Speech by Laurence Demarco at the AGM, Douglas, St Brides 27th October 2010

Speech by Laurence Demarco at the AGM, Douglas, St Brides
27.10.10

 

I’m partly retired now – so when finance allows I try to get away to warmer places – to the village of south Rome which my family emigrated from – to the village near Ronda in the south of Spain – where my friend now lives with his young family.  The Italian village (P) is roughly the size of Douglas – 800 souls – the Spanish one half that size – but they both have an elected Mayor and council dedicated to their village – so all citizens know personally their elected representatives.  In continental Europe, this is in no way unusual – it is the norm – in Spain, France, Italy, Germany etc the first tier of elected govt. is much nearer the people.  In France an elected commune collects taxes and delivers some local services.  There is a commune for every 1600 citizens.  The equivalent first tier in the UK is a council for every 155,000 people, 100 times more.

 

Some of us have been campaigning to devolve local democracy since the 1970s – but there has been virtually no progress – we have found that there is huge resistance to empowering local communities.  Civil servants and public officials like to control decisions – why would they want widespread discussions – but its probably political resistance which has been most telling.  Most of my working life, Scotland has effectively been one party, Labour state – the party determined local policy and selected local representatives.  Spontaneous grass roots activity was discouraged – sometimes even sabotaged.  This is partly why more and more people have become skunnered with party politics – choose to give their time and energy as citizens to direct action and single issue movements.  The membership of organisations like Oxfam – Friends of the Earth – Amnesty International etc – is far greater than that of potential parties.

 

Roughly 12 years ago, the penny dropped for me – when I came to understand the idea of social enterprise.  By this we mean an enterprise – created to achieve some benefit to the community – but set up like a business – trading goods or services – with an understanding of profit and loss.  The person I learnt most from is a Bangladeshi called Muhammad Yunus – who over 30 years ago created the Grameen Bank – which has lent money – without collateral – to 7 million of the poorest people on the planet – with a 98% repayment rate.  He found a way of helping the poor which is sustainable – because it doesn’t need a subsidy.  Grameen Now operates two dozen other major social businesses.  This is what Yunus says:- 
“If your enterprise can deliver a service, and recover 100% costs – you have entered the business world with limitless possibilities.  This is a moment worth celebrating.  You have overcome the gravitational force of financial dependence – and now are ready for space flight!  This is the critical moment of significant institutional transformation.  You have moved from the world of grants and donations to the world of business.”  Yunus captures in a nutshell the essence of the social enterprise movement.  If you can work for social justice – and simultaneously recover the full cost of what you are doing – he uses the metaphor of flight – you leave the gravitational drag of state funding and the uncertainty of the begging bowl.  Whether you’re an individual in your wee lifestyle social business – a community enterprise delivering local services – or like Yunus operating in global markets – the principal is the same.

 

If you look around Scotland at the communities where local people have made an impact – in Govan, Castlemilk, Twechar, Renton or Gigha – you will see that they have one thing in common – that they’ve made the ‘institutional transformation’ which Yunus describes.  “They’ve moved from the world of grants and donations to the world of business.”  On Gigha wind turbines provide a community income – in Govan its thousands of sq ft of commercial work spaces – in many places, it’s the income stream from community owned housing stock which provides the investment base.

 

These are examples of what are sometimes referred to as Anchor Organisations – because they provide the stability and the leadership which enables communities to come together – to agree priorities – and then to mobilise local energy and creativity.  Once a locally owned Anchor organisation can meet core costs from its own income it is truly empowered.  We are no longer talking about the capacity to decide on the number of swings in the play park – we’re talking about the capacity to appoint and manage professional advisors – to undertake major development and even when appropriate disagree with the local authority and advance local choices.  That is the power of social enterprise.

 

It is an honour for me to be invited to visit you people today at your first AGM.