Day Two in Rybinsk: -18°c

By way of background I gave Helen a copy of the Wikipedia article on Rybinsk – unfortunately her eye was drawn unerringly not to the town's illustrious past or many architectural treasures, but to the article's apocalyptic warning that...

the giant Rybinsk dam, which holds the Rybinsk Reservoir (until recently the largest man-made body of water on Earth) places the town in imminent danger of the dam breaking and the reservoir flooding the city

Hopefully the fact that the reservoir, and most of the huge span of the Volga, are almost entirely covered by ice at the moment makes the danger a little less imminent!

Many people in Rybinsk have other pressing problems. In soviet times this was a closed town, and they still manufacture aircraft engines and components, but during the collapse of the soviet system in the 1990s most military work here ceased, and about 80,000 people lost their jobs. Only about 20,000 new jobs have been created over more recent years – this in a country where welfare benefits are not really enough to live on at all, let alone achieve any quality of life.

My social enterprise development sessions – which sometimes seem to revolve entirely around discussions of the impenetrable workings of Russian customs – are thankfully interspersed with Helen's story development workshops.

Helen and I with Pavel (right) and some of the other workshop participants - and the instant storyboard!Helen and I with Pavel (right) and some of the other workshop participants - and the instant storyboard!

These are based on building an understanding of story structure – starting simply by going around the room, each participant adding an event to a story beginning alternately with “fortunately” and “unfortunately”, then moving from this to a story pattern featuring a series of ever-increasing problems leading to a crisis, then moving back to some kind of resolution. This approach draws not only on Helen's experience as a writer and publisher, but also her current PhD research into children's story structures. We then tried this with Pavel's felt characters as the key protagonists – and eventually today developed the bones of a really good story – immediately illustrated by Pavel as a 'storyboard'.

I think everyone in the workshop – including me I must admit - was amazed to find we could do this so easily.

The story is at the heart of our thinking on the limitations of most fair trade models. I don't want to be misunderstood on this: I believe the fair trade movement (along with the 'open source' movement) is one of the best - world-changing - aspects of social enterprise. Cafédirect and others are altering the fundamental structures of international trade in some commodities. Liberation Foods have taken this a step further – using a Share Community Interest Company structure, and instead of raising grants directly for their work persuading international aid charities to assist share investment by the growers' co-operatives they work with – thus actually changing the distribution chain's ownership structure alongside its trading inequalities.

This is really good stuff. But most fair trade to date still deals with basic commodities – foods, cotton, etc – rather than the intellectual property development now at the heart of Western economies. The next step surely is to move fair trade, and production in developing and transitional economies, right into high added value processes, knowledge-based industries, and intellectual property development... hence the story.

I am of course aware that all of this is surrounded by deep ethical arguments. Another weakness of fair trade models is that they often involve transporting things half-way round the world: good for income distribution, bad for the environment. Our model might be criticised on these grounds, too, and also because in a world where the environmental imperative is to consume less it is perhaps harder to defend a fair trade model based on intellectual property development rather than meeting basic neeeds like food and clothing. These arguments are part of a more fundamental conflict between the aims of reducing inequality and reducing emissions, if the former means developing and transitional economies becoming more like 'the West'.

Personally, I am at ease with our work because it is based not only on economic, but also on artistic production, and speaks to a whole area of human experience that cannot be weighed in the balance of these economic/environmental arguments. If we cannot understand ourselves - and each other, wherever we live - through this most basic of human impulses – storytelling – what is left of us to appreciate the environment, or anything else?

Having said this, I acknowledge again the difficullty of these issues, and would be sincerely grateful for other views...

Read my next post from Russia here.


More Rybinsk workshop participants - Sergey Zhidkikh, the Oxfam Prgramme Manager, is next to me.More Rybinsk workshop participants - Sergey Zhidkikh, the Oxfam Prgramme Manager, is next to me; Sergey Postnikov, Chair of the Big Family NGO is in the centre at the back; and the children are from some of the hard-pressed families involved in Big Family.