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  • Rose Challies

Please stop saying there is a 'solution' to social 'problems'


It has become common practice for people talking about social problems, especially in the charitable, social enterprise and non-profit sectors to say - 'it's about finding a solution to the problem'. Although this is arguably normal to say within business or a good catchphrase for a product, it is simply not appropriate for social need. If someone is saying they have a solution to a social problem, then they do not fully understand the need.

First, calling social need a 'problem' is misleading. It is not a 'question that can be answered', it is more accurately a situation, a set of conditions, that has arisen by the lack of one or more things. When social issues are looked at as a situation rather than a problem, there is a much different approach taken. Instead of trying to work out one critical factor or a 'solution', people look at the multiple facets of the situation and how these can be collectively addressed. It honours the complexity of the need and encourages people to get to the root cause/s.

Secondly, encouraging people to find a 'solution' to a social problem creates static ideas i.e. it invariably results in a product, a service or an approach that will work in the present. It rarely acknowledges that the needs of people and environments are extremely dynamic, sometimes changing dramatically and incredibly quickly.

Also, needs are not just dynamic, they are also often complex beyond comprehension (especially if requiring fundamental systemic change) and rarely do they require a quick fix. Social needs must be addressed for sure but it is really unhelpful for this to be translated as finding a solution. They need to be collectively addressed for real change. To put it simply - loads of people need to work in different ways, dynamically, to stop or reduce suffering in the future.

Thirdly, a solution suggests that you've cracked it - you sorted that problem out and it no longer exists. It also suggests the problem is singular; one problem with one answer. It simplifies the issues and largely ends up with sticky plaster solutions. It's great for people who want to claim big impacts in short amounts of time, such as politicians with often impossible timelines to make any progress with social need, or for organisations who want to overplay their role in society and encourage donations. But it does not help at all to address social need in reality. Organisations would be much better placed for their own success and integrity, to work out what contribution they are going to make and commit to this.

For example, consider a basic social need such as shelter. Rarely is the issue just about building a roof over someone's head. An organisation helping with shelter must ask questions such as...

Why is there a need for shelter?

Who are the people in need? How did they get to the situation of no shelter?

Are the people actually wanting shelter? If not, why not?

What are those without shelter saying they need most?

Why is the state/government not providing shelter - a basic need for every human being? How is this not being prioritised over other issues? Are people passing on the buck as to who has responsibility for this e.g. our hands are tied, our budget has been cut... Who is owning the issue?

Are there hidden shelter issues such as people who look like they have a home but in fact their shelter is substandard or inadequate, such as several families sharing accommodation that is too small for even one family?

Once a roof is provided, is that the only thing needed or is it simply a short term intervention, a sticky plaster solution?

Is the shelter prompting more issues to arise e.g. there aren't enough basic facilities around to provide for the people living there?

And this is just the beginning of the questions for an organisation trying to address shelter. They also need to consider who else is helping to provide shelter, do they need to work with them, does their work overlap? Also, who is creating barriers to help being provided, who may even be actively hindering support? For example, it has been known for property developers to hinder community projects for shelter because they want to buy the land for development/profit. The list of considerations goes on!

The result of all considerations will not be an organisation that finds a solution to the shelter problem but rather an organisation that identifies how it can effectively contribute to addressing support of those in need of shelter for the short to long term. That is, the best role their organisation can play to address the need effectively.

Fourthly, by setting out with the mindset that there is a 'solution' to a social problem, it is very likely that the way in which the work is measured will also be too simplistic. Indicators will underplay far more complex contributions and understate challenges and/or barriers that have existed or continue to exist. It is much more likely that big claims will be made and the real situation that continues is hidden from view. Social need requires meaningful measurement that acknowledges the very human nature of the need being addressed, and shows the real progress being made. This means measurement methods will show the contribution of the organisation to social change, recognise the other work being carried out and clearly show the dynamic context in which the need has been and will be addressed in the future.

Contribute, lead the way, align your work to addressing need but please don't say you're providing the 'solution' to a social 'problem'. Be respectful of those tirelessly doing the groundwork; quietly and effectively providing the critical foundations for change. Align to them, collectively raise the voice of the need and the action required - don't simplify the issues and detract resources from its core.

See social need as it is, real and often complex. Assess the situation, recognise how dynamic it is. Be determined to help align people addressing the need, avoid assumptions, see the gaps and get to the heart of the issues. This is where social change is born.

Article Updated 11 June 2019

#socialneed #socialchange #socialimpact #socialproblem #socialsolutions #charitycollaboration #socialenterprisepartnership

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