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Opinion

John Bird: Offering a hand up may be the best thing you do today

“The Big Issue brings people in need to the marketplace to work and earn, like most people have to do”

Arithmetic lives in all things. You might call it the arithmetic of change.

A Big Issue vendor decides to leave his pitch in a small town. The word goes out that the vendor has had his official badge removed. In the region of 300 people email complaints to The Big Issue at what is seen as an attack on the vendor and his needs.

It’s difficult but we try and get the word out that in fact he has left of his own accord; and that is the right of the vendor. Often people ask us about people who have moved on. And often we have to say they have left and not left indication as to where.

The above little story, though, throws up something that is very sensitive around the work we do. Which is ‘what actually are we doing? Are we placing people in need in a public place in order for people to hand them money? Or are we trying to instil in people a work ethic on the basis that it may well enable them to move on to something better?’

The strange thing about this story is that the seller only sold 60 papers a week. And sometimes even less. So his relationship to many it would seem was that of a beggar.

The Big Issue brings people in need to the marketplace to work and earn, like most people have to do. The fact that people have the means to buy the paper is on most occasions due to the fact that they have earned the money to do so.

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Or, as with pensioners, they have at some stage made the contributions that have enabled them to get a pension, so they are among other things able to buy The Big Issue.

Yet in the case above, what seemed to be happening on most occasions was that The Big Issue was bringing the vendor to the marketplace and people were turning him back into a beggar. Yet most people who we talk to say that what they love about The Big Issue is that it gives people the dignity of not begging.

Take the paper, read it, but don’t forget to pay the vendor first

I always insist that people take the paper, otherwise it does not make sense to parade someone as working, yet in fact they are still relying on handouts.

Take the paper, read it, but don’t forget to pay the vendor first. That is the equation that we developed to get people away from begging. For standing around, waiting for the goodness of the world to descend upon you, is no life at all. It robs you of the chance of developing skills; like looking after your money, learning to sell, learning to live within the means of the money you make.

Begging is begging. Begging leads on most occasions to begging. I know of many Big Issue vendors who have stabilised themselves through selling, and developed and moved on. I know others who have no desire or capacity to move on but they have created themselves a selling niche, selling a product in the marketplace.

Yet I also have known through my long street association many beggars who have been mentally and socially and physically destroyed by being beggars. Fine people, at times strong, at times physically weak, yet all diminished and turned into recipients of people’s illusions that they are helping.

‘Trade not Aid’ was invented by people who worked in Asia and Africa because they could see the destruction wrought by giving aid to nations in crisis. Yet that did not end the crisis because it kept people destitute through dependency.

We operate the same system. ‘Trade not Aid’ works just as well on the streets of Glasgow, Cardiff or Birmingham. Lift people up through the dignity of what they are doing.

I can understand why people may pay over the top for a copy of The Big Issue. That is their choice. But when people just give money and say ‘Keep the paper’, they are only doing some short-term good.

And they are harming our model.

But it could have been different, if we had followed the advice of a woman who in the early days of The Big Issue wrote to me to complain. She was outraged when she spoke to a Big Issue vendor –she found out that the person selling the paper kept the money made; after buying the paper from us.

In short, he was working for his ‘own gain!’ That flew in the face of all her concepts of goodness and charity. She recommended, else she would stop buying, that we collect all the money together and give it out to the poor. In other words: ‘Aid not Trade’.

We did not follow the model she recommended. We backed the robustness of our own programme: to give people the chance to earn their own money. And give them the chance by this of ending their exclusion outside of society.

And that is what we continue to struggle to do. To stick to the principle that we are here to help people to help themselves by earning their own money. I know of many people, including myself, who have been enabled by this simple device. ‘A hand up not a handout’ is the wisest and toughest and most rewarding thing you can give someone today.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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