Watts: What if COVID-19 was an opportunity to fix long-standing complex social challenges?

Published Dec. 4, 2020 12:27 p.m. ET
Updated Dec. 4, 2020 12:36 p.m. ET

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MONTREAL -- The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the awareness of the fragility of our social safety net and put a spotlight on a number of complex social problems. Hunger, poverty and homelessness are on the rise.

With the current uncertainties in many economic sectors that are likely to continue well beyond 2021, this will most likely disproportionately impact several our fellow citizens. These growing needs threaten to inundate our collective ability to respond. If we keep trying to do what we have done in the past, which is to pour money into expensive patches rather than invest in solutions, we will overwhelm the social support network in Canada for years to come.

In the past 50 years, as a consequence of the absence of a clear and well-coordinated plan, the result has been that the community-based non-profit network is stuck in a “starvation cycle,” always having to beg for the resources to survive in order to serve people in need.

We are now seeing that, notwithstanding all the good intentions, thousands of disconnected, under-resourced efforts cannot adequately resolve complex problems like hunger, poverty, violence, isolation or chronic homelessness.

There is an urgent need to reimagine the ecosystem that has evolved now so that we can properly address, once we are out of the current crisis, a number of complex social challenges that should not exist in our country.

Four key steps could guide us towards sustainable solutions:

A shared definition of the challenge: The pandemic has demonstrated that it is time to agree on the most critical social challenges and accurately define them. If we fail to identify the root of a problem then we will treat the symptom rather than the cause.

A good example is food insecurity. The fact that we have struggled to define the problem has resulted in the explosive growth of “downstream” responses (like food banks) rather than solution oriented “upstream” responses that would have addressed the multiple causes of food insecurity.

Accurate measurement systems: For most of the 20th century, there were very few data collection or measurement systems in place in the community sector. The result has been that we do not know important facts - like how much money is currently being spent to address the challenge of homelessness or food insecurity.

We also have limited information about the pervasiveness of hunger because many people access multiple food security sources and some who need food never go to a food bank and are not being counted.

Alignment of plans and local services: One of the major obstacles to resolving complex social problems is that they crossover or transcend jurisdictions and government departments. This has resulted in disjointed planning and uneven implementation.

A major initiative, like ending chronic homelessness, requires one well-crafted plan - not six or eight independent plans. This means that federal, provincial and municipal plans need to be folded into a single plan and specific community partners engaged in the process and the implementation phases of the plan.

In addition, the fiercely independent, local charitable organizations that currently serve vulnerable people cannot deliver the outcomes that they envision if they operate in silos and compete for resources. The new model for community-based non-profits needs to feature interdependence and specialization so that a well-coordinated continuum of services can be delivered to those in need.

A financially coherent funding model: Uneven and inadequate funding mechanisms of the past need to be courageously abandoned. Why? Because they have proven to be inadequate and will not serve the emerging requirements of the 21st century.

It isn’t about spending more, but about spending more intentionally. Funding in the future must be designed to support activities that drive outcomes – not just emergency services.

A new funding model needs to be designed to place more emphasis on prevention and the support required after an emergency has been dealt with. It must include accountability so that we ensure that resources deployed actually help people transform their realities. 

Rarely in our history do we face crises like the one we are currently experiencing. I therefore implore all of us to use this crisis as an opportunity to change. Most of our complex social problems are entirely solvable – if we are determined to solve them.

Sam watts
Chairman and CEO
Welcome Hall Mission

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