Preventing harm: time for action
Photo credit: estherase
January 8, 2013 // By: Anna Coote
Most of us agree that harm and waste are best avoided. If we can, we should try to stop people getting ill, injured, robbed or cheated, being thrown out of work or otherwise deprived of the means to live a good life. If we can, we should prevent needless waste of public money and natural resources, stop the build-up of greenhouse gases and narrow the rapidly widening gap between rich and poor. But in fact we do very little. And whatever we do individually is massively outweighed by the inertia of public and private institutions at local, national and global levels.
That’s why nef wants a debate about prevention: what it means, how it’s done, why it’s not done and what will help to shift investment and action ‘upstream’ – not waiting to cope with damage once it’s done, but tackling the source of the problem to stop it happening in the first place. This shift will be essential if we are to make the Great Transition to a sustainable future.
The Prevention Papers, published today by nef, marks a new phase in the debate. Drawing together the work of distinguished experts, this collection offers new insights and recommendations for policy and practice:
1. A systemic and co-ordinated approach to prevention across society, environment and economy
Actions today that exhaust natural resources, contribute to global warming and leave legacies of poverty and powerlessness harm the life-chances of future generations. For prevention to be sustainable over the long term, we must build policy and practice across these fields.
2. A better understanding of barriers to prevention and how it can be realised in practice
Ideologies, vested interests and the culture and power of institutions all create barriers to preventing harm. Preventive policies are more likely to prevail when the harm is bigger than the cost of the preventing it; when the time-lag between action and harm is short; when there is strong proof of the causal link between action and harm; and when there is some evidence that the intended action will be effective. A strong scientific consensus, persuasive moral arguments, active social movements and statutory targets can all play an important part in realising preventive policies.
3. An upstream, positive approach to prevention and an awareness of unintended consequences
Without tackling the underlying causes of harm, problems may seem to be ‘solved’ in the short term, but they will re-emerge later. If the causes of a problem are wrongly identified, actions aimed at prevention may make matters worse. For example, where developers try to prevent people’s fear of crime by building high walls and installing CCTV cameras, they can make people feel more fearful, insecure and isolated.
4. New incentives and policy mechanisms to support prevention
New incentives are needed to overcome deep structural barriers, including: national ten-year spending plans, early action transition plans, treating spending on prevention as capital investment, better information on long-term costs and benefits, and a cross-party ‘transition commission’.
5. New ways of valuing and measuring prevention and its consequences
Measuring social and environmental value over the longer term helps to illuminate the full effects of prevention and how to overcome barriers. It shows, for example, that ‘upstream’ measures to enhance social mobility, reduce child poverty and tackle income and wealth disparities are likely to be more effective than targeted benefits or post-hoc tax adjustments.
6. Support from a broad alliance of policymakers and practitioners, communities and citizens
A ‘hearts and minds’ strategy is needed to influence decision-makers and shift attitudes in favour of an upstream, positive prevention agenda. A truly preventive society requires change from the bottom up. People will need information, education, advocacy and leadership to help make this happen. And since prevention is often a complex problem, it is important to bring moral arguments to the fore.
The Prevention Papers are written by Ian Gough, Michael Jacobs, Anna Minton and Jody Aked, David Robinson and Will Horwitz, and Helen Kersley and Anna Coote. The collection is edited and introduced by Anna Coote and Mike Harris.