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Olympic Games and development progress in the UK

July 29, 2012

Out running this morning in the beautiful countryside of the High Weald in South East England, I was (in my mind, at least!) combining athletics with quintessentially British surroundings. And so I reflected on the opening ceremony of the Olympics last Friday, which nicely combined the themes of Britishness and the Olympics.

The Olympic Games is a fantastic global moment – reflecting a fantastic global movement – which showcases and celebrates talent, endeavour, collaboration and organisation. It creates and strengthens links between individuals, between individuals and their societies, and between societies. It will never on its own bring peace between all those waging war. The Olympic Truce might perhaps have worked in ancient times, when the Olympics was a regional event, but it can’t possibly work on a global scale: truces can’t be universal or global unless wars are.  Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that increasing people’s exposure to those who may look and sound different, and who come from far away – and yet experience the same human emotions as I do –  contributes to an increase in empathy and reduces the likelihood that those from one group or nation will want to harm those from another.

The choice of the nine flagbearers who carried the Olympic Flag was interesting from a symbolic perspective: The Secretary General of the UN, a local peace activist from Liberia, a conductor who uses music to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians, two legendary and inspirational Olympic athletes, an international campaigner for environmental justice, an international humanitarian, and two campaigners for justice and freedom in the UK.

The inclusion of the last two, Shami Chakrabarti and Doreen Lawrence, made me reflect on the link between Britishness and the Olympics. Both people campaign for a better UK. The first is head of Liberty, a human rights campaigning organisation; the second, a longstanding campaigner for justice and against racism, following the racist murder of her son in South London nearly twenty years ago. At first I wondered why they were included: surely the Olympic flag should be carried by international figures? But on reflection it seemed very fitting that global figures like Ban Ki-moon and Muhammad Ali were accompanied by two people whose concerns – while universal in nature – are mainly focused within the UK.

Including the two British campaigners was in keeping with the idea that the 2012 Olympics is at the same time an international, a national and a London event. The opening ceremony referred to many aspects of British history and culture, and one thing that stood out was how much sheer disruption Britain has been subject to in the name of progress. The industrial revolution of two hundred years ago is doubtless one of the main foundations of my ability to live a fairly free and healthy life in Britain. But it was a tough time for most people alive then: development progress came at a great cost. And the Olympics opening ceremony showed that.

Working over the past 27 years in support of societal change in places less developed than the UK, one of my abiding questions has always been to what extent do such places have to pass through similar disruptive periods as British people did in the name of progress? I know there are many paths to development, indeed many definitions of “development”, and I do not subscribe to the idea that less developed countries should simply try to “become like us”. Indeed, the exigencies of climate change mean that they simply have to follow a better and more sustainable path than the OECD countries have done so far.

But I don’t feel that there is anything intrinsically wrong in saying that many of the attributes  of Britain today are things that people in Kenya, Kazakhstan, Russia, Guinea, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil and China can and should aspire to and aim for. I am talking about things like the rule of law, democratically accountable politics, access to education and health services, freedom of speech and association, and economic freedom. And about the existence of instititutions which help maintain, improve, deepen and expand them.

But the presence of Shami Chakrabarti and Doreen Lawrence in the Olympic flag-carrying party was a good and welcome reminder that there is no room for complacency. Doreen Lawrence’s son was killed because he was black, and the crime was compounded for years by the inability of a police and justice system undermined by institutional racism to bring the killers to justice. Meanwhile Shami Chakrabarti runs Liberty, an outfit which has campaigned for over 75 years for human dignity, equal treatment and fairness as the foundations of democracy.

I have no hestitation in asserting that the United Kindgom is more developed than most countries in the world. By this I mean it has made more progress in institutionalising factors like democracy, fairness, openness, participation and human rights. But I am just as clear that there is still a long way to go, and that it is just as possible to go backwards as to travel forwards. Not only that, but others have made progress in different ways, from which we can learn. Hence the critical importance of campaigners like Lawrence and Chakrabarti in our public sphere. And hence their importance as symbols in the Olympic flag-carrying party. Britain has exported much to the rest of the world: our exercise of colonial rule of large swathes of the planet and our leadership role in the slave trade have been among our worst exports. But we’ve also exposed other parts of the world to institutions, ways of living together and making political decisions which have much to recommend them. Indeed, the President of the International Olympic Committee noted at the opening ceremony that the rules and codes for several olympic sports had initially been established here in the UK. Nevertheless we still have plenty to do here at home, to protect the progress made by those who came before us, and to keep moving down the road of progress. By including Doreen Lawrence and Shami Chakrabarti as flag-bearers, and by some of the other content of the opening ceremony, I think we were perhaps sending three messages:

1. Look at what good institutions we have here in the UK;

2. Good as they are, they remain a work in progress;

3. We are keen to work in partnership with others outside the UK in protecting and improving them.

One final thought: this implies that the UK is still a developing country. When the 2015 Millennium Development Goals are replaced they should, as many have been arguing, be conceived and construed to apply to all countries including the UK and other OECD members, following the principle of universality.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Deer permalink
    July 29, 2012 6:09 pm

    Phil, Well said.

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  1. The Nine Flagbearers | Edinburgh Eye

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