Community Assets first: Putting people at the centre of tackling poverty…

The starting point for tackling poverty is not looking at what people don’t have – but what they do. This is the key finding of a new report, Community Assets First published jointly by Church Action on Poverty, Oxfam and IPPR North

Traditional anti-poverty approaches, mostly start with long lists of what people and communities lack – usually couched in the language of ‘deprivation’ or ‘needs.’  These ‘deficit’ models can be deeply disempowering of people in poverty – portraying them as passive, helpless ‘objects’ – or worse still, ‘problems’ for other people to solve.  This can easily slide into easy stereotypes:  People are poor because they are stupid, lazy or feckless – they don’t really know what’s good for them – they make ‘bad’ choices – taking loans from high cost lenders when the really should know better – or ‘refusing’ work because they’re downright lazy…

 In contrast, the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach, starts by seeking to understand people in terms of their strengths, capabilities, assets and strategies.  In this way, it puts people at the centre of tackling poverty. 

Most people in poverty aren’t stupid – in fact, they are frequently highly skilled at managing on a pittance, by making the most of the limited assets at their disposal – sharing childcare with friends and neighbours; reading the paper and staying connected with others at the local library church or tea dance; earning a few pounds ‘on the side’ cleaning, or doing bar work.  These are all ‘assets’ which are at best invisible to most conventional policy makers – and at worse earning them public antipathy as ‘benefit cheats.’

From a Sustainable Livelihoods perspective, tackling poverty is not something ‘done to’ people… it is something people can do for themselves – but only if the conditions are right.  

But sadly, too often, they are faced with insurmountable barriers.  Barriers to do with a lack of power, a lack of jobs, an inflexible benefit system, unaffordable or inappropriate housing, financial (and many other forms of) exclusion – as well as more intangible barriers self-confidence, skills, knowledge and access to social networks.

As Gavin Poole, Director of the Centre for Social Justice says in the foreword to Community Assets First:

“The question about poverty moves from ‘what do people in poverty lack?’ to something more akin to ‘what is preventing people from using what they have to get ahead?’

The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach was originally developed by international development organisations such as Oxfam and the Department for International Development.  In fact, it is pretty much standard practice in much of international development to tackle poverty by putting in place programmes which enable people and communities to build their own assets – starting with what they’ve already got – and enabling them to define their own strategies and ladders out of poverty.

If it works in Africa… why not here?

Since 2005, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have been working with local partners to pilot the approach with people living in different low income communities across the UK. Based on this experience we’re now convinced that the Sustainable Livelihoods approach can bring a new perspective not just on tackling poverty, but to generating wider community assets and well-being.

Making policies and institutions work for the poorest

Community Assets First pulls together the findings from a seminar in March – which sought to apply the lessons of Livelihoods to wider policy making – and key aspects of the Coalition Government’s agenda: welfare reform, building homes and neighbourhoods, tackling financial inclusion and Big Society.  It identifies a range of possible ways the Sustainable Livelihoods could be used to develop more people-centred and asset-based approaches to tackling poverty:

  • Using the Livelihoods approach to monitor the impact of the proposed changes in welfare provision on poverty in the UK.
  • Piloting the use of the Livelihoods approach to develop a much more holistic and people-centred approach within ‘welfare to work’ programmes, with Jobcentre Plus or a Work Programme contractor
  • Understanding the role that housing plays within peoples’ wider assets strategies – not simply as a ‘physical asset’ but a place from which people are able to link into and access place-based assets (libraries, schools, health services etc) and wider social networks.
  • Explore ways in which it might be possible to more effectively use or mobilize local financial and social assets – in the way that Credit Unions currently provide a vehicle for communities to pool their savings and lend them out to members at affordable rates of interest.
  • Exploring ways of making mainstream financial services more accessible to people on low incomes, as a way of tackling the perverse ‘Poverty Premium’ – which means that the poorest currently pay the highest prices for access to credit, banking, insurance etc.

As Toby Blume, Chief Executive of Urban Forum has written:

“People in poverty must be part of the solution in efforts to tackle poverty and inequality. Sustainable Livelihoods provides a tried and tested approach to working with poor communities to develop sustainable bottom up solutions to the problems they face.”

The challenge now is – are any politicians or policy makers willing to listen?

Community Assets First, The implications of the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach for the Coalition Agenda, was published by Church Action on Poverty, IPPR North, Oxfam and Urban Forum on 11 October 2011.

Also available:

The Sustainable Livelihoods Handbook, An asset approach to poverty, Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam, 2009.  Copies can be downloaded free here, or ordered from:

Church Action On Poverty
Central Buildings
Oldham Street
Manchester M1 1JQ
Tel: 0161 236 9321


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