Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

< Back to '23rd Jan 2019' briefing

January 23, 2019

Self-Reliant Groups

Listening to successive Tory ministers defending the roll out of Universal Credit is dispiriting enough but impossible to imagine how it must feel if you are on its receiving end. And the impact of poverty seems to be so multi layered that the actual lack of cash is only a fraction of the many hardships experienced. For some time now a number of very small, self-help groups (mainly comprised of women) in some of Scotland’s poorest communities have been taking small steps towards changing their circumstances. It’s an idea that was born in India and it’s starting to make a real difference to people’s lives here.

Mark Smith, The Herald

THERE’S a label on Ferguslie Park and it’s a pretty hard one to remove. You probably know what it says: “deprivation”, “early deaths”, “the poorest part of Scotland”. Jamie Mallan, who works in the area, remembers the first time he came here. He got in a taxi and said ‘Ferguslie Park, please’ and the driver sucked air through his teeth and shook his head. “You don’t want to go there,” he said. Because that’s how labels work: they stick and do damage.

However, within a few minutes of arriving in Ferguslie Park, in the north-west of Paisley, I spot another label. It’s on the wall of the community centre and it’s spelled out in letters of purple, blue and yellow. It says “Feegie wummin are a breed o their ain”. Laura Connor, who is a Feegie woman, takes me over to the poster and stands in front of it for a photograph. This is more like it, she says. A label to stick on top of the other one.

I’m going to be talking more to Laura today, and Jamie, and other people about how you can start to change all of this and improve Ferguslie Park. The lessons come fast: names, words and descriptions matter; the biggest impact of poverty is not financial, it’s psychological; often, the best people to fix poverty are women, not men. And then there’s this lesson: Scotland might be one of the richest countries in the world, but an idea from the one of poorest countries might have something important to teach us.

The idea started in India and involves setting up groups of people to save small amounts of money each week. Self-reliant groups, as they’re called, can give small loans to members in times of crisis; the members also use the money to develop small businesses which can in time generate an income. The money saved each week could be as low as 50p, but the theory is that if you get a lot of individuals together, you can start to make a difference to a community.

I saw the idea working for myself a few years ago when I was in Bangladesh. Travelling with Christian Aid, I went to the Gopalgonj district of the country and sat in on a meeting of a self-reliant group in one of the villages. It’s hard to forget what the women said. One told me that when they were individuals they were like single sticks that could break. “But when we are united,” she said, “we cannot break.” Most of the women had set up little businesses selling handicrafts and it was starting to make a difference.

But could the idea work here in Scotland, where the circumstances are different? That’s what I’m in Ferguslie Park to find out and Laura Connor is keen to tell me more about the small business she’s started to sell home-made soaps. Laura, who’s 37, grew up in Cumbernauld but has lived in Ferguslie for 11 years. She’s sometimes struggled with self-confidence. She was born with a dislocated hip so has struggled with disability. Finding work has also not been easy. In recent years, she’s applied for many, many jobs but has been unsuccessful. She says herself: “I needed something in my life.”

Laura’s partner also does not work so money is tight. Laura has two sons, one four and one ten years old, and she often has to say no to them. One of them wanted a game the other day at £4.99, but Laura had to say he couldn’t have it. She has to budget to within an inch of her life to survive on the benefits she receives. “My oldest understands the situation,” she says, “He will ask for stuff and try his luck but it’s about saying no, you can’t get that.”

Laura says the self-reliant group to which she belongs has started to change that situation, albeit in a small way. She pays for the materials for her soaps by saving small amounts – the set-up cost was around £100 – and has now sold some of them, through her Facebook page and events at the Tannahill community centre in Ferguslie. It all has to be balanced with her benefits as any earnings can have an effect on them, but the small amounts are making a difference – and not just financially.

“I was getting frustrated with life,” says Laura. “But I’m happier now. I’m a person again. We all bounce off each other at the group. And we support each other. I had no confidence but I’ve had a lot of support and I know they’ll be there for me.”

What Laura says pretty much gets to the heart of the idea of self-reliant groups; it also raises some surprising truths about poverty that don’t have much to do with money, although no one is denying the reality of the financial situation for many people in the area. Jamie Mallan, who works for Ferguslie Park Housing Association and the man who was warned about the area by the taxi driver, says the financial crash of ten years ago meant services simply disappeared from Ferguslie Park. He’s also very worried about the introduction of Universal Credit.

“We’re hearing stories of single parents having their benefits cut, just chopped,” he says. “We’re hearing stories of individuals who have been unemployed and are going to have to wait four weeks for any payments. We’re hearing stories of children having their disability living allowance cut but their disability is still there. I’m really scared about the changes that are taking place.”

But Jamie, and others, say that it’s not all about money and that there’s a big psychological and mental element to poverty. “Millions upon millions of pounds has been pumped into Ferguslie Park to help regenerate it and develop it,” says Jamie, “but the issues we face are complex and constantly changing. The things that really make the area deprived are health and access to services. People don’t go to the doctor when they should. Life expectancy is much lower and as people get older they have more and more conditions. But I think part of it is the psyche, that for the past 30 years you’ve been told you’re the most deprived community in Scotland. Why should you raise your expectations?”

Professor John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University, who is one of Scotland’s leading authorities on poverty, agrees with this take on the subject, and thinks self-reliant groups can make a significant contribution to tackling it.

“Most of your life is not to do with money,” he says. “Money is just the transactions and then you’ve got to live your life. If you’re hearing messages on daytime TV mocking you, or there are adverts about ‘must-haves’ or suggesting you’re not worthy if you don’t consume, that can’t help but have an impact on you. You will feel more distant from the things that are deemed important and every day. The biggest impact of poverty is not financial, it’s psychological.”

Professor McKendrick believes this means self-reliant groups can have an impact. “It makes it tolerable, that sense of purpose,” he says. “You can also be getting out and meeting people because isolation is another issue. All those softer benefits that can be quite difficult to measure.” However, in terms of the finance, Professor McKendrick says the idea is not going to move people out of poverty in vast numbers. There are also clearly limits to what it can do to tackle poverty on a grand scale – last month, Grameen Foundation Scotland, the charity which provided micro-credit business loans in deprived communities, collapsed after its debts became insurmountable.

And aren’t there other dangers in the self-reliant idea? Isn’t it uncomfortably close to telling people to pull their socks up or get on their bikes, the idea that the answer lies in the individual rather than government? Professor McKendrick says there are risks and we talk about Darren McGarvey, the writer whose book about his poor upbringing in Glasgow, Poverty Safari, also promotes the idea that individual responsibility is part of the solution to poverty.

“There is a danger of highlighting a person like Darren and saying he can do it, why can’t you do it?” says Professor McKendrick. “We can’t absolve responsibility as a collective and say it’s the responsibility of the individual to become independent and reliant – for a variety of reasons, people find themselves in difficult circumstances and I think there is a collective responsibility to create an environment that allows people to nurture and to grow when they need it and it’s not the same time for everybody. You have to provide support that enables people to become self-reliant.”

The people I speak to about the self-reliant group in Ferguslie Park feel that the group has done that for them – there are now four small businesses up and running – but they also hope that it can help change the image of the area too – to tackle that label that sticks stubbornly to it. Laura Connor for one is frustrated by it. “It has its issues, this area,” she says, “but it is a lovely community and we definitely don’t agree with the bad press it gets.”

Jamie Mallan says one of the problems is that the same pictures of run-down buildings appear again and again in the press whereas, in fact, much of the housing stock is very good.

That’s certainly the impression I get going round the community. Most of the houses – not all – are very like the ones you would find in countless other Scottish communities and are in good condition. There are also plans to pull down some of the poorest housing on the Tannahill estate and replace them with 1000 new council homes.

But everyone agrees that new houses are not an answer in themselves and that the self-reliant groups can play a role. At the moment, there are around 50 people being helped by the group in Ferguslie Park – it’s also significant that most of those who take part are women. I remember a woman in Bangladesh quoting Napoleon to me: “give me an educated mother and I’ll give you an educated nation” and that’s the theory behind the groups – if women benefit, the positive effects are likely to be felt much wider.

You can see it already with Laura. “It’s already having an effect on my sons,” she says. “They could see I had no confidence but I’m doing something and they’re excited for me; I feel a lot more confident and they can see that. And they might think that they could do it themselves later on.” This is maybe the most important effect of the self-reliant groups – the effect it might have on the sons and daughters of those who take part. In Laura’s words, it’s important to pass something on to her children, and she is.