Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Consultants, advisors and experts, Oh My!

I spent this morning putting up a new gallery on my home Tenants & Residents Association website, showing the progress of a small piece of local wasteground from a dogshit-smeared mugger’s alley to an attractive, useful piece of communal space, complete with fruit trees, raised vegetable beds and flower boxes. And all achieved – from planning and design to clearing and construction – by a group of unpaid local residents. No ‘community empowerment consultants’. No ‘sustainability advisors’. One well-known green/regeneration NGO did get in touch to offer their expertise (read: piggy-back on the group’s existing achievements?) but the management committee had the nous to spot when they’re being taught how to suck eggs.

Thinking about how a bunch of people in Moss Side, a prime target for regeneration and ‘big society’ organisations coming to ‘advise’ them on how to improve their areas, just got on with it and made things happen by using their existing skills reminded me of a young woman who came to speak to me after my Gaza: Beneath the Bombs book launch at Glee in Sydney. Studying to be an architect, she wanted to know if she should quit and go into human rights stuff instead.

When I was in the West Bank with ISM in 2002, during Israel’s massive ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ invasion, there was a middle-aged American guy in the group. He’d expected to come to Palestine to do the kind of thing ISM had supported on its previous international call-out: bear witness to Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians; provide an international presence to Palestinians wanting to exercise their right of peaceful protest, to dig out the roadblocks which cut off their villages or to pass through the innumerable checkpoints; meet with Palestinian activists and learn about the conditions they had to work in. He was, like the rest of us, not expecting to be under curfew and surrounded by tanks within a few days of arriving. But, it emerged, back home he was a water engineer. And one of the things that the Israeli soldiers were doing – either deliberately or simply because their armoured vehicles are so heavy and clumsy – was cutting off water pipes to peoples homes. It was terrifically dangerous for Palestinian engineers to leave their homes – but as an American he was (we thought at the time, anyway), much safer. So he spent his couple of weeks in the West Bank doing pretty much what he usually did at home – but under a military invasion. I can’t remember his name, but he was a total hero. And probably more use than most of the rest of us internationals put together.

So, to the young woman in Sydney wanting to know if she should quit her architecture course, I said no, and told her about the water engineer, and pointed her at some sources of information on the deeply political aspects of her subject in Palestine, such as the Decolonizing.ps project and Eyal Weizman’s amazing writings. And I think about what my amazing friends back in Moss Side are doing, and I miss it and them. And I look forward to getting home and seeing what a bunch of ordinary people with some drive and commitment can achieve, without any ‘consultants’ or ‘advisors’ or ‘experts’.

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