10 Commandments for public and philanthropic spending
- Thou shalt seek to understand what life is like for people who are poor and who lack a sense of agency and control over their lives through the lens of rich people. Thou shalt pay a perceived expert with no ties to the local area to write a report about the realities of poverty and inequality in the area.
- Thou shalt commission reports and evaluations which make warm, fuzzy and vague commitments to concepts such as equality, fairness and kindness. It should never be clear how to action anything which will bring such concepts into reality for those who are routinely denied them. Reports should never make specific resource requests that institutions and organisations are directly accountable for.
- Thou shalt keep a small pot of money to one side for local VCSE organisations to do some ‘engagement’ with the disadvantaged communities who affluent people have conducted research on. This is because the affluent ‘experts’ will have used terminology which sounds really smart and convinces us that we have spent our money wisely. It is somewhat unfortunate that this makes it completely inaccessible to the people who most need such strategies to tackle inequality to be a success.
- Thou shalt respond to any request to resource groups which are working on the ground to offer real, practical support for those who are suffering the extremes of inequality with a patronising comment such as ‘We’d love to fund all of your ideas but there isn’t any money’. Thou shalt simultaneously demonstrate that there is no money by commissioning Deloitte, KPMG, PWC et al to carry out hugely expensive audits, consultancy and ‘change management’ programmes.
- Thou shalt prioritise the maintenance of relationships with people and organisations who help us feel worthy and convince us that we deserve our place among the great and the good. We can’t foster relationships with people who inconveniently lay bare the very real negative consequences of the decisions we’ve made. Thou shalt remember Gordon Brown’s Freudian slip claiming to have ‘saved the world’ by bailing out reckless bankers with tax-payers money, this is the exact level of righteousness and ignorance we want to instil in one another.
- Thou shalt have conversations with relatively affluent middle-men about what we need to do next to ‘further coproduction’ and/or ‘tackle inequality’. We shalt let these middle men negotiate budgets for new projects and pieces of research or ‘engagement’ without ever considering what the people who are living with the inequality actually need from the work in order to thrive. It is abundantly obvious after-all that this is a relationship with a friendly and/or knowledgeable facilitator over and above any kind of new economic opportunity.
- Thou shalt prioritise a ‘product’ which you can show to anyone who asks what you are doing to tackle inequality over and above anything practical which could lead to a redistribution of wealth and power. A nice shiny evaluation offering some bold, yet vague and unactionable promises will always trump any local people being resourced to do the things which matter most to them and their communities.
- Thou shalt remain fastidiously committed to tendering and procurement structures and processes which reinforce inequality. Thou shalt never look for flex in order to support the development of groups led by those experiencing disadvantage.
- Thou shalt exploit the majority of the voluntary and community sector, especially people who feel a moral and ethical obligation to offer other members of their community meaningful help and support. Thou shalt remain wilfully ignorant about how and why tendering and procurement structures and processes prevent these groups from being paid fairly for the work they do.
- Thou shalt not show any sign of vulnerability or human emotion to those most impacted by the decisions you make.
OK, time to stop being facetious for a while now whilst we unpack the reality of the current situation. I know plenty of people who are working within the more formal ‘system’ who get just as frustrated as me with the patterns of behaviour I’ve described above. It isn’t quite as simple as ‘heroic communities’ facing off against change-resistant bureaucrats. It isn’t fair to paint everyone working within the civil service or local government as a Sir Humphrey Appleby figure who is focussed solely on the maintenance of the gravy train (apologies to anyone reading who is too young to remember Yes Minister).
I do think it is fair to say that we have a system which rarely acts in the best interests of those it is supposed to serve. I also think it is fair to say that many people who make decisions about how money is spent are too far removed from the realities of the lives of those living with severe and multiple disadvantage. Philanthropic funds are supposed to transfer resources from the rich to the poor. A progressive taxation system should reduce inequality. So we have to ask ourselves why, after all the public and philanthropic money which has been spent in the UK since 1980, has inequality risen so consistently throughout this time?
The truth is that the ‘third sector’ has adopted it’s own version of ‘trickle down economics’. The system has created some very wealthy CEOs and senior managers of charities and think-tanks, yet the overwhelming majority of people in these roles are middle class and white. The wealth never trickled down to the people who are supposed to benefit from philanthropy and a progressive taxation system. At best all this money has mitigated against some of the worst extremes of inequality, it has helped people experiencing fuel and food poverty to survive through harsh winters they might have otherwise not been able to. At worst it has harmed and disabled people, keeping them trapped as perpetual ‘service users’ who need the heroic charities to rescue them from their own ‘bad choices’.
I’m not stating any of this to make anyone feel guilty, I am merely advocating a resistance of these systems which are perpetuating inequality. To change this system we need to actively resist practice which shores up the status quo. We all have to be able to take a look at ourselves and ask what we can do as individuals to bring an end to the failed concept of trickle down economics. This also means changing what we value from the cleverly marketed and packaged ‘products’ which extract so much money from the system and towards working alongside our communities as equals in a way which promotes agency. We need to work in a way which genuinely builds capacity rather than separates the ‘experts’ who carry out the research from the ‘helpless subjects’ who we tell ourselves don’t have their own solutions. We keep erroneously assuming that the root cause of poverty is poor people, so therefore we need to parachute in another Deloitte or KPMG to hand over another shiny document to the Local Authority which sets out how to attract ‘wealth’ and ‘investment’ in to the area in the misguided belief this will trickle down and stop people being poor. It actually gets somewhat more cynical than that, much current strategy focusses on how to exploit an ‘unpaid workforce’ which will be disproportionately made up of women from BAME communities to prop up public services.
People do have their own solutions, the system just won’t recognise their validity or provide the resource people need to implement them. It’s time for a huge shift in whose knowledge we see as valuable. The wealth will never trickle down, we need to invest philanthropic and public money directly into our communities and value what they bring, even if they won’t prioritise the outputs, shiny reports, slick Powerpoint presentations etc, we have somehow convinced ourselves are so important. We need to value a collective understanding of what our communities need and a collective commitment to bringing this about.