I have been reading “Poverty Safari” by Darren McGarvey. Darren is a man who grew up in poverty in Glasgow and has experienced many of the issues and side-effects first hand. He has become a speaker and advocate on issues around poverty in the UK and is outspoken on the ways in which it is misunderstood by many, including all sides of the political debate. He has some radical views on how to tackle it – but I was reassured to note that some of the approaches he was advocating are the way we are tackling it in Wales.

Key Points relating to the Purple Shoots approach

1.       The book seeks to explain how things really are for people experiencing poverty in the UK and to give insights into why they feel angry and unheard. I picked up the book slightly anxious that I would turn out to be one of those middle class, well-meaning people who he so denigrates in his book for tackling poverty in entirely the wrong way. But it seems the Purple Shoots ethos is spot on. He says:

                “Much of the work carried out in deprived communities is as much about the aims and objectives of the organizations facilitating it as it is about local needs. And notably the aim is rarely to encourage self-sufficiency. Rather the opposite – each engagement and intervention creating more dependency on outside resources and expertise, perpetuating the role of the sector as opposed to gradually reducing it”

Purple Shoots’ aim in all that we do is to encourage self-sufficiency and independence. We once said to a group who were complaining about the many broken promises made by people who said they were going to help and then walked away, that the one thing we promise to do IS walk away – because after we have worked with them to develop their ideas and start implementing them, they won’t need us anymore. In our lending and our self-reliant groups we are trusting people to change things for themselves – and we are rarely let down. It is a frustration for us that so many other organizations and employers, even those set up to help our client group, don’t really believe in their potential. I was reminded of that recently when I brought together some of my skilled group members with an industry specialist – they spent two hours with her proving their ability and she still could not accept that they could meet what she wanted (I’ve got round this now but it was a struggle and needed another ally in the organization who could see what I could see!)

2.       Darren points out the failings of what he calls “the poverty industry”:

”…where success is where there remain just enough social problems to sustain and perpetuate everyone’s career. Success is not eradicating poverty but parachuting in and leaving a legacy.”

 Even if you think that is cynical, there is truth in it. The attempts to tackle poverty in Wales are peppered with short-term programs or projects by Government and other organizations which try to solve problems in the way they think will work, instead of listening to what is actually wanted. I can think of a few who are very concerned with legacy! What Darren suggests as an antidote to this is that people in poverty should be enabled to solve their own issues and create their own pathways out of disadvantage. This is exactly what Purple Shoots does through its self-reliant groups and loans, encouraging people to test out ideas and start small businesses, and trusting them to make their own way.

I think that the grant giving industry and other funders are the cause of some of the issues with Darren’s “Poverty industry” – funders are often very specific about what they want to happen (fair enough but it limits the flexibility of providers to adapt to changing circumstances and needs) and are almost always short term – demanding certain outcomes within a limited time period which can drive the wrong behaviour. They often want to fund something new – so existing good stuff which is building traction falls by the wayside.

3.       Darren also comments:

“It’s always assumed that poverty is a by-product of apathy; that the poor remain so because they are inactive with respect to the business of their own lives. But often the opposite is true.”

I would certainly endorse that – nobody I meet wants to stay in their current circumstances and their resourcefulness and determination in seeking change are often awe-inspiring. He goes on to say that when they try to do something to bring about change, they come up against multiple barriers and this is also true in our experience. Our role is often helping them knock down their barriers -whether that is access to finance for our loan clients, or training or just credibility. For example, some funding and support – and even things like room hire or insurance – are only available to “properly incorporated bodies” – not easy for someone to navigate who has been out of the working world for some time or who is unfamiliar with the world of legal entities. Darren would say that many things in our society have become the province of the middle and upper classes, effectively shutting out the poor because they don’t fit comfortably within the systems we have created. He has a point. Our Self-reliant groups provide a solution to this, allowing people to test out ideas under the Purple Shoots umbrella.

4.       His book talks about the tendency to make poverty into a wide social problem caused by many external factors which it is up to “Government” or “the System” to solve. This is of course partly true but in focussing solely on that we ignore (and to some extent disable) the role that individuals and communities can play in shaping their own circumstances. Yes there are things that they can’t change but Darren cites “the power inherent within each of us to overcome adversity and transform the conditions of our lives”. This is the power and potential which Purple Shoots recognizes and invests in. We definitely do need to rail against and to change the inequalities in our economy and society – but this is not going to happen quickly. In the meantime, attributing it all to external factors encourages people to believe that it is beyond their expertise to change anything, and that is not so – as the 500 or so people we have worked with to date prove.

So What?

So we can carry on discussing poverty and the issues behind it, but that isn’t going to help people who are confronted with it today. What Darren thinks works and what we are proving works – is to support people to identify the changes they can make, help them knock down the barriers that hold them back – and then let them do the rest.

Extracts from; “Poverty Safari – Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass” Darren McGarvey, published by Picador ISBN-12: 978-1529006346