Friends, family and colleagues often ask how United Edge started. It wasn’t a Eureka! moment. It happened like popcorn in the microwave. That long silence before anything pops is everything.
Our microwave was the Middle East. In Palestine, we saw aid create both dependency and protection. Since 1948, the UN system has served refugees in camps that are now cities. In this situation, Palestinians became one of the highest educated people on earth and created thousands of local community organisations.
We volunteered and worked with a more than a few. We saw the strength of an educated, informed people uniting to claim their most basic rights. Yet despite having the knowledge and skills, the people had little power. The powerlessness was palpable.
Pop! That first kernel went.
The popcorn kept simmering as our journey continued. We worked with some of the largest international development organisations and humanitarian networks, as well as some of the most cutting edge. We were lucky to work on projects all over the world at every level of change.
Exciting things were happening as people started to talk more and more about change being led by the people they served. The values were strong, the passion was high, so why did we rarely see the experts succeeding? The programmes we designed, the evidence we collected, the funding we received -- all were rife with strings attached. The motivations, the decisions, the power came from the system, the privileged, not from the people impacted. The system thought it could change itself without speaking to the people at its edge.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
There is a myth that as the rich get richer, their wealth will trickle down to relieve the poor. There is another myth that better information from the vulnerable communities of people on the ground will trickle up to cause better decisions from those with the power at the top.
Lifting the veil on this myth, our paradigm shifted. We were not on the edge of something new because the problems are systemic, and the system wanted to retain power. This explains why there was little interest to get to the root causes of the problems confronting the world’s most vulnerable -- the root causes were too often the bulwarks of the system itself!
If there were people suffering from violent conflict, we saw aid organisations behaving like corporations, dividing the spoils of war into humanitarian projects, funded by the very governments whose armies had pillaged those people. If there were people struggling from natural disasters, we saw that they couldn’t cope because their land had already become barren, their waterways polluted, their economies coopted. Their rights had been sold by their governments with their taxes to the highest bidders for so-called development. The poorest countries were being bought by the richest corporations -- poor people’s taxes tithing the wealthiest shareholders, development happening in reverse.
We couldn’t find many people looking past the surface crises to the underlying culprits -- corporate corruption, government impunity, the animal industry, evisceration of the basic rights of the people.
The bag of popcorn began to explode. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
We began to look for alternative approaches to making change. Change makers at the edge of the system were confronting these problems differently. They were coming together to take over ownership of industry. They were using popular information channels to mobilize joint action to claim their rights from their elected officials. They were uniting to create jointly owned businesses that shifted power from hierarchy to democracy. Where people united, we saw them gaining an edge over the part of the system that wanted to keep them in the box. The problem was that these approaches weren’t finding their way to the poorest countries or the most vulnerable people.
There is a movement happening right now. It is a movement where people unite to solve the problems facing them and their communities, a movement where action becomes currency and power shifts for justice.
In 2017, we set up United Edge to join this movement. We will not disparage the passionate individuals and organisations making change within the system. Rather we will support them to shift power in their work to the people they serve. But we will focus at the edge, where change makers are bringing a new way. We have seen the power of critical thinking combined with joint action to make alternative approaches a reality. There is strength in people united at the edge of change.
This is when silence returned to the microwave, the popping slowed. The most important decision had come -- when to open door? Too soon and any leftover kernels will never pop. Too late and the whole bag is burnt.
Fifteen years after it all began, we opened the bag and United Edge popped out.