24 October 2017

Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society?

This post originally appeared on the Webb Memorial Trust website

The title of this book, Rethinking Poverty – What makes a good society?, promises a theoretical treatise on the elimination, or reframing, of poverty and destitution in the UK. It turns out, however, to be an authoritative unpacking of why our collective approach to poverty has failed and suggests some straightforward, no-nonsense remedies for changing the mindset with which we grapple with poverty. The book essentially makes the case that everybody must have a role and take responsibility in this endeavour. It offers a powerful reframing of the central issue with a refreshingly open, bottom-up, place and community anchored, sine qua non of the society we must be invested in building for our grandchildren. The book is also refreshing because it studiously avoids jargon and sloganeering. On the very last line of the book the message hits home: ‘What we need is not a set of transactional policies that shift resources, but the development of transformational relationships that shift power.’

Knight begins with demolishing the current narrative in which poverty is framed, arguing that the general public tends to blame the poor for their plight, and that most efforts to grapple with poverty are doomed to actually make matters worse because the framing, in a post-welfare state mindset, simply does not resonate. We have already drunk the collective Kool-Aid which prevents us from asking the tough questions about fairness that used to be standard. Although obliged to continue using it for want of a better term, he has convinced us, by page 9, of the total inadequacy of the term ‘poverty’ itself because of the ambiguity and obfuscation it connotes.

His second chapter essentially describes the fractured, divided society we are living in. In a masterful way, Knight exposes the paradox of an ever-richer society becoming ever poorer in many different ways, against the backdrop, it must be said, of a fraught Britain caught up in an existential Brexit battle. He lays out the way in which government, legislation, civil society, and the post-welfare realities have singularly failed. He concludes by embracing the fact that we must begin by confessing (to ourselves) our abject confusion, and surprises us with the need for a moment of ‘aporia – that state of intense puzzlement in which we find ourselves when our certainties fall to pieces’.

I found this resonated with my experiences in both Africa and (albeit ‘continental’) Europe. Knight neglects, or deliberately passes on, an opportunity to connect his analysis with the greater global backdrop which would echo the rather dismal – and artificially isolated – picture of the UK that he paints. Surely no country has successfully grappled with this issue and we see this reflected exponentially everywhere.

In chapter 3 we are introduced to the five principles for a good society. These come from the extensive research that the Webb Memorial Trust has been conducting throughout the UK which forms the raw data that the thesis of the book rests upon. These five principles are:

  1. We all have a decent basic standard of living.
  2. So we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives.
  3. Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally.
  4. Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect.
  5. And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations.

The principles are all bound together by the idea of ‘community’. This research was done with – rather than on or to – individuals and focused on children, black and minorities, organised groups of poor people, and grassroots groups. It resulted in a strong consensus that compromise is a strength rather than a weakness.

Knight seems to be hinting here at the incredible rise in recent years of the worldwide community philanthropy ecosystem, but curiously he restrains himself by merely hinting at the world instead of embracing the organic power-shifting institutions he himself has written about and promoted so well.

Knight then sets out to compare the society described in chapter 2 with the imagined society described in chapter 3. Chapter 4 essentially makes the case for a fundamental and revolutionary shift in approach: the question is not ‘how to do it’ (reduce or eliminate poverty) but rather ‘who does it’.  The Webb Memorial Trust research suggests that most people are really much more interested in security and quality relationships than in excessive wealth – and Knight stresses that this is consistent with a wide range of research that he quickly reviews. He savages some of the current orthodoxy about poverty, and deftly demolishes failed top-down government programmes. It follows that if poverty is a systemic issue, then any workable solution depends on an assault on all parts of the system: everyone has a role to play! And if everyone needs to be involved, it follows that any new approach must rest on a serious ability to compromise. Knight ends the chapter in a clear advocacy voice. At this point, he is surely talking directly to politicians and policy makers of all parties – perhaps in anticipation of the round of party conferences the book was launched at?

Chapter 5 attempts to suggest ways in which different parts of society can be brought in to play their part. Knight draws on work conducted by Michael Orton for the Webb Memorial Trust on consensus building, which illustrates that different stakeholders often tend to work against each other. He identifies a need to create a new consensus-building group, and ends by looking at what five sections of society could contribute to building the society we want: business, planners, the voluntary and community sector, fairness commissions and organic local community groups.

The concluding chapter is essentially an invitation to the reader to put aside the notion of poverty and embrace instead a positive impulse of how to build the society we want. In short, to develop an asset we all have a stake in. Knight again stresses the importance of putting people’s concern for security first, and subtly reasserts the need to be guided by poor people in designing solutions for them. He describes how spontaneous, local, organic self-help grassroots responses are emerging throughout the country. He reasserts the importance of the local dimensions in addressing poverty and suggests a division of labour between local and national governments that would contribute to the more bottom-up approach to tackling poverty that this book advocates for. He concludes by stressing the absolute need to ensure that young people are actively involved.

It may be churlish, in writing a review of such a powerful book, to conclude with laments. However these are really backhanded compliments to the author. I highly recommend this book to the reader and my first lament is not a quarrel with what is in the book, but about something that is missing. As already mentioned, the book is singularly focused on the UK, and although it does make allusions to other contexts it remains really just about the UK (perhaps even just about England). I was left with a desire, in a world that is carefully watching an ignominious Brexit, to hear more about the relevance of what Knight is saying for other parts of the world (which I know he knows a great deal about).

My second lament: while I understand the need for an implicit assumption that all the readers of the book are ‘enlistable’ in the fight for a good society, I suspect that one of the difficulties with the new paradigm being suggested is that it ultimately contests vested interests, and that there is not enough about that – a tangible shifting of power – in the book. The book is written with remarkable clarity and demonstrates considerable authority but I found myself wanting, once or twice, to glimpse the anger and passion that I know is there. But I had to remind myself that this is a book written to enlist, galvanise and rally – intended to spark debate around fundamental questions – and it is not meant to chastise or rebuke.

I believe the book is perfectly suited to the times we live in, wherever that is, and I plan to share it with my children (both of whom work on issues of poverty in the Norwegian context) in their Christmas stockings this year.