‘Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.’ Dan Smith, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Manchester University, quoted The Who as he summed up what it means to be an internationalist today, especially in Britain, in relation to biting austerity and the shifting of world powers.
Chaired by writer Hannah Pool, the panel event at which he was speaking had been organized in celebration of New Internationalist magazine’s 40th birthday.
To me, internationalism has never been something you can only believe in or feel if you have set foot on several continents. Rather, it’s having the outlook that all our struggles are connected, that power should be collective and justice equal. Internationalism can be as local as supporting striking workers in our community, to standing side by side with those oppressed by a mining firm on the other side of the world.
Economist and writer Nitasha Kaul made the point that ideas have no borders; what people in Britain would not accept on a national level should not be seen as fair when happening on an international level to some ‘other’ people.
War on Want Executive Director John Hilary considered that internationalism begins at home: working alongside those oppressed by the state, as well as by capital, from the northern and southern hemispheres.
This question of ‘local’ in the context of the global was one of the main topics explored by the speakers, along with technology, solidarity, power and ‘international development’. To Jonathan Glennie, researcher for the Overseas Development Institute, internationalist perspectives are the only option, even more so now than 40 years ago – despite often being considered too ‘radical’.
Asad Rehman, senior climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, felt that internationalism was his only option growing up in Britain with immigrant parents. But he argued that the international solidarity he feels now, while campaigning on climate change, is less abstract then when he wore Palestinian keffiyehs as a teenager.
Activist and writer Jessica Horn said that, for her, imagination is key to international solidarity; after all, nothing changes without an idea first being conceived.
A lot of talk focused on the 40-year milestone: how much has internationalism changed, and what has technology had to do with it? Mariéme Jamme, technologist and social entrepreneur, was passionate about the power of technology. Change for good can go ‘from tweet to street’, she said, especially in Africa, where entrepreneurs are combining innovation and development, and the proportion of women working in technology is enviable.
Asad Rehman warned that while technology can be a great tool for attracting people to activism, no government has ever been ‘tweeted to death’; it is people that can generate action.
Both Dan Smith and John Hilary talked about a professionalism of international development since the 1970s. Hilary described it as a ‘scandal’, arguing that the concept of international development had been reduced to metrics and measures of aid. He also criticized the tendency within the international development sector to cosy up to power, and questioned the rise of corporate philanthropy.
Mariéme Jamme was particularly scathing about the role of big players such as Oxfam and Comic Relief in Africa, especially the fact that they tended to perpetuate stereotypes and negative images of African people as objects of development.
I think the sense of optimism, often talked about at the time of New Internationalist’s launch, is still there – but the belief that change can happen needs to be stoked, sustained and grown. While learning from the past, we can still be more radical in our demands for the future.
The shift of economic power from Europe and the US was an inevitable topic of conversation throughout the event; the panel agreed that the same élites needed to be confronted and battles for power fought, whoever and wherever they were.
For true international solidarity, activists and development organizations must also give something up. The unconformable thing for many who work for equality or justice is that they will have to relinquish some power. Rather than ‘giving a platform’ to others, they will have to stand side by side with those they want to help and let them lead.
New Internationalist’s birthday event on ‘What does it mean to be an internationalist today’ took place on 31 October. Listen to the panel discussion and Q&A session below and share.
For more on the theme of internationalism and what this means for global solidarity and development, check out our Internationalists blogging series.