A big dark green tiled table with people around it shot from ahead. The picture suggests thinking, gathering, and collaborating.
Design Explore Morocco ©

Simon Mills

Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson explore ethics and courage, asking what could democratic development look like?

Across the globe creative practitioners are working with communities to co-create and co-produce. This work cuts across genres and challenges our understanding of the role of arts and culture in society. This blog is part of a series exploring socially engaged practice in the UK and internationally. With writings and provocations from Matt Peacock (With One Voice, Streetwise Opera), Shelagh Wright and Peter Jenkinson (Culture and Conflict), Ruth Gould, and Chrissie Tiller, this blog offers examples and experiences of socially engaged practice, shares ideas, and investigates what it means to create socially engaged art today.

The Only Way is Ethics

A university created and run by refugees > Social enterprises forged through vulnerable street children creating a circus > A generation of genocide survivors rebuilding their ravaged community through collective design and architecture > Historic injustices and everyday niggles aired and shared through joining a complaints choir > Marginalised girls empowered in a warzone through skateboarding > A nation-wide exchange economy fuelled through independent music festivals > Urban transport nightmares tackled through graffitti vigilantism > An inclusive cross-generational school fashioned collaboratively inside a recently re-opened nuclear exclusion zone > A local currency invented by artist activists to challenge conventional finance > Young people collectively strengthening their communities through hip hop > The global corporate policy of a major company changed through targeted and intimate craftivism > Accelerating gentrification tackled through creative activists serving eviction notices on art galleries > A grassroots people’s development toolkit and community land trust co-created in a devastated post-hurricane city…..……..


'They are creating practical solutions to the systemic problems that are rapidly being intensified by our prevailing economic and political, as well as cultural, structures.'

These inspiring and often courageous actions, and many many others like them, are happening at this moment all over the world. Whilst seemingly disparate, they are all contributing to doing development differently through culture and creativity. They are people-centred and collective in spirit, and forcefully driven by unshakeable values. They occupy fresh territories of the imagination and build community, ownership and possibility, often and at times deliberately beyond existing institutions. They are foregrounding radical thinking and doing. Perhaps most importantly, while most have art and culture as their starting point, these actions are primarily focussed on tackling real-world issues and not art-making, are challenging deeply-embedded conventions and are naturally collective in spirit. They are creating practical solutions to the systemic problems that are rapidly being intensified by our prevailing economic and political, as well as cultural, structures – a dispiriting roll call that we can all rehearse that includes growing inequality, xenophobia and racism, sexual oppression, modern slavery, violence and conflict, the marginalisation of entire communities, the brutalisation of labour relations, the lack of recognition of and respect for local or traditional cultures, unprecedented mass migration and environmental degradation.

‘This is deeply committed development work. It nurtures and encourages ‘positive deviance’ through which people reject the silos others have always imprisoned them in, devise unexpected, odd solutions…’

In response, these disparate practitioners, with their tools and tactics, solidarities and provocations, are not interested in delivering yet another fleeting spectacle, privileging yet another solo artist’s ego-project or responding to yet another non-negotiable but profoundly misguided requirement of an institution or a funder. Their practice works in the ‘undisciplined’space at the intersection of the usually segregated worlds of Art and Culture, Activism and Development, finding different ways to contribute to sustainable systemic change. They are convinced that creative and cultural production must do more than decorate or entertain or be sold to the highest bidder in the distanced and bloated Art Market. Rather it must enable people themselves - the 99.9% - to realise their inherent agency and human capabilities in order to make places worth living in, for all. In this still top-down world these determined practitioners are slowly generating what we call ‘under power’.

This is deeply committed development work. It nurtures and encourages ‘positive deviance’ through which people reject the silos others have always imprisoned them in, devise unexpected, odd solutions rather than depressingly dwelling on problems, and generate and regenerate their own lives and communities according to what they really care about: they have the freedom to speak and be heard; to feel and express; to question, contest and dare to be different; to make and build; to listen, empathise and create space for others; to experiment, take risks and fail; to be themselves amongst others…to buck business as usual, because business as usual is failing us all, in dangerous ways.

‘Must. Try. Harder.'

At the Uncommon Ground gathering in Salford in March last year, the artist Scottee made this challenge to practitioners: ‘my provocation to you, Uncommon Ground 2018 - when you’re next planning your nice and easy, depoliticised, clean and safe project ask yourself this - does this encourage the next generation of artists, activists, thinkers and doers to be braver, stronger, empowered and more vocal? Is this useful? Should I stop using public resources for the glorification of my art ego? Who am I creating this for? Do I care enough? Will this create change? Is this a force for good? ...or it this just a memory - a thing that happened for 10 minutes one weekend in 2018? Must. Try. Harder.'

Must. Try. Harder. Scottee’s powerful challenge to practitioners now needs to be mirrored by an urgent challenge to those institutions upholding a creaking if not broken system. It is clear today that there needs to be a profound and irreversible shift in the relationship between the funders and the funded. We are now hearing from friends across the world, and especially from those who are precarious refugees, that trust in institutions has broken down. People are tired of wellmeaning but arrogant funders and development agencies, based in remote capital cities, constantly demanding answers to senseless questions. They are frustrated by the technocratic demands of impacts, KPIs, targets, assessments and evaluations that fall on them. Many funders are seen as prescriptive and extractive, obsessed with their own agendas and unprepared to co-build new solutions with their so-called beneficiaries. We are told that researchers and data harvesters are today sitting alone in cafes and offices making up responses to the distant funder’s spurious questionnaires as people on the ground are no longer prepared to cooperate in what is perceived as a one-way journey. As a result $€£billions of development money is being misdirected or misspent. And in some context the investment - international aid, overseas development assistance, charitable giving and foundation funding, infrastructural and regeneration initiatives, artistic grantmaking - can make the situation on the ground not better, as is hoped, but worse.

Development is a moral as much as a technical field. It’s about relationships, possibility and engagement in shaping a future life we want to live. Development practice as a moral field has actively to generate capability and capital for everyone engaged in the future because they will inhabit and shape it - for good or for ill. It cannot be imposed by state ideologies or market extraction which ultimately only delivers further anger, alienation, anxiety and anomie. What could democratic development and an inclusive economy look like and how can it be built on a foundation of deeply human engagement, expression, imagination and co-creation.

There are glimmers of possibility that can encourage us all to act differently. The international municipalist movement Fearless Cities network alongside the EDGE Funders Alliance is forging new understandings of how power can be differently distributed and directed. They, and many others, now recognise the unprecedented power of cities across the world, with their multiple assets and especially human assets, to resist negative national and global forces and build different futures. Interest in participative grantmaking is growing, exemplified by the recently launched Rawa Creative Palestinian Communities Fund. Local actors, such as those working in Jouri in response to the Syrian conflict, are beginning to generate research and collect data on the ground which is of use both to their own community as well as to funders and development agencies. Last year’s King’s College London report on cultural democracy and capabilities suggests an exciting new intellectual and ethical framework through which we can address and liberate grassroots creative development across the world. Simultaneously the AHRC-supported Cultural Value Scoping Project suggests promising new directions for purposeful enquiry.

Intrapreneurs within systems are valiantly trying to steer their sluggish ships in new directions. Technology is enabling people to bypass existing power structures and do things for themselves and with others. Some cultural institutions are boldly re-inventing themselves as sites of genuine co-creation, co-curation and co-production with local, regional or national communities. And many artists and creatives are radically shifting into more explicitly socially and politically engaged practices and embracing deviance, better to contribute to the wider world. All of these developments are hopeful but as one expert in the field says much of this “is stuff that is happening in spite of development programmes and not because of them”.

So, can we reorientate institutions of power and purse holders to move away from the transactional and technical, or even worse the superficial spectacle, towards a different kind of development? This article started with a small roll-call of practice that is daring to be different, to work in unexpected ways and have the courage to go beyond business as usual. Can a brave institution or funder commit to the same path? It needs a moral compass more than a technical manual.

In the end the only way is ethics.