The trouble with trying to be good

22 April 2015

“Give a man a fish and he’ll feed himself for just a day, but give him the means to catch his own fish, and he’ll be able to feed himself and his family for a whole lifetime…”

This Oxfam advert from the 1990s is probably not the first thing you’d expect to see on an urbanism blog. Thoughts about farmers in Africa are about as far away as you can get from the question of how to develop cities, you might think. And isn’t that advert a bit outdated?

It might be outdated, but you’ll probably remember it. I was reminded about this campaign after a croissant-fuelled early morning dog walk with Catherine from make:good, during which we got talking about regeneration, community engagement, and whether it’s a good thing to mark out an urban area as ‘deprived’ and in need of development.

Of course, this is not to deny that there are areas where people have significantly fewer opportunities than others, and that identifying these areas and supporting their development is positive. However, the hierarchy that is created when outsiders think of the people themselves as ‘deprived’ and in need of help, can actually be unhelpful in itself. I think we sometimes unwittingly do this because of the pressure we put on ourselves to do good. In order to be seen as kind and charitable – a good person – we construct other people as in need of our help, and set ourselves up as their saviours. There are a number of problems with this type of relationship – in the context of urban regeneration as well as in international development – and the Oxfam advert introduces them very clearly.

The most important issue with this way of thinking – one that is well-illustrated by the visual message of the advert – is dignity. Seeing someone as ‘deprived’ positions them as beneath you, and implies that they are unable to contribute to solving their problems themselves. At the same time, this perspective puts the helper in a privileged position, and sees them as being in possession of the specialist knowledge and skills needed to solve less privileged people’s problems. This positioning drains confidence locally, encourages an approach of outside ‘experts’ being brought in short-term, and does nothing to build resilient communities.

The main reason why the Oxfam advert was so revolutionary at the time was that it demonstrated that there could be more to charity than simply giving to the poor. The campaign re-humanised victims of poverty, highlighting that they are people who can learn skills and are not poor because they are incapable. This is easy to forget when you are confronted by images of seemingly passive and helpless starving people, which is often how charities get the attention of the public. In the UK, the media bombard us with the laziness rhetoric as an explanation for poverty, with similarly dehumanising effects.

Once you start to think of residents as knowledgeable and capable individuals who can participate in, and – even better – drive their own development, the whole framework of how you approach so-called ‘deprived’ areas changes. Rather than giving hand-outs and trying to make changes from the top down, you start to realise that local people are in fact experts on their own environments, and the knowledge that they can bring to their individual and community development is very valuable. Instead of using your own privileged knowledge to develop an area and its people from the outside, you start to focus on the positives of what is already there, and how you can bring these out.

In urbanism, the current hype around regenerative projects means that professionals could easily slip into the type of victim and hero mentality that is so easy when you mark out areas and people as ‘deprived’. But perhaps what we can learn from the man with the fish is that in order to ensure that we are really getting to the root of things as urban developers and designers, we need to think about how we involve people in the process of regeneration, and enable them to become articulate clients, rather than ‘deprived’ and disempowered victims, whose lives we intervene with in order to help them with questions to which we think only we know the answer.

Emily Parker