I’ve just been watching the first episode of Ian Hislop’s The Age of the Do-Gooders on BBC 2.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, being interviewed on this programme, said that the trap we, as a society, find ourselves in today is that the problems we face become downward spirals because they are so big. Our economy is struggling, we face major public service cuts, the global economy has major problems, there are huge international threats to peace and security, and the global threats from climate change are all overwhelming; and the common reaction is to think there is nothing we can do to solve any of these problems, so it’s not worth trying. As a result, the problems are addressed by fewer people, and the problems get worse.
He then said that he thought the Victorian Do-Gooders would say to this situation, “Do the small thing you can do” because “small things are worth doing” and lots of small improvements will accumulate into the big change that is needed.
The Do-Gooders in the programme did lots of good things: abolishing the slave trade, campaigning for high standards in medical surgery and other professions, making the Civil Service impartial and recruited through examination rather than patronage, running profitable clothing mills which provided decent housing and education for workers and their families, preaching an Evangelical Christianity that required people to do things for their city and for the good of others, and establishing social housing for the first time.
The criticism now of these Do-Gooders is that they went about their work by wielding power, being paternalistic and patronising, telling people what is good for them, and forcing them to conform to this.
As ever, my solution is to “Do the small thing you can do” in a Community Development way. Work from the ground up, starting where people are, helping them find out for themselves that what they think they need may not be best for them, and helping them help themselves to implement their ‘owned’ changes. And yes, to act at the small level, because that is achievable, but also because the ‘small’ matters. And maybe with lots of small changes, the big problems will be solved.