Following on from our initial poverty series, which examined differing theoretical perspectives on reducing poverty, over the next two months we are publishing a series of blogs that explore how organisations and individuals are putting theory into practice.
Several of these blogs focus on ways of taking account of the voices of people experiencing poverty – one of the main evidence gaps identified by our recent report. This is particularly timely since the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children has announced a consultation on Communities First and the JRF has recently published its UK strategy for poverty reduction.
Our blogs include a contribution from Michael Trickey who co-wrote the Welsh framework for action, which accompanied the JRF report, and a range of pieces which describe practical projects that are seeking to support more resilient and sustainable communities on the ground.
We hope that these will be a valuable contribution to the debate about poverty reduction in Wales. If you would like to contribute please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our first blog comes from Chris Johnes – who outlines the theory and practical action behind Building Communities Trust’s Invest Local programme.
When is an anti-poverty programme not an anti-poverty programme? When it’s run by the people who are intended to be its beneficiaries.
The Invest Local programme which is managed by us at the Building Communities Trust (BCT) was conceived of by the Big Lottery Fund as a response to what they saw was the experience of decades of very limited success in area based anti-poverty programmes. Of course there are very large external factors behind that comparative failure but the Lottery nevertheless wanted to fund a new approach to programmes here in Wales, through Invest Local.
The thinking behind the programme is simple; to give local people control over the programme in their area. Not only do local people understand the issues facing their community better than outside agencies, but perhaps even more importantly, they understand the types of issues that people want to address and the types of responses people will relate to. And once control of priorities is handed to local people it is almost inevitable that there will be a focus on what is already happening in an area – that’s what people see, feel and relate to – and to build on that. In other words – an asset based programme.
The other critical element in Invest Local is to help people focus on what they want, not what they are perceived to need. And of course many of these wants will address needs but a dialogue around wants is more inspiring and less divisive than one around needs. Particularly when people, and normally a minority of people even in poorer communities, are being “supported” because of some supposed deficiency in their life.
The programme offers its target areas (there are 13 of them) £1 million to spend on issues of their choice over a ten year programme. Each area needs to set up some sort of group to run the programme locally and to promote wider involvement in their locality. They also have freedom over exactly where their area is (i.e. local people determine the boundaries) and where they can spend the money. BCT provides facilitation support and advice (equivalent to a day a week per area) but not so much support that our staff can run the programme locally.
Of course this has its challenges; the most obvious ones being securing widespread involvement in each community – a process greatly eased by working with credible local people – and having enough people to make things happen: in many fields volunteer effort has proved very sustainable but the most dedicated volunteers are often very stretched. However what the programme hasn’t suffered from, contrary to initial fears, is being “hijacked” by small locally dominant cliques.
The involvement of people with the greatest needs is of course challenging but our approach (which focuses on community rather than explicitly tackling poverty) has helped not hindered: inviting people to get involved in activities that help the community, not just people who qualify by being “especially poor” has avoided the elements of perceived stigmatisation that some projects inadvertently bring.
Ultimately what we hope our programme will bring to each area is stronger social capital and greater resilience. The programme aims to leave behind a local culture of people who trust in each other and in their ability to do things at a local level and have greater confidence in their ability to influence others. By encouraging local leadership and bringing people together over a long period around a shared agenda we are giving this goal a better chance of being met than shorter term more prescriptive programmes.
About the author: Chris Johnes is the Chief Executive of the Building Communities Trust. His previous role was a Director of Oxfam UK’s Poverty Programme, where he led the charity’s high-profile campaigning work on food poverty, as well as strategic development, partnership building and fundraising.