Last night I attended the launch of the 2013 Cambridge International Development Report at Cambridge University. The report is the work of the Humanitarian Centre – a unique network that is truly cross-sector and collaborative in its approach.
So often I attend conferences and networks with homogenous attendees. Artists network with artists, social entrepreneurs with social entrepreneurs and diplomats with diplomats. Empathy and feel good scores high at these events, but rarely are people surprised, intrigued or challenged. The Humanitarian Centre puts poverty at its heart – and as a result attracts not just development professionals, but business leaders, academics, policy-makers, and, as it turns out – artists.
To launch the report last night I was asked to take part in a “life raft” debate. I had no idea what this was at first, but happily joined into the playful scenario. I am an artist after all. Everyone at the event was a survivor of an apocalypse. The year was 2015. The building we were in - Newnham College – was the last building standing on a tiny patch of land in the British Isles. The life raft was heavily laden with food, stocks and blankets and people and was poised to sail away to a new land, where survivors would build a new society from the ground up. Just as the raft was about to embark, six more survivors were found trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building. You can guess what comes next. I was one of the six and I had to argue my way onto the only remaining place on the boat. I was not there as a communications strategist or international relations expert – instead they asked me to present my case as an artist.
I really thought I had drawn the short straw. I was up against some powerful opposition, and all eminent speakers: NGO Worker Jonny Gutteridge - the CEO of Engineers Without Boarders; Policy-Maker Penny Roberston; Programme Manager at the UK’s Department for International Development; Academic Dr Adrian Campbell – Senior Lecturer at The University of Birmingham; Business Leader Lloyd Fleming – Director of Finance and Operations at The Gold Standard Foundation; and perhaps the trickiest candidate The Devil’s Advocate Gregory Akall - a PHD candidate and communications expert. On reading about their backgrounds, I became more convinced that they had more merits than I. I felt like a wildcard – but decided to enjoy the experience anyway. If all else failed, I am a strong swimmer.
The room was full of people, many of whom had been involved in writing the report that was being launched. The report was titled Working Out Our Future Together: Four Steps Towards Ending Global Poverty. It uses bright colours and wonderful photographs and diagrams to illustrate it. I thought about the recent population lectures of Hans Rosling – and how impressed I was with the visual tricks he used in presenting his work. I thought about Higgs Boson explained through ping pong balls and a tea tray. When it comes to communicating – visual experts quite often have the edge. Slowly I began to believe that I deserved a place on that life raft.
I began with the artist’s ability to communicate and then went on to describe how we can have vision. Not only do we have the dream – but we can do stuff and make stuff – we are implementers of dreams. Feeling the energy begin to lift in the room I presented a case for an artist who holds a mirror to society – a crucial reflection point, but also record and archive maker. I referenced Picasso’s Guernica as an example and fiddled with a mirror I had bought along to demonstrate the point. We can, I claimed understand a society by looking at its art. It is no coincidence that the western art world was full of baffling elite art that has become a monstrous financial commodity. A popular art school view – but perhaps not one heard by this audience.
The mirror was also there to share the story of Norweigan artist Martin Andersen. Andersen’s village Rjukan was in darkness for six months of the year and he wanted to change that. Using a complex system of mirrors and computers that tracked the trajectory of the sun, he was able to capture sunlight. For the first time ever villagers bathed in winter sunshine. Some said it was life-changing – the mayor said it would revive the economy.
“One of the reasons that the arts contribution to development is undervalued is because creativity is our soul”, I said. “It is the hearts bit of hearts and minds. It touches the very essence of our beings – it is music, love, passion. It is difficult to strip out and evaluate – and sits uncomfortably with the western idea of development”. Art, I argued, is development. Even though I was the last to speak, I sensed the energy in the room pick up.
My six minutes were then over and we had to painfully sit whilst votes were cast. I voted for the Policy-Maker – perhaps because I used to be one and felt undervalued there too. But as a government official she was always going to be faced with some resistance.
As the title of this article suggests – the crowd dragged me onto the last remaining seat on the life raft and I was awarded an oar. I was deeply touched by the belief I stirred in the room that an artist could perform a function deemed critical to survival. It felt like it was a turning point – we need more artists in such debates please – and as I have said before, in the whole development process. Several people came up to me afterwards to say how refreshing it was to hear from an artist – and I put my success down to the fact that whilst my argument was strong, I was engaging with the room on a different level – I tried to avoid being dry and worthy and rather draw on my passion.
If there is one thing this exercise demonstrates it is that the Humanitarian Centre are getting it right – things really happen when you take a multi-sector approach to issues. Collaboration is key: working out our future together. In reality, the oar belongs to all six of us.
Photo Courtesy: Michal Marcol/freedigitalphotos.net
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