Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The UK riots and social exclusion: Let’s focus on a well society.

The UK’s Coalition Government has done many things since coming to power to try to distinguish itself from the last administration, one of which has been the decision to try and measure community well-being as a way of informing policy decisions.  The Prime Minister, ministers, the Office of National Statistics, commentators and just about everyone else have found it difficult to come to some consensus on what well-being is.  Where everyone can agree is that last month’s riots in many English cities are about as far away from community well-being as you’d ever want to be.

So why have some communities been left looking like war zones? Well-being theory can help identify some of the main issues and hopefully inform the response to what is a very complex problem.

The new economics foundation has developed the Five Ways to Well-being as a self help guide to promote increased individual well-being[1]. The rioters may indeed have the means to keep connected with the people around them, but something is stopping these individuals from learning more, nurturing their curiosity and feeling that doing something for their community is worthwhile in itself.  Similarly, Professor Martin Seligman’s recipe to Flourish[2]  notes the importance of relationships in an individual’s life, like the Five Ways to Well-being.  The other ingredients in Professor Seligman’s recipe include getting involved in something that brings positive meaning to your life or developing a sense of achievement.

Many commentators have highlighted the role that gangs have played in the riots.  Gang culture can bring meaning, achievement and relationships to their members, like any club or social network.  Being in a gang can make you feel very good about yourself and draw you closer to your peers, while insulating you from conditions on the ‘outside.’  This goes to the heart of the very subjective nature of well-being, where gang members would probably report that at least their short-term quality of life has been improved by gang membership and newly acquired material goods.  Those who have suffered at the hands of the criminal rioters would strongly disagree.  It is this mismatch that illustrates perfectly why public policy needs to focus on community well-being rather than individual short term happiness or merriment. 

MacDonald[3] has written about social exclusion, noting that the young adults in his research were very much part of a local community, but that the characteristics of that community, and the behaviours and attitudes required to be socially included within it, could be the very things that made those young people excluded from wider society. Again, like gang membership, this suggests that aspects of wellbeing are setting specific.

Lles Cymru Wellbeing Wales has worked with a number of organisations with the Exploring Sustainable Well-being Toolkit – which has a model of sustainable well-being at its core (See figure 1).  We would argue that the complex underlying problems uncovered by the recent riots need to be viewed through the lens of sustainable well-being in order to help work out what’s going on, rather than narrowly focusing on individuals and their ‘feckless mothers’.  We would also advocate asking people where they are as the first step in informing future policy decisions.  This information would give a real sense of the community’s well-being and help decision makers understand what the issues are at the sharp end of government policy delivery.  Even better, evidence demonstrates that this approach can galvanise a community to get involved and make a positive difference - streets full of volunteers clearing up after the riots illustrate the potential.

Figure 1

All of this might sound a bit fluffy and in sharp contrast to the scenes of destruction played out on the news.  But NEF’s work is founded on the 2008 Foresight Programme’s Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project and Professor Seligman has been commissioned by the United States Army to deliver the world’s most psychologically fit Army under the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme.  These principles are applicable to this situation and there is evidence to demonstrate the successes of this approach.

US Democrat congresswomen Patricia Schroeder spent 24 years in the House of Representatives focusing on family and work related issues.  She is quoted as saying “you measure a government on how few people need help.” I would say that a lot of people need a lot of help based on recent events.

Finally, as a father, its distressing to read so many comments about unemployable and worthless youths.  Surely we need to move on from thinking about everyone’s contribution to society in purely economic terms.  We’re currently stuck in the rut of assessing social progress and government success by focusing on the country’s economic activity.  To get more economic growth, we all have to be more ‘economically efficient.’  As a result, if you don’t get the grades, you don’t get the career and have less value to society. That’s going to make a lot of people very scared. It is no surprise that the key focus of the riots was on looting the goods that our society values as the symbols of economic power. At a time when we have a greater gap between the poorest and wealthiest in society than ever before, we also have a media that offers us constant reminders of what flexing that economic power looks like.

The fact of the matter is that promoting constant economic growth is difficult to manage and focuses on the wrong things - just ask the Chancellor.  According to Robert Kennedy in 1968, using economic growth to mark our society’s progress ends up measuring “everything ... except that which makes life worthwhile”.  I hope we can avoid knee jerk reactions or clever sound bites in response to the riots and continue to look at how best to promote more well-being for all of our communities.  Recent evidence suggests this approach is needed more than ever.

Article was written by Dafydd Thomas from Wikiprogress Correspondent, Wellbeing Wales Network.

[1] http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/five-ways-well-being
[2] Seligman M (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Free Press.
[3] Macdonald, R & J. Marsh (2005) Disconnected Youth? Growing Up In Britain’s Poor Neighbourhoods, Palgrave Macmillan.

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