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 May 2013

Thinking About Community

During my time working within Community Development when I asked people what their community was they would often mention a place, usually a suburb.  However, if I asked who they related with or what groups they were involved with then I got all sorts of responses.  People relate with others through their sports clubs, their church, their art society.  People relate via their ethnic background or cultural identity.  People congregate together to play sport, read poetry or (as teenagers in particular are wont) to hang out at the local shopping mall.

Many join “communities of interest.”  Indeed, it is highly likely that (at least in Western nations) people have a greater sense of participation in a community of interest rather than a community of place.1

As Community Development workers we must be wary of how we think of community.  It can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking of community in terms of place, location or neighbourhood.  It can be.  But that is not where our thinking should stop.  Rather, it’s just somewhere to start thinking about community.

Let’s take a step back and look at the roots of the word community.  Before arriving in the English language it passed through French and Old French, and before that, Latin.  It’s Latin source is revealing.

The word derives from two Latin words: com meaning “with” or “together” and munus meaning “gift.”  Thus, at it’s root community suggests “with gift” or “gifting together.”

With this understanding it is possible to find two interconnected features of community that allow individuals to feel a sense of belonging to a community.  First, as individuals we obtain benefits from belonging to communities.  Second, we are able to contribute to communities thus enabling them to develop and flourish.  For us as individuals communities provide us with gifts and we gift back to our communities.2

Two further words often get mentioned when academics and others talk about community: Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft.  Ferdinand Tönnies coined the terms in 1887.  Gemeinschaft he thought of as community with a cohesive “unity of will”, whereas Gesselschaft was society of self-interest.

It is our role as Community Development workers to think widely about what constitutes community and to facilitate community development so that:
  • communities benefit members as well as providing space within which members can contribute,
  • communities recognise the unique gift that all members have and allow those gifts to be shared,
  • society might move from self-interest (Gesselschaft) to a “unity of will” (Gemeinschaft).
How do others think of community?  Is it even important what we think of as community?  I’d welcome your thoughts.

1. In the city in which I last worked as a Community Development Adviser the annual residents survey asked exactly this question.  Consistently, over 80% of respondents indicated that “community of interest” was of greater importance in their lives than “community of place.”
2. Recognising that within communities are individuals with gifts is a key ingredient of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).

Thursday 23 May 2013

Democratising The Fourth Estate

In 1787 the House of Commons of Great Britain was opened up to the Press for the first time.  Edmund Burke is reputed to have remarked that, although there were three Estates in Parliament, “…in the Reporters gallery yonder, there sits a Fourth Estate more important by far than they all.”

Since Burke’s time the media (now commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate) has indeed become all pervasive and all powerful.  Until recently the media was viewed as the means by which parliament and politicians were kept accountable.  The Fourth Estate was the checks and balances of democracy.

But the world has changed dramatically since Burke’s time.  Less and less are our public decisions being made by parliaments.  Much of private life and public life have become dominated by big business and economic globalisation.  And the Fourth Estate has joined in.  Not to act as public watchdog, but rather as one of the dogs we need to be wary of.

For example; the market value of Time Warner is $53 billion, of News Corp $70.6 billion and that of Walt Disney over $100 billion.  Through takeovers, mergers and acquisitions media corporations are now amongst some of the largest transnational corporations (TNCs) in the world.  In 1983 there were 50 media companies that controlled 90% of the US media market.  Today (just 30 years later) just six corporations have captured over 90% of the market.  The Big Six: Time Warner, Walt Disney, Viacom, News Corp, CBS and NBC Universal.

The media TNCs are controlling more and more of what we view, read and hear on our televisions, in our newspapers and on the radio.  Furthermore, fewer and fewer individuals control the news.  Just 232 media executives run the Big Six media TNCs – they’re not called “media moguls” for nothing.
Nor is it just media moguls influencing the news.  Increasingly, big business is taking an interest in the media.  In Australia, for instance, the mining magnate, Gina Rinehart (the worlds 2nd richest woman) is now the largest shareholder (at 19%) in Fairfax Media.1

The Fourth Estate today is part of big business and the domination that is economic globalisation.  Far from being the watchdog on governments and keeping the populace informed, today the Fourth Estate tells and shows us what to think, do and believe.

It’s not all bad news though.  Perhaps ordinary citizens and local communities are taking back control of information.  The Internet has provided us all with the opportunity to share stories that give alternative takes to those provided by the media TNCs.  We can now get local stories via YouTube, alternative analyses from independent bloggers and from networks such as Indy Media.  Then there are the myriads of small, local newspapers being produced in communities world-wide.  The Fourth Estate may be giving way to a democratised media.

What of the other three Estates?  In Burke’s time they were all contained within Parliament:  the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons.

The next democratising step on the ladder towards true democracy must be parliaments and governments themselves.

1. Fairfax Media own two of the largest daily newspapers in Australia: the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne) along with a number of radio stations.  Gina Rinehart has notoriously used her media status to imply that Australians could work for $2 a day.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Can’t Buy Me Love

“Can’t Buy Me Love” the Beatles sang in 1964.  Maybe not, but can it buy happiness, or life satisfaction?

Many commentators and social justice writers have suggested that, above a certain level of income, increasing income has very little bearing on well-being or happiness.

A recent paper by two researchers at the University of Michigan1 purport to refute this thesis. They claim that although the thesis is “… intuitively appealing, it is at odds with the data.”

Their paper is 24 pages long, with 30 graphs, 3 tables of statistical data and a page of references.  It looks scholarly, and impressive.

But wait!  Hang on!  Let’s be careful about how their conclusion is used by those of us working in the field of social justice.

It is easy to imagine that the conclusions of this paper will find enthusiastic supporters amongst those who would claim that increasing incomes is the way to happiness.  What is disturbing about this possibility is the potential claim that it is acceptable to continue to make higher and higher incomes because this will bring more and more happiness.  Some may even argue that this research shows that widening income gaps are reasonable and that all that is required is for those on low incomes to “catch-up.”

Let’s look at the paper – particularly at the graphs.  The researchers have chosen a logarithmic scale for the income axis and a linear scale for the “life satisfaction” scale.  The effect of this is to make it look as if a degree of difference in life satisfaction corresponds to a similar degree of difference in income.

Using the logarithmic scale gives the impression of a steady and regular correlation between life satisfaction and income – a straight line correlation.  What happens, however, if we plot the data so that the scales are linear on both axes.  See the two graphs below.

Graph 1 shows the graph as portrayed in the paper.  The x-axis shows GDP per capita (in thousands of dollars) and the y-axis shows the satisfaction ladder score (as determined in World Gallup Polls in 155 countries).  The red line is the regression line – think of it as the “line of best fit".  The x-axis uses a logarithmic scale (as can be seen by each regular interval calibration being a multiple of 2 times the previous one.)  The y-axis uses a simple linear scale (the scale that most people would be familiar with),

Graph 2 is the same regression line, but this time plotted using linear scales for both axes.

Graph 1.
Graph 2.
image   As can be seen, the two graphs give a very different visual picture.  looking at Graph 2 we can see that as income rises from below $10,000 to around $35,000 satisfaction levels also rise fairly rapidly from around 3.7 to around 6.7.  That’s significant.  But then, things begin to flatten, just what the researchers are wont to claim does not happen.

The paper goes on to analyse similar data for the US itself.  The results are similar, and so is the alternative picture.

If anything the data from the US are much more disturbing, as the income levels range from under $10,000 to over $500,000. 

No!  This research does not convince me that the disparity between an income of $10,000 and one of half a million dollars is warranted because higher incomes lead to greater life satisfaction or happiness.

Indeed, there is evidence to show that greater social well being is facilitated by reduced income inequality.  The greater the inequality the less the social well being.2

It just goes to show that we must be careful when dealing with statistics and graphs.  Sometimes the choice of presentation style can hide an underlying reality.

1. Stevenson, Betsy & Wolfers, Justin. Subjective Well-Being and Income. Is There Any Evidence of Satiation? University of Michigan, April 2013.
2. See Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin, 2009, 2010.

Monday 13 May 2013

When Community Engagement Slips A Gear

For quarter of a century from the 1970s onwards many local governments in the UK, Australasia and other parts of the Western world employed Community Development workers because community development was thought to be a means of dealing with some of the social ills.

Around the end of the 20th Century a new methodology began to be incorporated into the way in which local governments and other agencies worked with communities; Public Participation, also known as Community Engagement.  It was the “new kid on the block” and local governments shed Community Development advisors and sections in favour of Community Engagement officers and teams.

A recent post on Facebook by a friend in Scotland reminded me just how easily Community Engagement can be ignored or misused.  And, why Community Engagement is insufficient.

The city of Edinburgh recently invited citizens to comment on draft proposals for Leith Walk.  Hundreds of them took part in the consultations.  Initially the Council indicated that it was “delighted with the quality of feedback received…”  One Councillor said that “we had some very useful feedback…” and noted that people wanted better accommodation for cyclists and pedestrians in the plan.  It all sounded very encouraging.

But it was not to be.  First, the Council was reluctant to publish the consultation responses; only the threat of a legal review encouraged them otherwise.  Second, the final design turned out little different from the draft design – leaving it “dangerous and unpleasant for both pedestrians and cyclists.”  (Greener Leith, 4 May 2013)

Similar scenarios are played out far too often around the Western world.  Under the guise of community consultation local governments are still reluctant to be totally transparent and are far too quick to ignore the feedback they receive from the consultation process.

Let us not allow the wool to be pulled over our eyes.  Community Engagement or Public Participation (call it what you will) has it’s place, but it is of limited usefulness when what is needed is greater transparency and for citizens and residents to be honestly listened to.

Furthermore, from Scotland to New Zealand, from Canada to Australia, what is being demanded by communities, more and more, is participation in the decision-making process itself.  And there is a profession that works with that as a goal.  It has a name:  Community Development.