Many years ago I visited Sri Lanka as the guest of a local church minister.
While showing me a project to improve the living standards of poor labourers in the tea-planting region of Nuwara Eliya, he observed: ‘God is on the side of the poor. They wouldn’t survive at all otherwise.’
If you were to make a comparable observation from a non-religious perspective, you’d notice how those who have least will often demonstrate more hope and determination than those laden with the good things of life.
Part of it is about survival, but there’s more to it than that: struggles for justice have always been rooted in the lives of the poor.
David Blunkett, the former home secretary, made a similar point at the annual meeting of the Key Fund, which works with community groups and social enterprises in Yorkshire.
His recent focus on social mobility – an issue each of the mainstream parties now sees as a test of effective social policy – stems from a concern that people should be allowed to realise their talents.
Government, central and local, has a vital role to play in keeping hope alive, and it’s often funding for the smallest and most apparently insignificant projects that convinces people that the struggle is worth it.
The Key Fund can show what that means in practice. There’s a project in Harehills, Leeds, to convert a former school into accommodation for local entrepreneurs: without the Key Fund’s belief, backed by money, it would have been stillborn as other funders waited for somebody to commit first.
There’s Micky B’s Community Café, in a village near Doncaster once described by the Daily Mail as ‘the village of the damned’ because of the incidence of heroin addiction.
When others were ready to pull the plug, the Key Fund stepped in because it saw local people’s belief and potential.
For most of the last decade there have been schemes that have put faith in the potential of the poorest. Most have been short-lived, scattergun, burdened by bureaucracy and quietly wound up whenever the next big idea clanks onto the political stage.
But when they have been given the opportunity, they have generated self-belief, mobilised and motivated local people, and turned despair into hope.
What we know about hope, though, is that it doesn’t spring eternal. For most people, there’s a finite number of brick walls you can bash your head against.
To keep hope alive requires an equal determination to achieve change within structures that too frequently act as agents of disappointment. And that change depends not on a few philanthropists or visionary politicians, but on creating a culture among officials of believing in ordinary people’s potential.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine