The Grinding Despair of the Soul

“Poverty is increasingly treated by those in the voluntary sector with a sense of inevitability. I seldom hear people articulate a desire to put themselves out of business anymore.”

Having left behind a year like no other, did the prospect of a new one elicit in you a sense of delight or despair over the festive season? At the apex of spring, when I reflect back upon 2022, one word comes to mind: ‘flux’ – a process of continuous change. Last year saw seismic changes nationally, the foremost of which was rising inflation and energy price rises due, among other factors, to national and international unrest. Like the Dickensian duo in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, 2023 is “the spring of hope” for some and for others a “winter of discontent”.

Continuous change describes my personal as well as professional circumstances. In 2022, I set up a charity. In fact, it is the third since pioneering what is now Dundee and Angus Foodbank when I was aged 19. After seven years of managing the foodbank locally, I set up The Trussell Trust in Scotland and helped build a network of foodbanks from Lerwick and Larkhall as well as Stornoway to Stranraer. Between April and September 2022, this network provided a three-day supply of food to 116,373 people, including over 40,000 children.

People experiencing poverty are dear to my heart. Now, what do I mean by poverty? Having observed women with babies strapped to their backs cutting slates in Uganda or men selling melons on a bridge in India, all of whom do so for less than $1 per day, we need to nail down exactly what we are talking about here. Scotland’s foremost academic on poverty – Dr John McKendrick – defines poverty as “not having enough” and, internationally, the World Bank stated: “Poverty is routinely defined as the lack of what is necessary for material wellbeing.”

In October 2021, I came to the end of a three-year term with the Scottish Government serving as a non-executive director for Social Security Scotland. By October 2022, charity number three was operational and within my natural habitat – the voluntary sector. This charity is called ‘Over’ – the second to fifth letters of the word poverty – which describes our aspiration. We are consultants but this is a different kind of consultancy on two fronts. Firstly, it is place-based – mining at the coalface and unearthing the roots of poverty.

Poverty is increasingly treated by those in the voluntary sector with a sense of inevitability. I seldom hear people articulate a desire to put themselves out of business anymore. In 20 years working in the voluntary sector, we have transitioned from a vision of poverty elimination or poverty alleviation to poverty management. No longer does there appear to be a commitment to providing an antidote for the ailment we seek to address. One organisation deeply uneasy about this trajectory is my first client – Dundee and Angus Foodbank.

Foodbanks address one of the most obvious ways people – to use Dr McKendricks’s definition – are “not having enough” by providing food, which is the main staple sustaining life, health and wellbeing. We are not talking about feckless folk spending too much money on booze and fags at the expense of their kids. In fact, one recent visitor was a 69-year-old Cambridge graduate, successful businessman and former millionaire who became homeless and, during conversation, illuminatingly defined poverty as “the grinding despair of the soul.”

This is the second way in which ‘Over’ is different – it is rooted in lived experience. I have an uneasy relationship with poverty. Having experienced it personally, as well as professionally, it haunts me like an unwelcome poltergeist, which is why I am less inclined to tolerate its ongoing presence around others. I have been a Jobseeker’s Allowance claimant under a Labour government and a Universal Credit claimant under a Conservative government but escaped the clutches of poverty, I have known the spring of hope that follows the winter of discontent.  

While global indices show a sustained growth in living standards and life expectancy, the weight of rising costs and an often-hostile welfare system is bearing down on people and the prospect of a sustainable life. When people ache under this grinding despair of the soul, we must never doubt that another future is possible for each and every life. As we exit March, I know my first client has provided record numbers and, according to The Trussell Trust, is the busiest foodbank in Scotland. My main objective with ‘Over’ is to change that.

Therefore, let us lift our eyes and gaze upon “the spring of hope” and do what we can to support those still feeling the chill of winter.