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Top down or bottom up?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 26 September 2014


From time to time I puzzle about the right way to deal with social problems. One way, much favoured by the left, is that government sees the need and acts decisively to solve the problem. Another way is that the community senses the need, and its members act in a voluntary way to help. You can see both methods in Australia, because we have had a strong voluntary sector for a long time, and we also have a tradition of government initiative, which if anything is older and goes back to the dawn of European settlement.

I thought two examples of the second kind were worth sharing. The first is The Big Issue, a periodical which is sold outside shopping malls by disabled people, who sell the magazine for $6 and retain $3 for themselves. I often buy the mag, and find it good reading; I sometimes chat with the vendor.

In my judgment this whole enterprise is a good thing, and the vendors are proud people, conscious that they are at work, and that their efforts are rewarded. My last copy was no. 465, and since the magazine is published every fortnight that tells you it has been going for a long time. It began in Britain, and came to our shores in 1996.

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The Big Issue claims to be "Australia's leading social enterprise. We are an independent, not-for-profit organisation that develops solutions to help homeless, disadvantaged and marginalised people positively change their lives. If you go to its website, you'll find that the magazine is only one of a number of initiatives that fulfil the organisation's aim: We run social enterprises to create employment for people who are unable to access mainstream jobs. These enterprises operate much like traditional businesses, except all revenue is put back into the enterprises for the benefit of the individuals involved and broader community."

Street soccer, another of the programs, seemed to me another excellent idea. It all depends on voluntary activity, and it gets the volunteers. Who supports the organisation? The Principal Partners are Westpac, the Wesley Mission, Australia Post and Origin Foundation, with about twenty further corporate supporters. And people like me who buy the magazine. I don't really need anything more to read, but I like to help.

I learned about pawsup@backtrack.org.au when I attended a Churchill Fellowship function at which its founder, Bernie Shakeshaft, spoke about his work. I was bowled over to discover that my old high school, Armidale High, was part of his system. He has been doing this for quite a while now, and it started with wild boys and wild dogs.

He formed the idea that boys would get self-respect and also learn about themselves from working with dogs. How can we get the dog to do this or that? It was a small step from that to inquire as to how we could get a teacher or a boss to behave in a particular way. He was working with boys who were classic drop-outs for all sorts of familiar reasons - they were homeless, or there was violence at home, or there was alcohol. A lot of them are indigenous. They were doing really badly at school. But working with dogs proved a huge success.

Shakeshaft formed a team of boys and dogs who go to shows and compete in dog-jumping. They usually win. The videos you can see on the website are simply inspiring, and he is attracting more and more sponsors. As with The Big Issue, the ideas have spread to other forms of help. There's a new program for girls who are finding school is not for them. Armidale High, for its part, is shaping the curriculum to make it possible for the boys and girls to continue with their learning, even if it occurs off-site.

Shakeshaft says that he himself found school less than appealing, so he knew what these boys were going through. He has devoted his life to helping others, and with great success. My memory of the talk he gave is that virtually all of the boys who went through his system were either in work or in further education. Their heads were up, not looking at the ground, and one who spoke in the video was articulate, persuasive and confident.

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Governments just can't do these things like this. It has to come from the heart, and from individuals. And it has to start somewhere local, even if it spreads out. I'm not saying that there is no place for government assistance, or for government-provided social welfare. It is necessary in some areas, like the old-age pension, and it can work well too. But it generates another system, and systems offer a 'one size fits all' approach, which is exactly what didn't work for the boys and girls whom Shakeshaft mentors.

These two examples of voluntary work are so much more compelling and, I would guess, effective.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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