Going Local – Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age

Going-Local-Shuman-Michael-9780684830124Anyone who starts their book with a quote from Wendell Berry will get my attention.

But while Berry produces exquisite art that feeds the soul with inspiration and practical wisdom, Michael Shuman writes books for the “how to” of localisation. This one is filled with examples of what has and hasn’t worked – mainly from USA examples from the 1990’s but still highly relevant to our present time and place.

What I like about Shuman is the reasonableness of his position. For instance:

Going local does not mean walling off the outside world. It means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages, and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming  more self-sufficient, and less dependant on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of  distant corporations and back to the community, where it belongs (p6)

He deconstructs the current narrative that cannot perceive prosperity and well-being outside of increased reliance on the global economy, where we are obsessed with attracting overseas investment as our only hope of economic salvation. He says:

The only way communities can ensure their economic well-being is to stop chasing multinational firms with no community loyalties, and start investing in community corporations. Prosperity follows when ownership, production, and consumption become intimately connected with place.  (p7)

He has some great examples of cities and regions abandoned by large industry who have faced social and economic disaster, but instead assessed what was left and found ways to recover a buoyant local economy.  His hypothesis is that the costs of courting large-scale overseas investment is too high. The advantages are temporary at best. A long-term, robust economy is founded instead on solid, locally owned sustainable businesses.

The final chapter in the book addresses ten steps toward community self-resilience. I want to explore how we could adapt these to Northland:

Step 1: A Community Bill of Rights

By this he means developing a shared vision of a better future, asking questions like: What do we want to produce? How? Where? What kinds of goods and services are necessities? What should be our standard of worker right and wages? What should be our stand on preserving our land, water and sea? What kind of ownership structures will best serve our community well-being? As he says:

A community bill of rights accomplishes several goals. It enables residents to assert, fundamentally, that ends come before means – that businesses are welcome if they serve the community. It creates a set of public norms about commercial behaviour that protects the public and provides fair notice to corporations. A business’s faithfulness to the Rights. while voluntary, carries consequences. Every time a citizen considers making a purchase…he or she will have the list of qualifying companies in mind.

This is what we have in mind through a our Localise Project – developing a set of voluntary standards around shared values and then identifying businesses that are on-board with these values that they may support one-another.

Step 2: The State of the Region Report

This is about taking stock of what our city, town or region is and has. Every community has resources, assets and culture that are capable being revived and empowered. Sometimes we forget how blessed we are in Northland in terms of climate, resources and history. Shuman recommends recording and publishing this to remind ourselves of who we are and what we have. This not only gives us a starting point for moving forward, but inspires a new sense of collective identity.

Virtually every community… has a gold mine which economists have yet to discover. Along its veins and other deposits may be found unemployed human resources, underused civic institutions, and discarded economic assets…. Many kinds of human assets now lie fallow…… the inventiveness of the young, the forgotten skills of retirees…tally the inanimate objects that have been all but written off: empty buildings, idle machinery, wasted energy. (p184)

This report would also include our local renewable resources, non-renewables, community organisations, measures of current exports and imports, indebtedness and investment on a region-wide basis and so on. This report is not so much about finding answers, but identifying where we are at – that in many ways we are richly resourced, but just need co-ordination and vision for that to be utilised in a sustainable and empowering way for the whole community. This requires research and coordination – an essential part of the process. The Ministry of Economic Development recently commissioned a report on Northland which has collected much data around the Northland economy. Many of the conclusions are framed in terms of a global/industrial narrative, but the information could provide a great resource for a State of the Region Report.

Step 3: Anchor Corporations

From this report, Shuman says, there will be obvious ripe business opportunities. Unmet needs suggest new markets for local businesses. Under-utilised or poorly utilised resources may then be matched with people with ideas but lacking capital or land – unused buildings or land for instance, discarded goods that may be recycled or up-cycled. Import replacing businesses will begin to emerge based on a joint commitment made at step one. This is where a few companies must step up to point the way forward. Shuman says:

The existence of one or two successful community corporations – using local inputs, producing quality goods, operating in harmony with the environment, selling to local consumers, treating workers well, delivering profit to local shareholders – should inspire others to follow… As they increase the demand for inputs to production, new firms will be motivated to set up shop. (p187-188)

In Northland we have at least one great example of a Social Enterprise that has lead the way in CBEC (Community, Business and Environment Centre) is based in Kaitaia but has ventures throughout Northland. With a focus on running community services (transport, home insulation, solar power, conservation and recycling) in a sustainable way they have proven the viability of the Social Enterprise model in Northland. The Akina Foundation is presently working in the Far North coaching a series of new social enterprises, for example AKĀU – a design and architecture studio in Kaikohe using local materials to make quality furniture and other locally designed products, providing training for local youth in association with Northtec.

Step 4: Community Friendly Business Schools

Most people who have been employed by large companies all their lives (or have been unemployed) haven’t had the opportunity to learn the skills of business ownership. The availability of coaching and mentoring around the values identified at step one has been rare in the past. Shuman says:

The transformation of business schools and university economics departments is another imperative. Lewis Mumford once observed that industrial society transformed all seven deadly sins except sloth “into a positive virtue. Greed, avarice, envy, gluttony, luxury, and pride [are] the driving forces of the new economy”.

Fortunately we have organisations like Akina who are leading the way in ethical Social Enterprise and locally Northtec is playing a significant part in sustainable development and training.  They have carried out some significant research including an extensive study of the impact of the Whangarei Growers Market. From my background as a Chartered Accountant I see the great disconnect between great people with exciting ideas and the realities of compliance with regulations and reporting requirements. I am still involved in informal business mentoring with a number of forming ventures and may formalise this in future as there is a great need for incubation of new ventures. We are also in the process of creating software tools to assist with compliance and governance.

Step 5: Community Finance

Shuman sees the development of sources of finance as essential for the starting of community organisation. Conventional sources of finance form a point of “leakage” from the local economy, reducing the “multiplier” effect of keeping funds in circulation.

As community corporations expand, so will the need for local investors. A concerted effort must be made to convince your neighbours to transfer their pensions and other assets from global stocks and bonds to local ones, and from mutual funds with no preference for place to local mutual funds targeting local businesses.

Many will of course argue that this may expose their retirement funds or their children’s inheritance to undue risk.  But are investments in the global economy actually that safe anyway? There are ways to invest locally in safe way – for instance investing in land or buildings that are made available for social enterprise or start-ups at an affordable rate as a way of promoting these ventures. Mechanisms already exist for protecting peer-to-peer lending. Simply using a local solicitor to draw up an agreement is the most simple way if there is already some kind of relationship between the borrower and potential investor. New peer-to-peer lending businesses like Harmoney allow lenders to choose who to invest in. So a local investor could go in there are choose from a range of local ventures.

Step 6: Community Currency

Community currency is a proven way to stimulate a local economy. As well as reducing leakage for multinational banks and credit card companies, it provides resilience in times of natural disaster, economic or political crisis. Shuman says that local currency systems:

…demonstrate that designing, managing and recruiting participants for community currency is a terrific organising project. It raises awareness  about who lives in the community which citizens are committed to self-reliance, and what and where goods are locally available. It strengthens relationships between local business and consumers. It heightens public appreciation that every purchase is a civic act.

Northland has had community currencies and time-banking in the past. Laurence Boomert,  a guru on alternative currencies did a great presentation on Complimentary Currencies at the Resilient Economies Conference in Kaitaia in 2014. As far as I know there are no current currency initiatives in Northland however there are tools to enable virtual local currencies available and once some of the other steps are more progressed this would be natural extension.

Step 7: Community-Friendly Local Councils

While all the above can be achieved without local government support, if the local councils do get on board, there are massive advantages. Shuman says:

It can make sure that the only beneficiaries of local investment, contracts, purchases and bond finance are community corporations. It can help to match local-input supplier and workers with local producers. It can set up scholarship funds… If your mayor or local city-council members  refuse to start making the kinds of economic stands that make difference, consider standing against them.

There are some encouraging signs for Northland in this arena. The Far North District Council hosted the Resilient Economies Conference in Kaitaia in 2014. They are supporting the Akina social enterprise work in the Far North. The Whangarei Council seems open to suggestions. We just need to keep working on them!

Step 8: Political Reform

This is where it can start to get messy. As Shuman says:

A community that begins the transformation to self-reliance will soon encounter powerful enemies. Multinational firms that find themselves losing local markets and special government privileges can be expected to retaliate… and continue to use trade treaties and friendly courtrooms, wherever possible, to circumvent the inconveniences of democracy… But their most likely – and dangerous -reaction will be to tighten their grip on local governments.

This is a challenge. Once we make a stand to take our independence back from the global economy there is likely to be opposition. Already the TPPA is a massive threat to a thriving local economy. The good thing about the Northland economy is that nobody outside of Northland really cares about us. Our production is insignificant in national terms and no-one in central government wants to tackle our social problems so hopefully we can “fly under the radar.”

Step 9: A Lobby for Localism

This is about pushing for policies that devolve power back to local communities and local councils.

Local elected officials have to steer the devolution revolution so that they are given real powers over the local economy, and not just more responsibilities without the revenue-raising capacity to pay for them. They need to push the national government to reorient the nation’s trade policies away from the centralised autocracy…

In New Zealand local government has less power and less resources than in most other countries – lots of responsibility but little real power. But once we have a working model of a truly resilient local vibrant economy that doesn’t keep begging for government handouts, is addressing it’s social problems in creative and compassionate ways and is reclaiming a truly local identity then hopefully we will have a great case for government to look seriously at making it easier for local communities to at least be on a level playing field with the corporations, and to trust local councils with more power to facilitate this.

Step 10: Inter-localism

Finally Shuman suggests a better way of forming global connections:

A more responsible course for a globally minded community is to move toward local self-reliance, and to help other communities worldwide do likewise. How? By transferring innovations in technology and policy that foster self-reliance, especially to the poorest communities in the world that desperately need a new approach to sustainable development.

In fact it is many of the “poorer” countries where social enterprise is thriving and we can learn from them. However the idea is sound, that we get our own house in order, care for our own people – our own “zombie towns” – then perhaps we will have learned some skills to help others.


Clive McKegg

2 thoughts on “Going Local – Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age

  1. Ruth Marsh

    Thanks Clive. What I suggest is that we make a plan and get on with it. I’d also like to say that there are two local currencies in Northland. Time Banking in Kaitaia has been going quite a few years now. And there’s a new one called something like XChange (but not sure of exact name). we dabbled with a couple in Kerikeri and Bay of Islands but they didn’t fly (yet).

    1. admin Post author

      Thanks Ruth. I’ve done quite a bit of work refining this into more of a discussion document so will add those comments in to the draft. Clive


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