Learning from development: how constraint can foster innovation for UK services

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By Kate Wareing, Ethicore Associate


Although it makes me feel old to do the maths, I’ve now accumulated some twenty years of working experience across the UK statutory, not for profit and international development sectors. Whenever I cross over between the UK and development worlds I am struck by how much the work has in common and how little routine cross fertilisation there is between sectors.

Both development and UK charity sectors work with people whose lives are marginal, who are coping with huge insecurity. Learning from each others’ skills and experience offers opportunities to improve outcomes both in the UK and globally. Specifically for constrained UK services, we could look to development for inspiration and innovation for effective outcomes.

So let’s take a look at what I mean:

  1. Focus on assets not needs: In the face of pressure on resources to deliver services to vulnerable people in the UK the policy directive has been to target available resources as accurately as possible on those judged to be in greatest need. Needs assessment has therefore grown, and people have to “prove” their “need” in order to get access to services or help.

Now on the face of it this seems sensible. But when you are trying to recover after a crisis and improve your life the last thing you need is to have to prove how useless you are in order to be able to access the help you need. Focusing on your “needs” rather than your capacities is a profoundly depressing and negative way of framing the world.

The development sector typically starts from the opposite end of the telescope – focusing on “asset based” approaches to development – identifying the skills, capacities and access to resources that people can use as the foundations from which they can develop businesses, build their future security and increase their ability to cope with setbacks.

Both approaches have value in both contexts. But there is huge untapped learning about how we can identify and build capacities to improve outcomes for vulnerable individuals and communities right here in the UK.  So think about focusing on assets.

  1. Plan for resilience: One thing that services in the UK (and their funders) battle to try and reduce is what is known as the “revolving door” phenomena – where clients make progress whilst in a service but then fail to maintain their progress and end up back in services when the next crisis hits. The “revolving door” is no good for people who end up back where they started and no good for the public purse with repeated pressure for already stretched services.

One concept from international development that is just beginning to be talked about in the UK is resilience – how you can help people to increase their ability to survive the next shock. When you’re working with communities whose lives are vulnerable to flooding, to drought, to conflict or are on a knife edge economically the question is all about how the crisis can be survived and how people can be equipped to minimise the impact of the next crisis.  If you’re working in the UK with people whose lives are very fragile,  how can you reduce the domino effect when one crisis precipitates another and another until people are unable to cope and recover? Planning for resilience is planning to stop that door revolving.

3.Take a holistic approach:   UK services are often constructed to address one dimension of people’s lives – their mental health problem, or their homelessness, or their lack of income. What the best of development does very well is examine and then attempt to address the way in which people’s whole lives connect, and then works with communities to try to work out how lives can be improved. I remember a project I visited in Thailand where the project had begun by looking at the impact of an AIDs / HIV diagnosis on people in a particular community. Apart from immediate health needs it was clear that the impact on women was far more acute, as they experienced greater social stigmatisation that often resulted in the collapse of their family relationships and their incomes. It made absolute sense then for work to focus as much on social attitudes to women living with AIDs as on the provision of health care and early diagnosis.

We hear a lot in the UK about the lack of “joined up working”, and there is good evidence that when services are able to behave in a more holistic and “person centred” way that they can achieve better outcomes. We also need to focus on the relationships between people, and how our support structures can add value to people’s own capacities, and those of communities more widely. Taking a holistic approach will pay dividends in outcomes for vulnerable people.

In economically constrained times when services are being cut and people are under pressure learning can be seen as a luxury. Learning from a sector which works in environments of extreme scarcity offers fresh perspectives for the UK  on which we can build improved services and better lives.


Kate Wareing has twenty years experience working across the statutory, charitable and not for profit sectors in housing, social care and international development.  Most recently Director of the UK Poverty Programme at Oxfam , she now advises organisations on strategy development, learning and capacity building.