Digital Divide, Food Poverty and Inequality

6th February 2021

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What can we learn from the food poverty campaigns to help us tackle digital poverty? What are the similarities? Is there a link across the two social issues? How do we influence systemic and sustainable social change? These are questions which I have been thinking about lately as mHabitat’s social change programme ‘Inclusive Digital Transformation’ evolves. I’ve tried to capture some of my learning and thoughts in this blog and would be really interested to hear others.

Food Poverty

The Trussell Trust started in 2000 in response to a call from a mother struggling to feed her children. It has since set up 1,200 food banks across the country. Last year (2019/2020) 1.9 million food parcels were given out.  Food banks are a crisis service reliant on charitable funding and public donations to provide a basic essential of life to prevent people from suffering and starving. 

In it's latest report on poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights that even before the pandemic, 14.5 million (one in five) people were living in poverty and that child and ‘in-work’ poverty has been rising for years. As we stand in the eye of the storm, we are yet to understand the full effect, but without social welfare protection the worse health and economic effects will hit the most vulnerable hardest. 

In 2018 UN special rapporteur Professor Philip Alston produced a scathing report on extreme poverty in the UK. He concluded that the suffering and poverty experienced in this country was the result of political choices. 

Has the unintended consequence of food banks operating at such an industrious and formal level inadvertently let Government and Society off the hook? 

We saw from the immense response to the impressive Marcus Rashford, that actually the majority of us do not find it acceptable that children are starving in this country. He managed to not only support local community crisis response, but also influence the government and system to, at least in the short term, provide a systemic national response. Not yet tackling the root issue, but the campaign did engage society and the government into accepting a level of responsibility. Rashford used his profile to raise public interest enough to influence/force the government to respond. The overton window approach. 

The current situation with food poverty is that there is a lot of it in our country, as a society we don’t want people particularly children to starve, communities have acted with compassion and generosity and we have grown a crisis response. Whilst high profile campaigning has influenced some level of government response we haven’t yet turned the tap off at the prevention end. 

Digital Poverty

Lockdown and the move to ‘online schooling’ has shone a spotlight on the issue of digital poverty, another symptom of the same root cause issue. 

There has been an incredible community and public response to this issue. Digital Access West Yorkshire was set up by a group of talented, resourceful and caring citizens who felt compelled to act. It turns out they are not alone. There are similar groups mobilising up and down the country. 

There are some big national organisations like Good Things Foundation and FutureDotNow campaigning to get people the devices, connectivity and support they need. 

There are also organisations like the inspiring Solidaritech who have been working with specific communities on this issue for a number of years.

The media has got involved too with everyone from the One Show to the Daily Mail highlighting the lack of access to devices for school age children who live in poverty. Similar to the food poverty campaign  there is an emphasis on symptom specific public donations and a call for a symptom specific government response, in  this case a call for the government to fund access to devices and the internet. 

Meanwhile local and regional systems are also starting to mobilise and join forces. Theo Blackwell has set up a new taskforce to tackle the digital divide in London and in the last few months we have been working with the health and care systems across Yorkshire and Humber; West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership (WYHHCP), South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw Integrated Care System(SYBICS) and Humber. Coastal and Vale Health and Care Partnership (HCVHCP) to explore how we can design inclusion into digital transformation. 

We took a strength based approach and focused on where the energy for change and assets lay in each area. In WYHHCP there were many of the ingredients for tackling digital and data poverty at a systematic level. In SYHICS there is a focus on digital health literacy and in HCVICS we are looking at data as a tool and the relationship between primary care and community assets. We are running a co-design process in each area and then aiming to bring the three together into a blueprint. At the same time, we are helping to join dots and build understanding of why this is important, how to take a co-design approach and hopefully in the long run change culture and practice and make inclusive digital transformation how we do things around here.  

The current situation with digital poverty is that there is a lot of it in our country, as a society we don’t want people particularly children to go without access to vital services, communities have acted with compassion and generosity and we have grown a crisis response. Whilst high profile campaigning has influenced some level of government response we haven’t yet turned the tap off at the prevention end. 

The difference in the two campaigns is that there isn't a celebrity hero for digital poverty (yet) and I am not aware of integrated care systems who have picked up food poverty as a whole system issue. If there is, it would be interesting to find out more! 

These two campaigns show us that there is not one way to drive social change; there are many, from grassroots community building to more formal system development, all are important tools in the kit. The Sheila Mckechnie Foundation provides a really useful (and evidence based) frame for understanding how social change works with the social change grid. The key message is that there are lots of different ways to drive social change and that it always begins in civil society, never in government. 

I am left with one final big nagging question. 

Should people seeking social change in the various different symptomatic areas including food and digital poverty be joining forces and focusing on the root cause;  inequality of power, opportunity and income?

PS If you are able to donate devices or cash please do. Find out more at Solidaritech or Digital Access West Yorkshire