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Reflections on Glasgow’s Healthier Future Forum 14: supporting asset based approaches

20 February 2013

I was very heartened, on 30th January, to be part of a full conference room of over 150 people all keen to learn more about asset values and thinking and asset based approaches. And I was equally keen to hear how they understood the significance of the values, ideas and the practice as it evolves in Scotland. I appreciated the positive stories from the three showcased projects that are building on the strengths and achievements of people who so often are seen only through the lens of their past or current problems:

Rag Tag ‘n’ Textile: a social enterprise working based on traditional textiles for people recovering from mental health problems.

Columba 1400: a social enterprise and charity focused on developing and realising young people’s potential.

Urban Roots: a community-led project focused on gardening, growing and the environment.

For me, asset thinking or values is primarily about a ‘way of seeing the world’. The biggest challenge and the source of lasting social change comes when we really start to see the people we work with – as well as ourselves – as people who are ‘half full’ more than ‘half empty’. We all have strengths, resources, passions, experiences, networks and capacity – factors that contribute to our wellbeing. For too long the factors that create and support human health have been undermined and undervalued and the focus has been on (some of) the things that make us ill. Respect for people and their health-giving assets can be lost when we slip into defining people by their ‘problems’, as defined by population level epidemiological data and clinical priorities.

Some of the talk about asset based approaches has become separated from its cultural, conceptual and philosophical roots. Asset mapping, community development and community projects that aim to improve self-worth, for instance, can all be implemented without absorbing, and reflecting on, the challenge of asset values. They can become new techniques and projects that are added to the repertoire of public health interventions, targeted at problems or groups of people who are defined by their deficits. They lose sight of the material realities of people’s lives that underpin health-giving assets and psychosocial factors. So long as people do not have the housing, income and jobs on which a lasting sense of self-worth and empowerment is built, we will have to run projects that build self-worth over and over again. Resilience is more than a skill that can be learned; it cannot be divorced from an ongoing experience of control, resources and meaning that sustains it.

Lynne Friedli’s article ‘What we’ve tried hasn’t worked’: the politics of assets based public health reminds us eloquently of the dangerous “paradox of recent epidemiology that as material inequalities grow, so the pursuit of non-material explanations for health outcomes proliferates”1. Asset based thinking and approaches can indeed function to avoid questions of economic power and its relation to inequalities in health. But valuing assets and seeing their importance in health and wellbeing is not an alternative to doing something about needs and inequalities – on the contrary, it challenges us to rethink our services so they respect and sustain the health-giving assets and resources of individuals, families and communities. And it challenges us to make use of our professional assets and speak out against policies that deprive communities of those assets – both material and psychosocial.


Reference

1. Friedli L. ‘What we’ve tried hasn’t worked’: the politics of assets based public health. Critical Public Health 2012. DOI:10.1080/09581596.2012.748882

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About the author

Jane Foot Freelance consultant and writer

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Jane Foot is a freelance consultant and author of Glass Half Full (2010) and What Makes us Healthy (2012) (available at www.janefoot.co.uk). She is currently working with Trevor Hopkins and Simon Rippon on a commission from the Health Foundation to research the evidence for asset based approaches.

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