Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beyond poverty

Wherever you are in the world, a lot of the work around poverty tends to be focussed on funding and policy. Not funding for those in poverty, naturally, but funding for the bureaucracy that seeks to alleviate poverty. This means that those who develop most success, whether working on a very wide or very local level, tend to be those who learn to play the game of government targets around deprivation.

I was interested to hear a comment today by a very inspiring woman who complained about the short-termism of funding for a women's project she ran. It struck me that we have no choice but to move beyond our reliance on funding. Otherwise, the groups have no choice but to keep emphasising their problems in order to get the funding they need to continue. The development of social enterprise as an encouraged option moves on from that, but still puts organisations under pressure to grow and develop.

For me, the present climate makes either of these avenues increasingly difficult to sustain. The global problems are going to mean there are simply too many problems for governments to adequately fund. In addition, trading is going to become harder and those companies that made funding available for community projects are likely to have less to share. To put it simply, there is less money out there now to solve our problems. We need to rely more on our own creativity and what can be done for free.

So that makes it timely that, as is outlined well in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and by others, we're in an era where our costs of organising has collapsed. For all the uncertainty about what the Digital Mentor idea could look like, its greatest strength is the recognition that, by teaching people in deprived communities about digital access and use of free tools, you effectively plug them in to much wider opportunities. It could lead to two outcomes: first giving people the tools to organise whatever disruptive things they want to (and I like the fact that the government seem to be going down this route when they clearly aren't in control of the outcomes); and second transcending the basic modern reality that to be successful, you have to be willing to travel anywhere in the world: get educated, get mobile. We could start tapping in to the under-utilised resources of people who are in deprived areas, hearing their voices, hearing about their skills and making links to markets anywhere in the world. Again, the government could take the lead on this by supporting remote hubs to connect people to higher quality jobs even if they aren't in the major cities.

By building up the self-sufficiency of localised deprived areas, we can build confidence in those communities and people can actually take power, instead of waiting to be given handouts.

I think we need to start cherishing the small contributions that can lead to transformative change. One activist in a community can have a significant impact. Online, that impact is magnified. In Stoke alone, we've seen some examples of decisions being overturned because resistance could not be ignored as it would have been in the past. Indeed, even at the end of major battles, we've seen a development of greater respect for groups that would previously have been ignored. People will different skills can work together, so literacy is not necessarily a barrier to participation (although it is an issue). Through greater online dialogue adding to personal meetings, we can start to move beyond the anger and divisionism that has been fuelled by decades, if not centuries, of deprivation in our communities. People can participate in more creative ways than the standard hierarchies like resident's committees and they can be asked to volunteer more easily.

To break it down into a trite, but Twitterable soundbite:
Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day
Give him broadband and he'll be able to download instructions on a wide range of fishing methods.
(and perhaps the location of a nearby community group offering a fish-supper or the ability to form one himself...)

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