Wednesday, 10 August 2011

In which I wish the Joseph Rowntree Foundation would take its prejudices elsewhere than Bradford

Although the Joseph Rowntree Foundation does some good research it is sadly blind to the reality of its ‘poverty-mongering’ in Bradford. Over the past few years, JRF has run a “Bradford programme”:

Working in partnership with others to make a positive difference to the people in the city, and improve our understanding of issues in a diverse community.

All very worthy and so typical of JRF’s approach but I worry that, by beginning with a prejudice about the city and by immersing itself in the places and people that reinforce that prejudice, the charity do the City a disfavour.

So what is that prejudice JRF open with? It comes in three parts:

1.       Caricaturing Bradford as a place dominated by and fractured by issues of race and cohesion. JRF’s assumption is that they are “challenging existing stereotypes” when, in truth, they reinforce the stereotype of a racially-divided city
2.       Defining the city in terms of its victim status – its poverty, its crime and its struggle. This is the mindset that transformed a confident city into what we have today, the view that others – governments, business, ‘leadership’ – are responsible for the problem and that its resolution lies not in enterprise but in “getting our fair share of resources”
3.       Ignoring, absolutely and complete, the city’s suburbs and the villages that surround the urban core. JRF do not venture in their work to explore the lives of ordinary people in Queensbury, in Sandy Lane, in Baildon or in Apperley Bridge. Indeed, at times these people seem to be view as suspicious bystanders rather than contributors to the wealth and success of Bradford

None of this is to say that JRF’s work is ill-meant but it is to observe that, despite the years working in Bradford, the charity has clung limpet-like to its initial prejudice regardless of the evidence that it is a false description of the City. Evidence of higher rates of business creation, increased levels of self-employment and rising community aspirations are pushed aside as they do not fit with the predetermined view of Bradford as a victim, as a place of poverty.

JRF also remains wedded to qualitative research placing greater emphasis on the remarks of residents than on the gathering of data. Nowhere within this multi-million pound set of studies can I find robust, quantitative research conducted to look at Bradford’s problems. Rather than seeking to measure and assess – as good researchers should – JRF can only see to ‘participate’ and ‘engage’.

Such research methods – embedded deeply into the place studied – are not without their value if what we’re about is understanding culture, values and behaviours. But if, as JRF proclaim, they are seeking to guide the City towards better policy-making then we are navigating by asking random people for directions rather than using a map.

And just so you don’t think I’m making all this up, let me show you the evidence of the first caricature of Bradford – the pathology of racial politics – from a JRF funded project, JUST West Yorkshire: (this is from a e-mail bulletin – the website is very out-of-date)

As the disorder spreads to other London boroughs, residents of Bradford, Oldham and Burnley are probably reliving the divisive legacy of the Northern disturbances which strained community relationships and created a breach between the police and Asian communities who metaphorically sold their shares in the police as public confidence dipped.  If we are to draw any lessons from Bradford’s 2001 Disturbances then it must be that an effective policy response will not be found through recourse to simplistic rhetoric – whether it be about parallel and segregated communities in 2001 or about the increasing gun and knife ‘criminality’ among African-Caribbean youth in 2011 - but by sustained engagement with multiple and complex social problems.

This comes from the latest of this organisation’s left-wing diatribes and, in a sort of Trotskyite conclusion these folk say:

The rioters in Tottenham have just sent out their own message from the 'social market index' trading in public trust and confidence: between them, swingeing public sector cuts and Big Society tokenism have all meant the government has already defaulted on its obligations to the people of Britain. The big question is whether the government will be able to hear this message over the chatter between Wall Street and the City and – even if it does – whether it is capable of abandoning its ideological fixation with zombie neo-liberalism and, instead, invest in fostering the bonds of community. If it fails to do so then the hot money must surely be on the further growth of the already massive deficit in social harmony - and the consequent emergence of the Big Bad Society.

I suppose JRF will claim distance from this nonsense but for my part I want them to take responsibility for the prejudice they spawn. Maybe, Julia Unwin is happy to support those who would excuse away riot, violence and looting as some form of legitimate protest, but I would rather she took JRF’s cash and spent it elsewhere than Bradford.


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