Is all help good? What makes help, unhelpful?

18th September 2017 Blog

In the wake of tragedies, we rightly point to acts of kindness offered to the victims, be it blankets, cash or physical protection. Such selflessness shows us how human virtue can shine, even in dark times.

This is good help, maybe the best kind of help, but is all help good? What if, sometimes, the assistance offered doesn’t help? What if, instead of improving the circumstances for people, the help offered undermines their independence, and ultimately stops them being able to help themselves? What if helping others sometimes makes things worse?

Getting the balance right is contentious and has been at the heart of debates around aid programmes and services for decades. How do we offer help that cultivates independence from, not dependence upon, that help? While ensuring that the most vulnerable are not left behind.

Unfortunately, according to many of the public service experts we have interviewed for the Creating Confidence project, we are currently getting the balance wrong. Penelope Gibbs at Transform Justice explains how: “Rehabilitation staff are steeped in the very nuanced skills and practices of supporting vulnerable people to develop their confidence and sense of purpose in the world,” she said. “The problem is the current arrangements place little value on this critical element. Instead, just cutting prisoners loose when their prison terms have finished.”

It is this paradox that the Creating Confidence report hopes to address when it is launched later this year. Why is it that, despite myriad programmes to ‘empower’ people, people still feel that they are being ‘done to’?

Cormac Russell, a driving force behind Asset-Based Community Development, argues that when we change social programmes, community members should ask themselves three sequential questions: first, what can we do ourselves?; second, what do we need help to do?; third, what do we need doing for us? The intention being to always start from an assumption that people are in charge of their own lives.

Of course, support can be essential; there are many things, such as medical interventions and refuse collection, that require expertise or infrastructure that individuals and communities can not be expected to have, and some people in challenging life circumstances need much more help than others.

This doesn’t, for example, mean being left to our own devices to change our diets. Changing lifestyle is notoriously difficult, as it often challenges our core identity of who we are and what we do. Instead, it means being supported along a journey to a lifestyle that’s more appropriate for how we want to live. Critically, this is not about being dependent on others, it’s about being supported to become independent, while recognising that over our lives we each have phases of high and low dependence.

This philosophy is at the heart of Inverness based Highland Home Carers, who focus on helping the people they support to remain independent and living at home. At the other end of life, the NSPCC’s Speak out. Stay safe programme helps children recognise abuse for themselves, and feel confident to know what to do if they witness it.

This ability to offer help in a way which builds people’s confidence to act, is a subtle art that involves weaving expertise and legal requirements with behaviours and language that keeps people in the driving seat. Think of the teacher who supports students to cultivate a deep rooted love of learning, while also getting them ready for their GCSEs. Such support requires services that can adapt to meet individual needs, but unfortunately this is not the primary direction of travel. Instead, attempts at efficiency are squeezing out the necessary flexibility; and in so doing, offering help, that is in the end, unhelpful.

Image credit: Broad Bean Media