The Big Issue with narrow focus

I’ve started reading the Peter Senge’s classic tome, The 5th Discipline this week. It’s a book which I have had for about a year, and has been consistently circling my sphere of influence for a while now. The book talks about how we can solve many of the issues we face in business (and thus, by extension, the world) by taking a whole-of-system approach to problem solving. I’m about a quarter of the way through, and loving it so far. But, the book has also come about as I made an observation this week whilst working in the city. As many of you would know, Melbourne is a town that fully supports the concept that is “The Big Issue,” the magazine which is sold by those that are homeless to help them support themselves. The magazine is fantastic, and a great initiative that is now a national initiative. But, it appears it may now be reaching the limits of its own success.

A friend of mine, Nat, was recently in Vanuatu as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development working to help a non-profit organisation develop good business practices to further help lead their clients towards a better living. One of Nat’s pearls from her time in country was how things that we’re successful because they were different and innovative at a point in time, actually became so popular that their returns diminished quickly for the rest of the community, simply because the whole community was doing it. In Nat’s experience, it was goats.

Goats provide enormous relief and opportunity to small communities in developing countries. They provide milk and all of its by-products, as well as other goats and meat when the goat ‘comes of age.’ Unfortunately, as more and more people witness the success had by those people that had goats, more and more people would find a way to secure their own. The result? A community full of goats and an excess of supply of all its products. Because we find it difficult to think beyond our own situations, these examples tend to replicate in society. To me, something similar is now happening with The Big Issue and it’s sale. The program has been enormously successful, but is seemingly (to me) becoming a victim of its own success. There seems to be a Big Issue vendor on the corner of each city block now, including 4 on each corner at the intersection of Elisabeth and Bourke St.

To me, I wonder how sustainable this is for those people selling the magazine. Increasingly, these heroic people have become marginalised by their own relief and are now spending more and more time on the street to sell less and less magazines per person. I ask, have we suffered the same results as those in Vanuatu? Do we have too many goats and not enough of a market? In a more systemic view of the situation, what else could our society’s marginalised people be doing? Will they be able to come to a new conclusion themselves, or will they simply continue to sell less and less magazines until they find it completely unsustainable? What are your thoughts? And how could we find a more systemic solution that solved one of society’s greatest problems?

2 thoughts on “The Big Issue with narrow focus”

  1. interesting, I had never thought of the situation like this. I certainly noticed that there was a Big Issue seller on most street corners, but just never thought deep enough about what impact this had on their livelihood. I’m not sure what else they could be doing – I guess looking at the root of why they were out on the street and homeless in the first place would be a good start! I guess that’s what organisations like Urban Seed and the like are trying to do, it’s just a huge issue that won’t go away over night.

    Thanks for opening my mind up a bit deeper to this issue – I will think of it every time I see a Big Issue seller, as it’s bound to be even more now that I’ll be working in the city centre🙂

  2. Hi Shan,

    Urban Seed do some good work. I’m trying really hard to see the underlying systems of our problems at the moment. Sometimes it works, sometimes, I struggle immensly! Let me know here if you see any further examples in your travels🙂

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