One of the three main themes in Building a Sustainable Future is the economic potential of Scottish communities. In this article, Oxfam’s Dr Katherine Trebeck examines the future prospects of the national economy with particular regard to the potential for meaningfully challenging existing levels of poverty and inequality.

Winners and losers in the new Scottish economy

Scottish society is deeply divided: ‘wealthy and secure neighbourhoods are situated next to the most deprived and vulnerable communities [where]… inequality is tangible’. In these communities, the economic and social policies of the last two to three decades have been largely ineffective in reducing deprivation.

The roots of Scotland’s poverty and inequality are both historical and structural. In recent decades, the economy has shifted from one based on manufacturing to a service-led, supposedly ‘knowledge economy,’ with retail and call centres expanding as manufacturing declines. Glasgow, for example, was once the second city of the British Empire. Now it is Britain’s second biggest shopping destination.

But in response to economic restructuring and persistent poverty, antipoverty policy in Scotland (and the UK) has tended to prioritise only narrow economic growth policies, emphasising employment and physical regeneration. Strong communities seem to be valued because they can contribute to economic growth, rather than the other way round. Work has been seen as the route out of poverty – with the responsibility for becoming employed firmly resting on the individual, who must acquire the skills and behaviours that will make them attractive to employers.

An increase in employment is also equated by government with an increase in social wellbeing, without consideration of the quality of the jobs created, nor an understanding of the broader determinants ofwellbeing beyond work. But, due to poor quality work, people often work excessive hours to make ends meet.

‘The meaning of regeneration has changed. It used to be about ordinary people and about community, but over the last seven years it has become more and more about the big industries. Local communities don’t benefit as much. The language of regeneration has changed and so has the focus.’ – Sammy

While the development of business parks and infrastructure under the ambit of regeneration has brought in new business to low-income areas, creation of new jobs in an area does not necessarily equate with a reduction in local unemployment. Programmes centred on physical improvements of certain areas have, despite decades of considerable investment, failed to significantly reverse the relative fortunes of disadvantaged communities. Vulnerable people have not been assisted in gaining relevant skills on a sufficient scale, nor have the jobs created been sufficiently relevant to the needs of local people.

The new sectors are ‘highly feminised and require personal and customer servicing skills that do not necessarily match up with a workforce more attuned to, and indeed socialised into, manual blue collar labour’. Local people are instead expected to engage as consumers and as customers rather than as community members. Individuals, it seems, must increase their employability, be more flexible, more mobile, and participate more actively in the consumption-based economy.

‘Regeneration has changed, its more about attracting banking, shopping, rather than going out to change the lives of those who don’t have enough.’ -Lorraine

The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach – and the contradition it reveals

Oxfam’s analysis of poverty around the world and in the UK uses the ‘Sustainable Livelihoods Approach’. Individuals, families, communities, and societies are considered to require five types of assets – financial assets (income, services, and capital), human assets (skills, talent, health), social assets (relationships and support networks), environmental assets (local and green space, wider natural resources), and physical assets (infrastructure, equipment, and transport) – to prevent poverty and vulnerability over the long term.

In vulnerable communities the most important asset available to families and individuals is their family relationships and social networks. These social assets enable poor families and individuals to share resources, helping them to even out fluctuating fortunes and cope in difficult circumstances. There is evidence of more mutual aid (informal volunteering) undertaken in poor communities than in affluent communities. The only dimension of wellbeing in which lower social grades report greater satisfaction than higher social grades is community.

‘Each street used to be a village; as all families used to be in the same areas childcare was not an issue… Everyone supported each other – you could borrow money from each other until the other person got paid.’ -Anne Marie

It is therefore ironic, at best, that the flexibility demanded of the new economy, built around conspicuous, consumption, depends on the social assets of those communities which are increasingly excluded from this new economy. Recent economic development in Scotland and the
UK positions individuals as cheap, flexible labour, akin to just-in-time inventory, available when business needs and expendable when it does not.

This paradoxically relies on the crucial support systems in poor communities and, simultaneously, threatens to destroy them. The ability to work long hours at short notice may only be possible
because of good relations with neighbours who can help with childcare, for example. But trust, relationships, and reciprocity are undermined by hyper-consumerism, status-driven consumption, and individual instant gratification through material acquisition.

A society seems to be emerging in Scotland where esteem and selfworth are derived from acquisition, material consumption, and perceived status, rather than from relationships, mutuality, or the pursuit of equality. Those who are excluded from this conception of success – who simply cannot access it – are blamed, ‘othered’, further ostracised through punitive conditionality placed on receipt of citizenship entitlements, and their contribution to society questioned because it is valued in purely economic terms.

Being poor in Scotland means being in a minority in a rich and unequal society, made worse by inaccessibility of the dominant mode of socioeconomic development. This feeds health inequalities and, ultimately, gaps in life expectancy akin to those between the developed and
developing world.

So what next?

But Oxfam believes that it is possible to overcome poverty. As the sixth richest country in the world we certainly have adequate resources to do so. The solution lies in allocating these resources in a more effective and sustainable way, and choosing different models of social and economic development. People’s livelihoods need to be strengthened to withstand shocks and build assets. This requires more than just economic growth and employment, but actions that enhance the environment, foster community relationships, and contribute to learning and skill development.

Reappraising the structure and goals of our economy requires appropriate measures of progress and success. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is insufficient to measure changes in sustainability, equality and quality of life. A nuanced and more representative measure of progress is vital in recording and examining our shift to an equitable, green economy. Oxfam is leading an effort to create such a measure – the Humankind Index (

Through widespread public consultation, the Index will enable Scotland to measure itself by those aspects of life that make a real difference to people. Measures based on the values of a society rather than the views of an elite will enable governments to focus on what really matters, taking more informed decisions about the current situation and where society wants to go, and what trade-offs are required.

List of References

Bamfield, Louise & Horton, Tim (2009). ‘Understanding Attitudes to Tackling Economic Inequality’. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, (ed.) Findings. York. (downloaded April 20, 2010)

Crawford, Fiona, Beck, Shelia & Hanlon, Phil (2007). Will Glasgow Flourish? Learning from the Past, Analysing the Present and Planning for the Future, Glasgow Centre for Population Health, Glasgow.

Disanto, Sara (2007). ‘Different in Scotland? Public Attitudes to Poverty’. Poverty Alliance (ed.) Poverty Alliance Briefing. Glasgow. (downloaded April 9, 2009)

Helms, Gesa & Cumbers, Andy (2005). ‘Regulating the New Urban Poor: Local Labour Market Control in an Old Industrial City’. Centre for Public for Policy for Regions (ed.) Discussion Paper. Glasgow. (downloaded January 25, 2010)

Jackson, Tim (2009). ‘Prosperity Without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable Economy’. Sustainable Development Commission (ed.). London. (downloaded July 8, 2010)

Orr, Sheena, Brown, Greg, Smith, Sue, et al. (2006). ‘When Ends Don’t Meet: Assets, Vulnerabilities and Livelihoods – An Analysis of Householder in Thornaby-on-Tees’. Church Action on Poverty, Thrive & Oxfam (eds.). Manchester

Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate (2009). The Spirit Level – Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Allen Lane: London.

i Disanto (2007)
ii Crawford et al. (2007): 25
iii Helms and Cumbers (2005)
iv Orr et al. (2006)
v Defra (2007) cited in Jackson (2009): 40
vi See Wilkinson and Pickett (2009)
vii Bamfield and Horton (2009)