Redefining affluence of communities

Browsing as I do from time to time on The Guardian’s Society pages I stumbled across a piece that explained how:

“Many people who work within communities are used to doing a needs assessment to begin a new relationship or project; however, many of the groups in the Neighbourhood Challenge programme over the past year have turned this concept on its head and began by mapping the strengths and ‘assets’ that already exist in the local area”

As a community development worker I’ve initiated and contributed to any number of needs assessments over the years and found the process largely unrewarding: let’s round up a few local activists and identify what we don’t like about an area. Even the use of a SWOT analysis, which invites one to consider strengths and opportunities, tends only to add a tokenistic gloss of positivity to an exercise that conceives from the outset to list failings. That they tend to be done in so-called deprived communities serves only to re-inforce stereotypes, low expectations and a sense of ‘why bother?’.

It is heartening and refreshing to learn that Neighbourhood Challenge has set its stall out differently. Community buildings with space in the timetable, unsold seats at a local sports stadium or theatre, surplus stock from a local factory, etc. are all ripe for auditing in an asset assessment. But it isn’t only with fixed, physical tangibles that an asset assessment should concern itself. There is an overwhelming more valuable asset that should also be audited: people.

The co-production model does this, by seeing people not as a burden, in need or merely as a consumer of a service but as an asset with skills, competencies and experiences that can contribute to a collective community resource. But what might these skills, competencies and experiences be worth? It is true that a financial value can be placed on surplus stock, unsold seats, and community hall usage, but the notion of Civil Domestic Product (as distinct from Gross Domestic Product) allows for the measurement in social growth.

According to Timebanking Wales, it can be baselined and has easy-to-use and, crucially, easy-to-measure indicators such as:

  • the increase in citizens joining existing and new groups
  • the increase in new groups
  • social connectedness

Civil Domestic Product ascribes a greater value to work that people do in their community because it re-defines work in broader terms than merely activities carried out as part of paid employment. Civil Domestic Product defines work as any activity that contributes towards maintaining or enhancing civil society. It can be applied to any community, whether they are (in a ‘conventional’ sense) deprived or affluent. It is easy to see in non-monetary terms that inequalities in some aspects of affluence might not seem so stark. This is not to say that deprived areas are no longer so; nor that there are not deep-seated structural issues disproportionately affecting them; nor that there are wide, and growing, financial inequalities between communities. Rather it acknowledges that they are not solely what prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy – and its obsession with monetary value and budgetary discipline – has labelled them as costly to taxpayers, non-contributing, and a ‘drain on society’ .

There are small timebanks springing up all around Wales, the bedrock of which is seeing residents as a collective force for good, irrespective of individual circumstances. If these timebanks can effectivley narrate the benefits they derive in the communities in Civil Domestic Product terms as well as in financial terms their audits will be all the more convincing and help challenge the invidious stigma of less-affluent communities.

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