Sunday, August 30, 2009

Citizen power

After a trip to Kenilworth to celebrate Kath's birthday Friday evening, and a return journey last night, I was doubly grateful not to have to preach this morning. Vanessa, St John's choir leader, spoke instead about her forthcoming trip to Kosovo, driving an aid convoy truck with Hope and Aid Direct. I was pleased to hear her introduction to a British voluntary charitable organisation I hadn't heard of before.

In comparison with the big NGOs at work in distributing aid in needy places internationally, Hope and Aid is a small player, but working in collaboration with the bigger agencies to target situations of particular need, delivering aid direct to families and small communities, offering special help with re-construction of facilities broken by conflict or disasters. For me this brought to mind the work of Sprofondo, an Italian organisation run by Don Renzo Scapolo, who took aid convoys into Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, and continued with aid and reconstruction work there subsequently.

I met Don Renzo a couple of times in Geneva, and later visited him in Sarajevo in 1997, when he was working on reclaiming for community use the buildings of a burnt down Catholic seminary bombed during the early weeks of the siege. He succeeded in galvanising large numbers of local people to clear out the rubble, excavating tools or any equipment apart from shovels, forks, axes and crowbars - a long and laborious task. Meeting him and visiting his projects in that war torn city, in the early days of its recovery was a privileged experience for me. I've told his story many times, (my photos are here) and felt secretly sad that such practical opportunities to be a peace-builder from the ruins upwards had never really come my way.

There is something very special about what I'd call the 'non-professional' aid organisations. Living in a place like Geneva for eight years made me very aware that working for aid agencies, may be vocational, but it is also a definite career path, often embarked upon with a targeted set of study choices made at university level to begin with, and a fair amount of competition to get the right experience and access to the career ladder. Well and good. There's a lot of need to be filled, when it comes to rebuilding industries, infrastructure, trade etc., but the bigger the organisation, the more it is obliged to move in a politically determined environment.

The great thing about small voluntary NGOs, also wanting to make a difference and help the needy, is that they can work constructively with a degree of independence of political pressures, because those who lead them work through personal networks of contacts. If my memory serves me well, Don Renzo worked with the ubiquitous Scout Movement in building bridges of support and humanitarian aid across the Adriatic from Italy to the Balkans.

Personal knowledge and experience at a grassroots level can be a stimulus to positive action - citizen action as opposed to political action. And not only can citizens succeed in reaching suffering people overlooked because unimportant t0 powerful elites with much needed help, the experience of taking on the task can prove life changing and educative to those who participate.

At St John's, we'll be looking forward to a full account of her journey from Vanessa when she returns.

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