfer of power from Westminster to the British people.” I welcomed the renewal of many of the policies from the manifesto in 2019: abolishing the House of Lords and handing powers to devolved governments, local authorities, and mayors. These plans should work hand in hand, to ensure any second chamber reflects the geographical diversity of the country. If implemented, this would decentralize a Whitehall-centric model of governance that wastes so much of this country’s regional talent, energy, and creativity.

However, devolution, decentralization, and democracy are not just matters for the constitution. They should characterize our economy too. Regional governments are demanding greater powers for the same reason an unelected second chamber is patently arcane: we want a say over the things that affect our everyday lives. This, surely, includes the way in which our basic resources are produced and distributed.

From energy to water and from rail to mail, a small number of companies monopolize the production of basic resources to the detriment of the workers they exploit and the customers they fleece. We rely on these services, and workers keep them running, but it is remote chief executive officers and unaccountable shareholders who decide how they are run and profit off their provision. Would it not make more sense for workers and consumers to decide how to run the services they provide and consume?

As prices and profits soar, it’s time to put basic resources like energy, water, rail, and mail back where they belong: in public hands. Crucially, this mold of public ownership would not be a return to 1940s-style patronage-appointed boards but a restoration of civic accountability. Water, for example, should be a regional entity controlled by consumers, workers, and local authorities, and work closely with environmental agencies on water conservation, sewage discharges, the preservation of coastlines, and the protection of our natural world. This democratic body would be answerable to the public, and the public alone, rather than to the dividends of distant hedge funds.

Bringing energy, water, rail, and mail into democratic public ownership is about giving local people agency over the resources they use. It’s about making sure these resources are sustainably produced and universally distributed in the interests of workers, communities, and the planet.

Beyond key utilities, a whole host of services and resources require investment, investment that local communities should control. That’s why, in 2019, we pledged to establish regional investment banks across the country, run by local stakeholders who can decide — collectively — how best to direct public investment. Those seeking this investment would not make their case with reference to how much profit they could make in private but how much they could benefit the public as a whole.

To democratize our economy, we need to democratize workplaces too. We can end workplace hierarchies and wage inequalities by giving workers the right to decide, together, how their team operates and how their pay structures are organized. If we want to kick-start a mass transfer of power, we need to redistribute wealth from those who hoard it to those who create it.

Local people know the issues facing them, and they know how to meet them better than anyone else. If we want to practice what we preach, then the same principles of democracy, devolution, and decentralization must apply to our own parties as well. Local party members, not party leaders, should choose their candidates, create policy, and decide what their movement stands for.

Only a democratic party can provide the necessary space for creative and transformative solutions to the crises facing us all. In a world where the division between rich and poor is greater than ever before, our aim should be to unite the country around a more hopeful alternative — an alternative that recognizes how we all rely on each other to survive and thrive.

This alternative is not some abstract ideal to be imagined. It is an alternative that workers are fighting for on the picket line. Even before the nurses went on strike, 2022 was a record-breaking year for industrial action. Striking workers are not just fighting for pay, essential as these demands are. They are fighting for a society without poverty, hunger, and inequality. They are fighting for a future that puts the interests of the community ahead of the greed of energy companies. They are fighting for us all.

Their collective struggle teaches us that democracy exists — it thrives — outside of Westminster. The government is trying its best to turn dedicated postal workers and railway workers into enemies of the general public — a general public that apparently also excludes university staff, bus drivers, barristers, baggage handlers, civil servants, ambulance drivers, firefighters, and charity workers. As the enormous scale of industrial action shows, striking workers are the general public. The year 2022 will go down in history, not as the year the Tories took the public for fools, but as the year the public fought back. United in their thousands, they are sending a clear message: this is what democracy looks like.

This article was first published by Progressive International

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