Refining our Response to Poverty
The voluntary sector is a wonderfully creative, innovative and hopeful sector and I am humbled to call it my natural habitat. I believe charities have the potential to take us from being the fire-fighters of crisis intervention to becoming the whistle-blowers for crisis prevention but only if we are determined to ensure we always have one eye on the exit strategy to eliminate the enemy in our midst. I also fundamentally believe that charities can ease, exacerbate or embed the enemy they seek to eliminate but my deep concern is that there is a growing number who pay lip service to the elimination of the problem while actively engaging in the institutionalisation of it.
Our emerging dilemma could be that those working with people experiencing poverty understand people experiencing poverty less well than they ever have and are, therefore, proposing solutions for people experiencing poverty that do not help people experiencing poverty. Then, those working with people experiencing poverty spend less time trying to create a solution for people experiencing poverty and more time fundraising to prevent they themselves from becoming people who experience poverty and you end up in a world where the beneficiary becomes expendable because of the indispensability of the benefactor.
When we respond only to demand without addressing the reasons for the demand which, as I have argued are not wholly political, then we end up trying to address a complex ailment with a simple solution that will deliver no cure while the need continues to increase in proportion to our weariness. And when we blame political decisions, economic factors and social barriers without taking even a moment to ask ourselves how we can support people who feel bereft and broken, we are committing the oldest sin in the book while failing to realise how complicit we are in feeding the beast of human greed which has not only local, but global, ramifications.
To the contrary, and following the structure set out here, I believe if we recognise the complexity of poverty, revise our definition accordingly in a manner that takes stock of the external and internal challenges that people experiencing poverty face and refine our response, we can begin to rewrite a new story that reflects wholeness, as I outlined in the next and concluding section. Understanding the complexity of poverty and identifying the intersection between internal and external factors is crucial to constructing a viable response but charities must view their support as only one piece of the overall jigsaw that finally portrays a picture of wholeness.
Rewriting a Story of Wholeness
In conclusion, let me tell you about my friend Dave who lives at the end of my street. Seven years ago, he was experiencing a delay in receipt of benefits, was not entitled to a crisis loan and had no friends or family. These external factors affected him politically, economically and socially rendering him completely immobile. He had not eaten well for the best part of a week, was experiencing severe depression and felt he had little reason for living. These internal factors affected him physically, emotionally and spiritually. When he came to see me, I made him a cup of coffee and tried to pinpoint just one thing that would really energise or help mobilise him.
I would usually find that people would be rendered immobile by one or two factors in the external/internal paradigm but Dave was affected by the whole gambit. In the course of conversation, I discovered he loved gardening and landscaping. I had a friend who was a church minister who had a desire to turn the jungle at the back of the church manse into a fruit and vegetable patch. I put Dave in contact with the minister and, around a year later, the Giving Garden was opened by the Lord Provost and over one hundred attendees, including me. Fruit and vegetables produced would be distributed by Dundee foodbank, the very same one Dave once benefited from.
The picture for Dave was bleak but the one shaft of light was that he found a purpose, which Loehr and Schwartz (2003) describe as the spiritual component that fuels full engagement. His self-confidence was rebuilt as the Giving Garden took shape thus renewing his emotional state. He started a painting and decorating business and was, in turn, renewed economically and also physically given his new found ability to buy food. He developed several constructive new friendships and is now engaged to be married, renewing his social status, and he also shared his story with MPs in Westminster in 2016 and MSPs at Holyrood in 2017 which engaged him politically.
The challenge for those of us working alongside people and fighting on the frontline against the poverty they experience is that we often see the comprehensive and crushing nature of the crisis. We meet the individual who, internally, has a pressing physical problem, is extremely emotionally exasperated and lacks spiritual purpose and who, externally, encounters an arcane political system, a febrile economic environment and a hostile social structure. It is hard to see a way out but, as Dave’s story highlights, there is a hope and a future. The challenges seemed insurmountable to Dave but, seven years on, he is both transformed and transforming.