Interview with Asad Rehman from War on Want

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Where do people find hope to continue in their struggles? It is a question we asked over and over again during our interviews in the UK. Here is what Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, had to say about hope. “Hope is in the history of humanity. All change has come because of resistance. Every social change has come because we have fought. It is only at the moment of victory that people suddenly say “Oh, we have won! That was possible.” Before that in every struggle I’ve ever been involved in, people said “That is not possible.” If I imagine the moment that I was growing up, the racist violence, that I couldn’t walk into certain places where I now walk, I couldn’t imagine it. But it is happening, we’ve won it.”

 

“[War on Want’s] starting point has always been an analysis of the crisis of neo-liberalism, a crisis of inequality and injustice.”

 

“War On Want is probably the most radical charity NGO that operates not in terms of a movement but as a formal NGO. Its starting point has always been an analysis of the crisis of neo-liberalism, a crisis of inequality and injustice. We don’t do project work, we are not an organisation that does projects in the sense of other development organisations or charities. What we do is work with movements to build power of people, to be able to resist and build alternatives.

 

So we have two sides of the organisation, one which works internationally. Historically we’ve been going for a very long time with War On Want, but it’s basically the organisation that stood with the liberation movements in the seventies and eighties, it supported the liberation movements in South America, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etcetera. And it consistently asked the question about what is the cutting edge, where is our movement fighting and how do we support them. So now, we have programs that run in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North Africa and East Asia. There we work with movements of people resisting all kinds of injustice such as extractivism. We work with people demanding for food sovereignty, for workers rights… We are trying to do that through also the lens of critical analysis, feminism, neo-liberalism and empire. Locally, so here in the UK, we run three sort of specific areas of work. We do sort of military conflict area of work, which is at the moment focused a lot on Palestine. We also have an economic justice area of work. For this, we work a lot on migrant rights, particularly migrant workers rights and try to tackle the informal economy, the deregulation of the labour market, precarious contracts, zero contracts. These new phenomenons are a consequence of high neo-liberalism and play even in developed countries. The other area we work around in terms of our front facing work is around trade and that’s about “global Britain in the world”, so we were the main organisation in the UK that led the TTIP fight. We fought CETA and now, we are fighting a lot in terms of Brexit and the free trade agreements that are going to be signed.

 

“When you talk about language and framing, only a narrow set of people, usually political people that are already committed, understand.”

 

We have a very strong relationship with the labour movement and the trade union movement. We also work with activist networks, particularly with Wretched of the Earth, Sisters Uncut, Black Lives Matter… They are cutting edge younger activist networks. We don’t charge anybody for anything, you can take as many of our material and what we produce for free. We do that because we think that’s our part of giving resources and supporting the movements. But we also try to do a lot more forward thinking: We are part of the global movement for justice, how do we build a movement locally but that is also ruled globally. At the moment we are doing this thing called ‘pint and politics’. This is one little project that we do, which is about ‘How do you talk about neo-liberalism if you stood in a bar or in the pub?’ How do you take neo-liberalism and talk about these complex issues in a way that you are able to engage the broader set of people. When you talk about language and framing, only a narrow set of people, usually political people that are already committed, understand. It’s about exclusionary language practice, that sort of thing.

 

“[W]e try to bring [marginal movements] together to look how we can strengthen the regional building of movements.”

 

This is roughly what we do. We raise all the money from our supporters and people give us donations. We raise close to three million pounds every year. An overwhelming majority of that we give to our movements in the global site. That’s where we separate ourselves from for example, Oxfam, and other international players. They will do a project, which has its limits, but we will build a movement with which we demand from the state “Why don’t we have the right to water?” So we fund movements in South Africa and Right To The City, we support women’s trade unions in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in North Africa we try to bring together marginal movements that are fighting extractors, we try to bring them together to look how we can strengthen the regional building of movements.

 

“[G]lobal poverty has been the core of our work and through that lens it’s about system change and the systemic drivers of inequality and injustice that is of course the neo-liberal system.”

 

So we are a relatively small organisation compared to other NGOs, but we’re very well known. So this is the framework of our NGO, but within it, everybody knows that the politics that we come from is very radical. Every year we have a huge conflict with the state and the state body that regulates charities, who say that we are a political organisation, that we are not a charity. We say: “Our work is not political.” The name ‘War on Want’ comes from the Korean ‘War era’. Back then, people got together and said: “The only war we are fighting is the war on want, the war on poverty, the only war worth fighting.” So global poverty has been the core of our work and through that lens it’s about system change and the systemic drivers of inequality and injustice that is of course the neo-liberal system. ‘Want’ refers to ‘need’, it’s a play on a word and it works in the English language. It’s not as simple as ‘poverty’, but its cause, the cause of ‘want’, can be everything. It’s the need of people. So it captures everything from the right to water, food, housing to the right of people having dignified lives around the world.

 

“[H]ere in the UK, we are fighting diminishing civil society space.”

 

We receive no funding from the government or corporations. There is a very specific model, particularly in Western Europe, where the government normally makes grants available to civil society after having been deemed to do a good job. Many of them actually do good work, in the sense that they work on the symptoms. Very few of them are able to talk about the drivers of why the system is as it is. And here in the UK, we are fighting diminishing civil society space. We have a body, called the charity commission, which oversees all NGOs and charity organisations, and their push is to say: “Charity should be doing charity and should simply be an aid, but not questioning why poverty exists.” Which is why they hate our slogan ‘Poverty is political’. They hate what we do because we are naming the system and then they call it political. For them, charities should simply be raising money for the poor.

 

We are not that kind of charity. We talk about what our alliance looks like in terms of a movement, but recognise that there are clearly disparities of power and wealth. We shouldn’t ignore them, but we can unpack them so that they can be useful. It’s about how we’re able to help your organising model best. And to recognise, of course, that there are many different models of organising our movements to use in many different places. We should recognise the polarity of our movement in that sense.

 

“If you look at what happened in South Asia, the hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, it shows us the economical realities of how climate impacts, reinforces and funds existing inequalities in the world and is the cause of new inequalities.”

 

From a justice perspective, when we look at the broad climate movement for example, many of them have been culpable for where we are. Because they adopted from day one the totally wrong strategy, the wrong frame, the wrong imagery. So if you talk about climate, for a long time, the climate space was dominated by groups who taught that the theory of change was that if you highlighted the crisis, governments would act rationally and would take action. And that our job therefor was simply to highlight and to do research, reports, briefings, etcetera. Maybe even a bit of lobbying, but all within the set framework, clearly without any understanding that actually climate was not something that could be fixed. I think people took the wrong lessons from campaigns around the ozone layer, where we got told that it was a really big problem, but then the Montreal protocol said “Don’t use these CFC gasses, use this other gas” and that was it. We were able to remediate it. In climate, however, you can’t simply do that. Climate is not such an easy technical problem, it was a political problem and they needed a political answer. Secondly, the framing of climate was dehumanising. The most common imagery of the climate is the polar bear, what a way to make it abstract to people. Even the most resolute person will go: “Yeah, I like the polar bear, but it’s over there…” And thirdly that they sort of fail to tell the truth. If you look at what happened in South Asia, the hurricanes in the Caribbean and the United States, it shows us the economical realities of how both climate impacts, reinforces and funds existing inequalities in the world and is the cause of new inequalities. So it’s our responsibility to tell the truth about what is happening but also about the time frame. To do so, we need a slogan. Like the polar bear, but better. Because you need to build power behind that slogan, you have to deconstruct it.

 

So it has two elements to it: How do we build sufficient power in our own countries? And how do we make sure that we are standing in genuine alliance and platform with the voices of our movements in the global site? In the North that means really breaking climate down to understandable frames: whether that is around energy poverty allowing you to be able to engage with particularly poor white working class communities. How do you build a popular movement? How do you connect for example housing issues to the fights around? When we say “End fossil fuels!”, also we know that there is a large industrial section of our labour movement and unions that need fossil fuels. Simply saying to people “End fossil fuels!” without understanding what that would mean in terms of devastation of communities puts us in opposition to what potentially could be large and strong allies of our labour movement.

 

Many years ago, I was involved in the miner strikes to defend to keep the mines open and we lost. If you look to the devastation of those communities that took place after the whole debacle, they have been totally devastated. Housing issues, poverty, mortality rates, they are totally neglected areas and those have been the focus areas of the far and populist right. So we know that we just can’t simply do without just transitioning. What do you actually need to change? We came to the conclusion it’s our local companies and banks that are financing dirty energy, so our movements are struggling and fighting against many of our own companies and our own countries. And part of our allyship should be: “Yes, we need to do all those things, but we also need to stand in solidarity.” So when communities are fighting against, for example in the Philippines, there is a huge fight against the coal fired power station that’s been built, the finance of that is from Chase Manhattan Bank. And in our movements, still the most progressive ones will say: “Yeah, it’s a really interesting fight, but you know what? We are doing a fight over here and that is really important.” And it is, it’s important that we build in the resistance, but also we have a responsibility, because the banks and the corporations in our own country are driving this.

 

“The biggest challenge to the left in this country and the same to the European left is that the European left, the radical left, is as culpable as the right in ignoring the realities of climate change.”

 

I think it is the most important thing around climate: what is the story we are telling? How does it join up? How do we make sure that we are actually starting from the global and bringing it back to the local, but make sure that that story is connected? I am sometimes a bit concerned about our fights. We have a huge fight at the moment for example around fracking in this country. So there is a big protest in Lancashire, it has been going on like day in day out protest, but if you speak to a lot of fracking people, they will say: “We really should talk about climate, it is better if we just talk about air pollution and water pollution and local communities.” And that is, of course, a tactic issue about how do you build with local people on an issue that they resonate, but our job as activists is also how do you frame that to make sure you are still telling the story? Because the biggest challenge to the left in this country and the same to the European left is that the European left, the radical left, is as culpable as the right in ignoring the realities of climate change. It’s difficult to get people out about the driver of issues, instead of the symptoms. “Yeah, we know we have to tackle climate change, but there are more immediate things”, they say. That is, I think, a problem that we have not the urgency of climate resonate. Why other kind of campaigns work, why refugees campaigns work is because they are able to tell a human story and people are able to have huge empathy. Empathy can build solidarity, we don’t do that on climate. So most of our climate stuff is still victim-oriented, still a very passive kind of storytelling of our people in the global site and not actually telling the story of their resistance and show that this is a resistance, our job is to stand with that resistance.

 

“[M]aybe we are at a moment where at least the movement is starting to ask that question: what does decolonising the climate movement looks like?”

 

We did it with the liberating movements, right? We did it, we were able to build huge movements in Europe for anti-colonial movements, for liberating struggles, and those were fights that were going on in many other parts of the world, but because we told stories, the right stories, we made it human and we made it understandable and I think that was the part of this challenge. And there are no blueprints, because of course there are not, otherwise people would have done it, but maybe we are at a moment where at least the movement is starting to ask that question: what does decolonising the climate movement looks like? And we have been doing a lot of work in the UK around that. Why is the climate movement still overwhelming middle class white? Why doesn’t it get black people in this country, why doesn’t it get working class people? We know that without those two sectors, we are already lost, so some soul-searching these to happen in terms of again about the movement methodologies that we use.

 

“[Y]ou cannot talk about our ability to fight around race without, for example, talking about our educational system, which was failing young black kids.”

 

Personally, I started out as an anti-racist activist around issues of police violence and racist violence in particularly. During that period there were many murders each year, lots of racist attacks, the experience for many black people all over the country was increasingly violent. As communities we were self-organising within our own communities and had these ideas like ‘self-defense is no offense’, we had a right to defend our communities from racist violence and racist attacks when the state failed. One of our slogans during that time was ‘Here to stay, here to fight’, we were not this set of migrants that are here and then are gone. We are here to stay and we are going to fight. And that really led me to many issues in our communities. Because you cannot talk about our ability to fight around race without, for example, talking about our education system, which was failing young black kids, or the violence that took place in the educational system, or the housing, where a majority of black people were put in very vulnerable poor houses. So you can’t separate these issues and we were talking about many different issues.

 

“If we lose on South Africa, we lose here. If we lose on Palestine, we lose here, these are important. We are all one fight!”

 

We always had a global perspective. We came from a tradition that said that what unites our struggles is that we had a common experience. Not just of racism, but of colonialism and imperialism and our struggles and our fights are interlinked. If we lose on South Africa, we lose here. If we lose on Palestine, we lose here, these are important. We are all one fight! And that was always our approach of a sort of radical black politics that came.

 

So we used to engage a lot with that environment, talking about how the approaches needed to be adapted and that they have to go and reach out to these communities, you have to do community building with them before you start to do these actions that the idea of secrecy of the action is more important. They said: “We have to be secure, nobody needs to know, we tell people at the last moment that we are going to do this action.” So the actions were always alien to the people. And suddenly there was a huge protest around the building of the motorway M11. It was actually about a mile away from where I was very active in anti-racist politics in an area where there was huge police violence. When you, as a black person, saw these people protesting you wondered who they were and what in the hell they were doing? Those people never understood that simply saying “We are stopping the motorway” didn’t resonate with people with communities. Because the communities did not understand. “Why would you stop building a motorway? We are a poor community, we have all these other fights!” So the problem about immediacy of each fight wasn’t really understood.

 

But for me, when I was doing the anti-globalisation and economic justice stuff, suddenly when we saw what was going to happen with climate, I figured out the perspective that this is the same fight that I am doing about justice and race. We are fighting about how many black people are going to die in the global south? This is what this fight is about. It is not whether they are going to die, we know they are going to die because the disparities of this system mean that these impacts are going to happen over there. I have to be involved in this fight. So for me, it was never environmentalism. It was always race, class, it was always gender, it was always justice that brought me to the environmental movement and it kept me in the environmental movement.

 

“I sat down and said to my friend: “They have got seven bins, I don’t know what to do.””

 

I always tell this story that when I started with Friends of the Earth, one day I went to the kitchen to throw something in the bin and there were seven bins there and I had no idea where to throw it and put the rubbish back in my pocket. I sat down and said to my friend: “They have got seven bins, I don’t know what to do.” And I went to the toilet and the toilet said “Don’t flush if it’s yellow, let it mellow…” I yelled in terror that they didn’t flush toilets as well! It was so alien, the culture of it was so alien to me. And here I was, I was an activist and if it is alien to me, it is so alien to ordinary black people and black communities.

 

So that’s what led me say “Okay, we have got a job to do, which is to help re-frame this movement.” We have this big climate network in this country, so I called all the organisations that were a part of it. They always said the same narrative: “Take action on climate” but they never made any demands. And they never said what that action was actually going to be. Or they said to people “For the love of your football field, take action on climate”, “For the love of chocolate…” and never “For the love of humanity or justice.” So those are the things that made me think about deeper questions and the fact that there was something fundamentally wrong. Something that is not simply a tactical fight, actually it’s about what we call “decolonising the movement”.

 

“Our climate is the far fight and we haven’t made it the near fight and we haven’t made that fight connected.”

 

It’s all about the perspective of power and privilege in this movement and how it sees itself in relation to power and the state. The world is inevitable going to result in these kind of vacuous demands that there has to be a challenge to them internally from the movement: who are you accountable to? How do you frame this issue? What right do you have to frame this issue like this? And that is partly why we did actions that were challenges from the bottom up to the so-called mainstream climate movement and the NGO movement on framing climate. People see two things: ‘the near fight’ and ‘the far fight’. The problem is that that’s the frame. Our climate is the far fight and we haven’t made it the near fight and we haven’t made that fight connected.

 

The climate movement tries, even now, to say to the people to come to them. That frame doesn’t work. These are the simple basics of all community organising: you have to go to the communities that you want to engage with. You have to be relevant to their interests. Otherwise why should they bother? Especially communities that have got so many other pressures, sometimes even pressures about simple existing and good and you are telling them: “this is really important and it’s over there!” It’s a luxury that we don’t have to worry about food, so what does allyship and movement building and that grassroots thing actually mean? And since people started to understand that, there have been happening a couple of really good things.

 

The two actions that took place at the city airport were primarily environmental campaigns but the actions that they took, they didn’t say: “This is about air pollution.” Their stencil said: “We are stopping deportations.” But we are climate activists doing that because we understand that climate is driving migration, so they were able to use their privilege. They were young and white and they were not going to get shot. Because try to do that with all young black people and you will probably get shot, because people think that it is a terrorist attack on the airport. That threw up a really interesting controversy, both in the black movement and in the white left. The Black Lives Matter organised an action at city airport, which is an airport right by the arms trade. And that area originally was a big white working class area. All social housing got demolished, they build the financial quarter there, then they build the airport, etcetera. But still around it there are working class areas and that was an area that was notorious racist area for black people. But since then, more and more black people have moved in. It is known that this is a little airport, but it is slap bang in the middle of London, it is not like the other airports, which are out of sight. And they are expanding that airport, which means: more flights, more air pollution, etcetera. So Black Lives Matter said: “We should take action’ but the people who took the action were white but it was called a Black Lives Matter action.” And people from the black movement said “Why are you lending the name ‘Black Lives Matter’ to the environmentalists? These white environmentalists are using our frame which is about our rights!” And the white left said: “Hi, if it is a Black Lives Matter action, why are you all white? Why aren’t they doing it themselves?” I wrote a blog about it for Friends of the Earth, saying exactly why. It was right that it was a Black Lives Matter action, because actually when we talk about air pollution, climate, all of those things, those are direct issues. That might not be a bullet from a gun of a police officer in the US but it is just as deadly for poor white and black communities. And recognising the power of privilege. That we live in a racist country means that if those twelve activists were black or brown, authorities would have thought it was a terrorist attack.

 

But the white activists’ response to that was genuinely this: “Yeah, there is a protest, we have shut down the airport and the police came. There wasn’t armed police, but we stormed them. People got arrested, but when it came to court, people got off easily.” Again, if you are young and black and you had done that and you had a conviction, it has a huge impact on your employment and your life chances. So we said that for all those reasons, it was the right thing that it were white environmental activists who really tried to think through what allyship looks like. I thought it was fascinating and I think that those are the kind of steps that we saw that were needed to happen.

 

“What is the political alternative to the far right that the so-called social democratic forces have failed to see?”

 

When you look at the right across Europe, we see the rise of what we call the populist right, far right, extreme right, from Trump to Wilders… We are in an incredible moment. There is a deeper question: “What is the political alternative to the far right that the so-called social democratic forces have failed to see?” They framed the right wing’s arguments to make it a bit softer. Because listen to the Hungarian fascists. If you just listen to them, you would agree with them about most of what they are saying about the elite, about forgotten people, about marginalised working class communities, everything, until you get to a point where you disagree when it’s about “the Muslims are Jews.” It’s the left anti-globalisation language that has been adopted by the right and they have added a mix of xenophobia. And it is so heavy, it is an incredible combination. And again, we know through history, that is what fascism has been able to do. It has been able to use the experiences of white alienated working classes combining of the otherness of an enemy and it becomes really heavy.

 

“[T]here is an irony in there as we say: “Trump, what an outrageous fucker for wanting to build a wall!” and Europe has already build it.”

 

So, how do we fight that? Yes, there is solidarity work and that is really important, human-to-human solidarity is part of our movement. And I think it is great that we have seen a lot of young activists doing exactly that. But that doesn’t answer the core question. The UN body said that by 2050, 1 in 30 people will be forced out of their homes by a combination of climate and inequality. That’s 250,000,000 people. Just in the next 30 years. The scale is unimaginable, where are they going to go? And, of course, fortress Europe moves it walls and fences beyond its own borders. Moving into North Africa, making agreements with everybody. So there is an irony in there as we say: “Trump, what an outrageous fucker for wanting to build a wall” and Europe has already build it.

 

This is not new, Europe has build it, Israel is building one in the Negev desert, lots more of countries are going for their support for building walls and fences to keep the others out. How do we fight it? Fundamentally, that’s the bigger political question. We have to have an alternative that speaks to ordinary people and gives them hope and a vision that life will be better. And I think simply saying to people “Be nice to migrants,” and, of course, it is important, but that in itself doesn’t work. And I always said to really well meaning allies with comrades, they are coming to the black communities saying “We want to work with you, this is the campaign and it is great”, that it is really lovely and good that you want to come, but you need to go to white working class communities because we can’t go to those communities and organise, but you can! And look at our history. You know in Chicago, the Black Panthers had a relationship with two other organisations, one was called the Young Lords which was the Hispanic community.

 

The other one was the Young Patriots and the Young Patriots were white working class people who used the confederate flag as symbol. The Black Panthers at the time said – and that is absolutely the way that you need to speak to your community – that their fight is right and they stand in solidarity. Because the fight that they had going on is a fight about class and economic exploitation. “So you organise your community and we’ll organise our community and we will find spaces where we can collectively fight together.” Of course, the idea was to fight around low pay, places where both experiences of black and white working classes were very similar. And, of course, partly that’s the trajectory Martin Luther King was going down to before he got assassinated. And that is partly why we are trying to do this, bosses drive down wages, not migrants. Because we are trying to fight on the precarious contracts, zero-hour contracts and the sort of grey area where basically you see the economical exploitation. And there are a lot of migrants in there, because of course they are being super exploited, but actually there is also a lot of white working class people in there who have no other jobs to go to, who work in fast-food industry, work in service sector, don’t get minimum wage, working long hours and have no contracts. That’s a new reality.

 

“[O]ur movements in the global south, they are incredible. They are transforming and building alternatives, are resisting in much more dangerous, precarious possessions, being threatened.”

 

The hope is that the history of humanity is that all changes come because of resistance. Every social change has come because we have fought. And it’s only at the moment of victory that people say “Oh, we have won! That was possible.” Before that, every struggle I’ve ever been there were people saying “That is not possible.” If I imagine, in the moment when I was growing up in the racist violence attacks, that I could have imagined walking in certain parts of now places I walk, I would have said “I can’t imagine it.” But it has happened, we won. No matter how bad it is now, it is not as bad as it was. And my hope lies in that and lies in, that every time I speak and I meet with our movements in the global south, they are incredible. They are transforming and building alternatives, are resisting in much more dangerous, precarious possessions, being threatened. We are being threatened with tiny little things, they are actually killed and imprisoned and persecuted and people are still resisting! And they are winning. So my hope always comes from people.”

Interview and photo by LABO vzw