Top-Down Approaches Hit The Poorest First and Worst

The cost of lockdowns, poor energy policy and new sustainability initiatives are conspiring to hit the poorest first and worst.

I’ve just got back from Sri Lanka, a country that has had a lot to contend with since I was last there in 2017.

In 2019 a series of bombs ripped through churches and hotels on Easter Sunday, killing at least 290 people and injuring hundreds. Tourism collapsed overnight. One year later and the pandemic hit and the world went crazy – with a series of lockdowns causing the bottom to drop out of the travel industry.

Not many tears are shed when the travel industry suffers, particularly by the more extreme climate activists. What people forget is that many countries and communities depend on tourism. Revenues in Sri Lanka were estimated to have fallen to by $2.5 billion a year during the lockdowns, relative chump change to an economy like the UK, but pivotal to some countries.

And then, with the pandemic finally over the Sri Lankan Government officially declared the worst economic crisis in the country in 73 years.

So far this year the country has cancelled school exams for millions of students after running out of printing paper, hospitals are stopping surgery and as I started writing this post the shops over the road from us were contending with 13-hour electricity blackouts.

As the basics slip out of reach (the header photo was taken by me of a queue for kerosene) and even school buses can’t afford to run, Sri Lanka sits on a precipice.

A badly managed economy hasn’t been helped by the introduction of some ill-thought out initiatives.

In 2019 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa unveiled his grand vision for Sri Lanka: it would embrace sustainable food production and become a world leader in fully organic farming.

Problem was, not many of these new food production techniques had been fully tested. The ban on pesticides led to immediate protests by the farmers who complained about the lack of preparation to switch to an organic farming mode at such short notice. The general public became angry due to food inflation caused by the low yields. Though the policy has been reversed (sustainability rightly goes out the window when people can’t feed their kids) it’s too late, the effect of the ban will reduce the rice harvest in 2022 by an unprecedented 50%.

As much of the world struggles with an energy crisis there are lessons for many of us here. Lessons of self serving leaders creating policies completely out of touch with the requirements of normal folk. Lessons of people becoming obsessed with switching to new and unproven solutions that are not fully tested or evaluated.

Policies rarely succeed or fail on their own merits; rather their progress is dependent upon the process of implementation as well as their timing.

Across the world we now face an energy crisis at the exact same time as we should be addressing a climate crisis. This is a failure of planning and an illustration of the lack of strategic foresight that exists in much of our leadership.

Innovation rarely happens in one great leap, but rather in a series of incremental steps. The first solution is rarely the perfect one.

More forward thinking economies will often accept that rather than resist what may be an imperfect step-change solution. For example, in the United States fracking is seen as an innovation, but in the UK is seen as something to be avoided at all costs. As Matt Ridley has written our instinct is often to resist innovation, as with coffee, margarine, GM crops and fracking, though it’s a retrograde step.

The successful introduction of behaviour change has to be carefully timed.

How can you convince people to upgrade their heating systems at the exact same time as their fuel bills soar out of reach?

How is it a good idea to introduce a ban on buy one get one free offers on cheap food just as as the cost of living crisis peaks?

A lot of these sort of policies smack of the work of middle class think tank types who have little grounding in the world of the poor or working class. This is nothing new. Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, first published in 1937, George Orwell  laid bare Britain’s north-south divide. This is a passage from Chapter 5, and if you exchange ‘since the war’ for ‘since the pandemic’ and adjust the prices for inflation this could be written in 2022.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of
underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays
almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs
as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can
get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can’t get much meat for threepence, but
you can get a lot of fish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even
‘mild’ beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can
wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there
is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of
starvation can buy a few days’ hope (‘Something to live for’, as they call
it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. 

There’s a reason that many Government’s introduce policies banning BOGOF offers, mandating calorie counts on menus, phasing out cheap fuel sources or introducing taxes on sugar or alcohol. They look good and it is a lot easier to do those things than tackle the big elephant in the room. Poverty.

Whether in Sri Lanka or in the UK it would be an interesting social experiment if the people most economically disadvantaged by new policy measures were involved at the outset in the design of them.

But I guess that would be a bit too radical.

Why We Stigmatize The Poor And How To Fight It

Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

George Orwell once said England was the most class-ridden country under the sun. “It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly”. 

Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, which was first published in 1937, the conditions of the poor are described in vivid detail. The most pointed language is reserved for those of the opinion that the poor bring those conditions on to themselves through wilful acts of choice.

Over 80 years later, those opinions are still prevalent. Everyday in the UK, people are judged negatively because their economic worth is less than others, to the extent that some are even actively discriminated against simply because they rent their home from a social landlord.

So begins a new report on Stigma and Social Housing in England, by Amanze Ejiogu & Mercy Denedo. Although stigmatization of social housing has long been a subject of conversation amongst landlords and tenants, actual research has been scant.

The word stigma derives from the Greek word stizein – a tattoo that was placed on slaves to identify their position at the bottom of the social structure and to indicate that they were of less value to society. Today stigma is understood to mean a social construction whereby a distinguishing mark of social disgrace is attached to others in order to identify and to devalue them.

The key words here are ‘social construction’: stigma doesn’t occur naturally. Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

Stigma has real world impact. Programmes set up with the best of intentions can inadvertently label people. My best friend at junior school received free school meals and literally had to stand in another queue in a very public demonstration of whose father had the best job. This had the inadvertent side effect of the ‘free meal kids’ tending to eat together, sitting on the ‘poor table’.

The reality is that most people have a view on the poor. Is their relative poverty tied to individual failure to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really try hard enough? Or is it really the product of forces beyond someone’s control?

Poverty is not only an economic or social condition that can determine real world outcomes – it affects individual psyche, self-esteem, self-confidence. Poverty is insulting to people’s dignity. The poor know they’re poor. So to reduce stigmatisation we may all have a role to play.

I’ve written before about how I feel fail we have failed to correctly diagnose the causes of stigma. The report confirms my view that social housing stigma is much more complex than is usually assumed because it intersects with other stigmas such as poverty stigma, crime stigma, mental health and disabilities, and race and immigration stigma.

As the report says the stigmatization material produced by the media through TV and news further conflates social housing with poverty, anti-social behaviour and dysfunctional value systems and is consumed by all facets of society. This has had a significant influence on the stigmatization of social housing and its tenants by the public at large. 

Importantly the authors point out that this stigmatization material is able to thrive because of the lack of a strong counter narrative. I’d agree. We’ve seen in recent years what happens when a movement begins to create a strong counter narrative. Social movements like #metoo #blacklivesmatter and #timetotalk are not without faults , but have undeniably changed how we talk about gender, race and mental health discrimination.

I recently interviewed a job candidate who talked openly about their mental health journey and clearly assumed that we would not make a judgement about them. I’d say that even five years ago that would not have happened.

It’s not perfect by any means, but if we can change the narrative around mental health we can do the same with income inequality. I’d rightly face public censure and possible sacking if I used a racist or sexist term. But if I referred to a group of people as chavs, or if I suggested people didn’t try hard enough, or joked that poor people’s homes smelt badly – would I be? Truly?

We must recognise that the social sector itself is sometimes guilty of stigmatization. For instance, we still talk about vulnerable customers and clients. The term ‘vulnerable’ implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other, ‘normal’, people.

The way we talk to and talk about people has a material impact. It leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box. It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.

In last week’s post I reacted rather defensively to accusations that I, and my organisation, had sometimes been complicit in stigma. Alison Inman , a long time sparring partner and a fierce debater, private messaged me. Reading it back from her perspective I amended some of the text. She was right – it’s vital that we challenge each other and continue to do so. Even if it hurts feelings sometimes.

Reversing stigma means having uncomfortable conversations that risk offending all parties. Are we up for it?

We have to be, because if we don’t challenge this narrative of rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, of thriving or vulnerable communities, of winners and losers, we’ll not only fail to fight stigma, we’ll be complicit in its continuation.

This is an adapted version of a post that first appeared in Inside Housing

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Moving Beyond Command And Control

The natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

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