Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Satisfying needs is not enough - this is why

There was a time when most neighbourhoods, and the poorer ones especially, were often alive with choirs, reading clubs, friendly societies, pigeon breeder clubs and all the rest.  Not all of them, it is true, but many of them.

I remember reading Richard Booth's autobiography, describing how he built the first bookshops in Hay-on-Wye buying up the libraries from the working men's clubs.

But something else happened too.  These poorer communities managed to get purpose-built community centres, and attracted grants for permanent professional staff to manage them.

The old charities which used to be run by small groups of friends in churches or working men’s clubs either died out or were pushed aside by the new lottery funded generation. Now the community centres in the Welsh Valleys, for example, usually have full-time managers and staff. 

The peculiar thing is that they are often almost empty. What was once a network of voluntary projects and chapels gave way to a series of professional agencies, with paid staff, delivering services to passive consumers. Where did all that energy go?

In some ways, this is just an aspect of what the American sociologist Robert Putnam called ‘Bowling Alone’, a terrifying description of the erosion of neighbourhoods – watching the gentlemen of New London, Connecticut reduced to sitting alone in the local bowling alley, staring sadly upwards at the television.

Behind all this is the strange untold story of community development, especially when lottery funding is involved. When local agencies or charities discover a local need, they apply for grants to tackle it, most of which goes on their salaries. 

Then the mystery: as people discover the service, the need seems to grow. Agencies have to ration support. Then the grant runs out and everything has to be applied for again to keep people in jobs, but dressed up as something wholly new and innovative. 

The handful of local people who had been genuinely involved get dispirited, and the agency starts looking around for another need that could be packaged as a grant application.

One academic has called it ‘farming the poor’.  The civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn came up against this problem quite by accident when he was defending his National Legal Services Programme, the service that helped organisations to sue the government to enforce their rights. 

He had urged the programme over the years to ask the people they were helping to give something back, but they never quite got round to doing so. Then suddenly, in 1994, there was a Republican landslide, determined to reduce the federal budget deficit, and a young maverick called Newt Gingrich was in the House of Representatives, looking for ways of saving money. 

The Republicans had never much liked the Legal Services Programme anyway, so the scene was set for the inevitable congressional hearings before it was shut down. 

The programme was duly cut by a third and hamstrung in other ways. The hearings were held in Congress. But out of the three million people a year which the programme had helped for 33 years – that’s about 100 million households – not one client turned up at the hearings to defend it.

A year or so later, Cahn’s own law school was also under threat. This was the successor to Antioch, the District of Columbia School of Law, which was modelled on a teaching hospital. Students go out into the community and give legal help, but they don’t just give it. They ask for something back through one of the time banks in a Baptist church or in local housing complexes. 

It was a difficult campaign to win, given that Washington already had six law schools and a massive budget deficit. Even the Washington Post was calling for it to be closed. But hearings organised by the District of Columbia Council didn’t go the same way as the ones in Congress. 

Those who had been helped, and paid back, came out in droves to support the law school and it stayed open. Giving something back for the help they had received had made people defend the law school. Perhaps because it was more equal.  It wasn’t charity any more. Cahn describes this as the power of ‘reciprocity’.  More about this in my book The Human Element.

I tell this story because I got into trouble two days ago by criticising the Labour tradition of 'meeting needs'.  I did so, not because I don't believe governments should meet needs, but because - if meeting needs becomes their sole purpose - then there are peculiar side-effects.

1.  Politicians forget to ask why those needs arose in the first place, and never get round to taking action to prevent them.

2.  The needs become the currency of public sector transaction: the only way of accessing support is to maximise your needs - of course they tend to grow.

3.  The system turns its back on mutuality.  It demands that people are passive and grateful.  It disempowers.

"Charity wounds," said the great anthropologist Mary Douglas, and this is what she meant.  It doesn't mean that needs should not be met, but it does imply that meeting them should be about building relationships.  It means that people should ask each other for something back.  It needs to be transactional.

This is the problem with the Labour tradition.  It forgets that there is anything else beyond meeting needs.  It sums up human beings as bundles of needs.  It represents the apotheosis of need.  

It is time we bundled up the whole Labour tradition and tried to move beyond it.

1 comment:

Tristan said...

I've seen this with a Community Association.
Originally set up pre-WWII, it was granted use of a large building by the local land owner and flourished, offering space for clubs (including a Pig Club and a Rabbit Club). They also offered adult education and later on a youth club.
It probably wasn't perfect, but it was vibrant and community driven.

The house and land were compulsory purchased by the council which started assuming many of the roles of the community association. Adult education was taken over and changed to meet the requirements of government rather than local people, and gradually cut.
The youth club was replaced by council run ones, which then started to disappear.
Building management was taken over and access reduced.
Then the council decided it wanted the community association out. Those left running the association were dispirited and slowly gave up...

Its not just government which can do this though. I'm sure part of the reason for the decline in Union membership has been the professionalisation of Unions. Rather than a reciprocal, grass roots institution, they've become mere providers of services to members.

I'm pretty sure you can draw parallels with the welfare state replacing mutual associations as well.

Its observing this sort of thing which has persuaded me more and more of anarchistic theories of organisation. Mutual aid, reciprocity and cooperation, rather than having things handed down to you by a 'benevolent' state (or feudal lord, or church, or...)

(Its also a problem with the analysis of some of the 'social liberals' and 'classical liberals', and another reason I gave up on that debate - good to see liberals making these points though)