Solving Chronic Problems

I hope to eventually write posts on this blog as regularly as Seth Godin writes on his. He recently wrote about the approach needed to fix chronic problems. They are “most often solved by building new systems. New ways to engage with the issue over time”. This led me to think of two chronic problems I have followed recently. The first is the on-going lack of affordable housing in many European countries. I am particularly concerned by Ireland, where housing is so scarce and expensive that almost 4000 children are without a home.

The second chronic problem is the ongoing, avoidable human suffering I witness during my work on humanitarian projects. We manage to get water supplies and food to people who would face illness, malnourishment and death if humanitarian aid did not reach them. However, decision makers in conflict-affected countries and western governments show a complete lack of political will to end human suffering.

Two words you’ll come across a lot in papers on humanitarian interventions are participation and empowerment – the inclusion of people receiving humanitarian aid in decisions that affect them. Participation and empowerment of communities are key to addressing our chronic problems, many of which result from private, business interests, having priority over community needs. Housing in European capitals is treated as a commodity for the enrichment of the few. Western leaders and local elites in conflict-affected countries put business interests ahead of ordinary people who struggle in poverty and lack of public services.

Democracy and Transparency

The new ways to engage with chronic problems, the new systems, will not come from the politicians and private interests that benefit from current approaches. When I think of possible routes to change, greater democracy and transparency keep coming to mind.

Public housing is a proven approach in cities like Vienna to ensure that urban planning is coherent at the city level and is driven by the needs of communities. For affordable housing, we have the delivey mechanism – public housing – the systemic change is needed in the approach to finance and decision making. For housing to be paid from public funds, the public needs to have greater confidence that their taxes are invested well. Transparency in public accounting as well as on-going participation in local and national budgeting is essential for building widespread support for public housing that is available to all.

Western countries are democratic, but our democracies can be greatly improved with more public inclusion in policy making, especially at local level. Inclusion would be transformed by community ownership of public services like water and energy generation. Of course, we’ve had public ownership before, but renewed transparency would mean improve the public’s sense of ownership. Democracy – community involvment – and transparency are inseparable.

The same community involvement and transparency are needed in conflict-affected countries. Western governments, as well as enabling renewed democracy and transparency at home, must put these principles ahead of business interests in their dealings with governments and non-state actors in conflict-affected countries. Western governments focused exclusively on peace-keeping, democracy and transparency is part of the systemic change needed to solve the chronic problem of human suffering. This change is more likely to come about with a western public newly engaged in policy and public spending, at local, national and European level.


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