The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Rising Inequality: Raising Questions.

Who gets the crumbs?
Source: Flickr, Creative Commons: Jonathan Hinkle
Last week the New Zealand Herald reported that inequality in New Zealand had increased substantially in 20111.  The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) report that it quoted also said that inequality was now at its highest level ever.  Contributing to the growing gap were two divergent trends.  On one hand the income of the richest 10% “rose sharply” whereas, on the other, the median income fell 3%.  As anyone with a little statistical knowledge knows, the median income level of most countries is less than the average income.  Thus, a fall in the median income suggests that those in the lower deciles are likely to have suffered significant income loss.

In that same week a book arrived in my Post Office box, having been posted in the UK a few weeks earlier.  What’s the connection?  Well, the book was a signed copy of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Wilkinson and Pickett are British epidemiologists with special interest in the social determinants of health.

The Spirit Level analyses data from 23 of the world’s richest nations and shows in case after case2 that there is a positive link between income inequality and the level of social ills in society.

But a link between inequality and health, obesity, educational performance or violence does not equate to causality does it?  No, not per se.  But wait, Wilkinson and Pickett are aware of this criticism.  In the final section of their book they tackle this awkward question.  After looking at a number of possible alternative explanations they conclude (p 195) that:
“It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force.”
Now back to that MSD report.  Why was there a rise in inequality in 2011?  According to MSD the “widening gap between rich and poor was due to volatility cause by the global financial crisis.”  Oh, really?!  Somehow the richest 10% weren’t affected though.  In fact, they appear to have benefited, financially at least.

Can Wilkinson and Pickett shed any light on this?  Yes, they can.  The first edition of their book was published in early 2009 only about 6 months after the start of the global financial crisis.  Since then they have updated the book and a revised edition (the one that landed in my post box) was published in late 2010.

In this revision Wilkinson and Pickett include a short section entitled Inequality, Debt and the Financial Crash.  Drawing on the work of economists at Boston College, the London School of Economics and others the authors conclude (p296) that “there is now evidence that inequality played a central causal role in the financial crashes of 1929 and 2008.”3

Quite the reverse of what MSD are saying.  Perhaps the analysts at MSD would be well advised to read this revised edition of The Spirit Level.  Failing that, maybe watching the forthcoming film/documentary based on the book.

A campaign to raise funds to produce a film/documentary based on The Spirit Level now has sufficient funds to enable production to begin.  Watch out for it.

1. A quick bit of research suggests that a similar rise in inequality occurred in Australia and possibly other OECD countries.
2. A total of 10 cases are presented: Trust, Life expectancy, Infant mortality, Obesity, Mental illness, Education scores, Teenage birth rates, Homicides, Imprisonment, Social mobility.
3. There now appears to be evidence that a contributing factor towards the financial crisis has been the siphoning of wealth from the poor towards the rich, contributing to debt.  But that’s for another blog.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Entering Society Randomly

Forget everything you know about present day society.  Not only your immediate society but also other societies at home and abroad.  Indeed, forget all you know about the whole human society.

Now imagine that you were about to be born into human society.  Imagine further that you have absolutely no idea at all as to where in that huge human society of over 7 billion people you will emerge.  Hold onto those thoughts.  Now, given that your arrival place in human society is totally random what would you hope that society to look like?

John Rawls, an American philosopher writing in the 1970s, suggested just such a way of thinking as a way of defining a just society.  Rawls suggests that
“a just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it at a random place”.
In this simple exercise Rawls neatly overcomes our tendency to look at at issues and analyse them with a great deal of personal prejudice.  How often is our vision of society shaped by our own wants, needs and preferences?  Those wants, needs and preferences are in turn shaped by our culture, upbringing, education and our ideological, philosophical and religious beliefs.

Rawls though, in his thought experiment, encourages us to think of the good of society as a whole, since by doing so we would care not where in that society we emerged.

If we were to consider Rawls’ experiment carefully and honestly, would we be content with a our current society?  It appears that Americans would opt for a more egalitarian society if given the option.  I wonder if those of us in the richest 20% of the World would do the same?  To check out where you sit on the World’s rich list, try this

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Reframe – A Review

Eric Knight is an Australian who wants us to look at things differently in order to solve complex issues and the wicked problems of the world.  Reframe is the book he has written to put forward his ideas.

Source: Flickr, Tom Larken
There’s a joke about a guy who has had a bit too much to drink scrabbling around on the ground beneath a street lamp in the middle of the night.  A policeman on his beat sees the man and comes up to him and asks: “Hullo, hullo, hullo, what’s going on here?”.  The drunk replies that he has lost his house keys and that he is looking for them.  The friendly policeman decides to help him look, so he gets down on hands and knees also.  After a few minutes fruitless search the policeman gives up and says “Are you sure that you lost them here?”.  “Nah, I lost them up the road” says the drunk.  “Well, why are you searching here then?” enquires the logical policeman.  “Because this is the only light!” replies the drunk.

I’m sure that Eric Knight would appreciate this joke.  Knight’s main thesis in his book Reframe is that we tend to look for solutions where the light is brightest.  The light is brightest in our immediate vicinity.  We miss what is outside this circle of light.  Knight suggests metaphorically that we are attracted to bright, shiny objects and are far too wont to approach problem-solving by looking for answers through magnifying glasses.

Knight uses a number of examples to back up his thesis.  For example, the reason that Long-Term Capital Management lost billions of dollars in 1998 was, according to Knight, because they used 5 years worth of data whilst failing to notice the 5 decade wave that was about to wash over them. Similarly for terrorism, immigration and climate change.

Knight makes a compelling case.  His is a lesson that we must learn quickly if the complex issues and wicked problems facing humanity are to be solved.

Reframe is a highly readable book utilising a combination of story-telling with insightful analysis.  Knights stories are widely set; on a couple of British trains, a village in Costa Rica, the halls of power in Washington and even in party games.  His analysis encompasses economics (he is a Rhodes scholar specialising in economics), military strategy, political campaigning, even evangelism.  It seems that nothing is exempt from Knights assertion that issues and problems are often framed incorrectly.

So what does Knight suggest?  Primarily, Knight argues that we must accept “that society (is) unfathomably complex – far too complex to be grasped by even the most intelligent person on their own”.  Adaptation, patience and humility are the new hallmarks of a re-framed problem solving approach.

So too is the recognition of our collective knowledge and experience.  In a passage that would resonate with most community development workers Knight asserts that:
“Our best decisions did not come from dictates delivered from the top down.  They came from initiatives carried out from the bottom up.”
Reframe is a welcome addition to solving the complex problems of our time.  Not because Knight suggests any answers but because he gets us to reframe the questions in ways that prompt us to cast aside our magnifying glasses, to look at the bigger picture, to look outside the immediate circle of light.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Let’s get rid of graffiti and tagging – an exercise in futility?

Sometimes when debating and dealing with issues we will take our analysis only so far, not digging far enough.  A bit like digging a well in the back yard but stopping when the earth starts to feel moist and not digging further until the water itself is found.
The issue of graffiti and tagging is just such an issue. 
Graffiti and tagging are seen as blemishes on the face of most cities and there is a desire on the part of officialdom to remove, cleanse, stop and/or punish.  Will this desire ever translate into cities without graffiti or tagging?  My short answer is no.  That is because the desire to remove graffiti is predicated on a very shallow analysis of human psychology and a less than comprehensive socio-political perspective on the phenomenon.  

The question often arises about the motivation behind graffiti/tagging. What is the psychology?  Why is it done?  The research suggests that the psychology of graffiti/tagging has the following features:
  • Graffiti art is a desire to express one’s creativity in a public space.
  • Tagging is often a desire to stamp ones mark or to mark out territory, often obtaining prestige from other taggers or cohort groups.
  • Many taggers are lacking in self-esteem.

I’m not suggesting that these fully describe the psychology, but they do serve as useful markers to place graffiti/tagging in a socio-political and historical analysis.  If we look at tagging as a desire to mark out ones territory or to publicly announce ones existence or where one has been, then we have many examples of socially condoned tagging.  A tag is a recognisable mark notating a particular individual or group.  One of the most recognisable, prolific and enduring tags known World-wide is the Stars and Stripes.  That tag has been left everywhere from Iwo Jima to the Moon.  Yet, it is accepted, acknowledged, condoned – even encouraged – by society.  Why?  

Many other socially condoned tags can also be recognised.  Indeed, the marketing strategy of branding may be seen synonymously with tagging.  We all recognise these brands/tags: Macdonald’s, IBM, Coca-Cola etc.

Cave painting in Lascaux, France

Graffiti art too, is not dissimilar to condoned public art – all the way from pre-historic cave drawings to the massive carvings on Mt Rushmore. Why condone one form and condemn the other?  Some of the oldest known cave drawings found in France date back well over 30,000 years.  Drawings are found in all continents of the world and are often protected as archaeological and cultural sites.  Amongst the various theories put forward as to the meaning of these drawings is that some of them are the result of fantasies of adolescent males.  Sound familiar? 

Mt Rushmore - still controversial.
Wherever and whenever people have gone we have defaced natural surfaces with our art, often amidst controversy.  The well known faces of four American Presidents carved into Mt Rushmore (known to the Lakota Sioux as Six Grandfathers) was surrounded by controversy from its inception.  The area in the Black Hills of South Dakota was seized from the Lakota in 1876.  Today the area is claimed by the Lakota under the Fort of Laramie Treaty of 1868.  The carving itself is charged by some as extolling the idea of racial superiority as the four Presidents selected were all in office during the time at which Native American land was being annexed.  This charge is given further credence by the accusation that the carver (Gutzon Borglum), and the man who chose the four Presidents, was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan.  

In the more modern era who amongst us has not heard of Kilroy was Here?  This global mark had its roots with US servicemen during World War II.  Not only have marks such as the Kilroy one become famous, but so too have some of the graffiti artists.  The work of Banksy in the UK is now sought after worldwide.   

All this suggests that graffiti and tagging are not new social phenomena.  Humankind has sought to place its mark wherever we have gone throughout history and space.  Branding as a form of tagging questions our social acceptance of relationships of power.  Why is it that those with the authority of corporate power are allowed to foist their tag upon our eyes whereas those without are labelled as criminal and their tag must be eliminated as quickly as possible? 

I am not suggesting that this excuses graffiti/tagging, but it certainly questions the social desire for cleansing our environment of one form of graffiti/tagging yet allowing other forms of expression that basically stem from a similar human need or desire. Furthermore, it suggests that our social desire to cleanse our environment of graffiti and tagging is bound to fail.  If we don’t reconsider our individual consumerism and the motivation of marketeers to stimulate and capitalise on that consumerism then we will continue to fail.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The “G” word.

Globalisation – without any pre-existing understandings or prejudices the word conjures up images of an interconnected, caring family of global citizens living, playing and working together in harmony with their global environment, doesn’t it?

What a wonderful world!

Its not though is it?  Globalisation is something else, so lets not beat about any global bushes, lets call it for what it is: Euro-Americanisation!  For, excluded from its (spurious) benefits are indigenous peoples, those in poverty, people without access to clean water, safe housing, adequate healthcare and often, many of the so-called middle class.  In short, much of the global population.

And that’s just the humans.  Whales, lemurs, sea turtles and most fauna don’t even get a foot (or flipper) in the door.  The flora?  Forget I even mentioned flora.  Euro-Americanisation seems to have never heard the term.  Unless it’s to recall that flora is another term for “natural resources” or “unproductive terrain”.

The coming of Euro-Americanisation

Euro-Americanisation can be traced back as far as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.  The Industrial Revolution in Europe expanded on their work, meanwhile condemning thousands to grimy, grubby jobs and their descendants to lives of toil and hardship whilst the owners of new corporations began the emergence of the super-rich.  The founding of the New World in the Americas further fuelled the growing ideology, this times on the backs of slaves.

The latest wave of Euro-Americanisation began even before World War 2 had fired its last cannon shot.  The conference of Bretton Woods in 1944 saw the foundation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and GATT, all cornerstones of the growing Euro-Americanisation of the World.

Then came what has been called the Washington Consensus with its key principles of privatisation and deregulation.  These two economic concepts were held up as economic saviours on both sides of the Atlantic.  Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US were its champions.  Euro-Americanisation was heading for its zenith through the rise of multi-national and then trans-national corporations (TNCs).

What a zenith it has turned out to be.  The 10 largest TNCs have a combined income greater than that of the Worlds 100 poorest countries.  2/3 of the Worlds trade is controlled by just 500 corporations.  No prizes for guessing what part of the World most of these arose in.

Meanwhile, almost half the World’s population attempts to live on less than $2 a day (one of the measures of absolute poverty).  How civilised is that in the 21st Century?  Where's the social justice?

How many of us know what is really going on throughout the World?  Probably very few of us.  Not surprising really given that almost all of the Worlds mainstream media is controlled by just 7 large media conglomerates – based again, largely in Europe and America.

If it really was globalisation surely we would see signs of the diversity of global life.  But walk the downtown streets of most modern cities and what brands and logos do you see mostly?  If I ask you to name all the brands you can think of, I’d bet that amongst those that first come to mind will be the likes of McDonalds, Coca-Cola, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, BP, Shell, Disney etc etc.  Its highly likely that amongst your first dozen or so most of them will have come from Europe or America.

Calling it for what it is.

So lets not call it globalisation.

Actually, lets not call it Euro-Americanisation either.  That label sounds too much as if the blame is being put upon a particular group of people, leaving everyone else blameless.

But are the rest of us blameless?  Perhaps another G word is applicable.

Lets call it greed.

I suggest that this is what globalisation really is and as such it lives in the heart of all of us.  We are all complicit to one degree or another.  Years ago, Mahatma Gandhi said that
“The world has enough for every persons need, but not enough for every persons greed”.
It behoves all of us to listen to Gandhi’s words and take them to heart and to question our own actions, thoughts and attitudes.  Globalisation is an ideology and as such not so easily addressed.  Greed though is a human frailty and more readily addressed.

Like most issues we can tackle them at many levels and from various angles.  One of those is always ourselves.  How often do I sit down in the morning with my coffee and question the conditions of the cocoa growers?  As I read the newspaper with that coffee, do I notice the subtle (and not so subtle) messages contained in its pages?  As I drive off do I think of the environmental damage being done by the oil industry or the disruption to indigenous populations by mining?

Yes, lets swap one G word for another G word.  Gee!  I’ve got a lot of questioning to do?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Being SMART isn’t always clever

SMART objectives came out of the business sector in the early 1980s and soon got taken up by organisations working in the community development and social service sectors.  SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) objectives maybe useful in the business sector, but are not always applicable in community development.

Sometimes they are useful, but lets not pretend that SMART objectives and their close cousin KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are the holy grail of project or programme planning.  Lets not get trapped into thinking that if we determine SMART objectives and then work at implementing them that we are going to succeed.  Why not?  Because sometimes things do not happen in a straight forward logical sequence.  Sometimes development happens haphazardly and in order to succeed we must embrace some failure.

Lets admit, too, that community development and social services are not part of the business sector.  Unfortunately, too often, government departments and agencies make us think that we should be.  Working with people is inherently full of processes and outcomes that challenge business ways of doing things.  People act, individually and collectively, in ways that are not always logical or ordered.

The difficulty is that our classical understanding of the way the world works is based on the Newtonian model.  If we notice an effect then usually we know what caused it.  What’s more, the cause happens before the effect.  It’s easy enough to find simple examples of this in our social world.  I see someone laughing (effect) and know that it is because someone else told them a joke (cause) a minute beforehand.

Increasingly however, we are finding that the Newtonian model of reality is becoming less and less accurate.  This inaccuracy means that we are less able to predict outcomes.  If we can’t predict outcomes then SMART objectives just may not be quite as useful.

What’s going on?  Chaos and Complexity – that’s what.  Chaos Theory (propounded by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, in the 1960s) tells us that a minute change in the initial circumstances of a system could produce a massive difference in the outcome.  It also tells us that predicting that difference will not be possible.  It’s not total disorder though.  It becomes a little like predicting the outcome of the roll of a die.  Although we can’t be certain about which number will come up, we do know that it will fit within the bounds of the numbers 1 to 6.  Chaos Theory calls this a Lorenz Attractor.

Complexity Theory soon followed.  It’s not too far removed from Chaos Theory – perhaps the term “complexity” has more scientific PR going for it than does the term “chaos”.

Most of us will have heard of the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” – that’s complexity.  Again, not necessarily predictable.  If all you had was the parts (and no previous knowledge) predicting what the whole looked like would not be very likely.  Complexity calls this emergence.  The phenomenon that something entirely new emerges out of the coming together of the various parts.

Those then are reasons that SMART objectives are not always the clever thing to do.  Societies, communities and neighbourhoods are highly complex today.  Picture a young person growing up a Century ago.  They would have been shaped by their family, a few neighbours, some friends, their religious heritage and their school.  It may have been possible to fairly accurately predict their future.
Today though, add in a plethora of other inputs; Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, mobility, television (free and pay), iPhones, (yes, even Smart phones), laptops, global fashions in clothing, dance, music and attitudes, easy access to liquor and drugs, rapid exchange of information and news and we have a highly complex society.  Even if we could control just one of those inputs we are unlikely to be able to control, or even influence, all of them.

Lets leave SMART objectives to the business sector then.  Community development is not a business, community development is not here to achieve a bottom-line.  Community development is here to solve some very intractable and difficult problems.  Community development seeks social justice and a world without poverty, without violence.  It seeks a world of greater empowerment, greater opportunity. 

To solve these problems requires something more than being SMART.  We need to be more clever than that and that means working collaboratively, with dialogue and in a trusting, caring environment.  More and more it seems that we need to work on our relationships and our collective consciousness.  Community development workers could be the catalysts that the world needs if we are to embrace chaos and thrive in a complex environment.