Harness the power of collective social action for Hong Kong

Bernard Chan sees collective action as the best way to tackle social ills

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

It was a pity that a recent forum in Hong Kong on social reform went largely unreported. The "star" of the show was Lord Wei, the youngest, and only British-born Chinese, member of Britain's House of Lords. He advised Prime Minister David Cameron on his "Big Society" project to tackle social problems, and attracted controversy when he accused some charities of competing too much with each other and being out of touch with the public and donors.

His presentation described how inequality, pollution and other problems led to the rise of civil society in Britain during Victorian times, and to today's system of addressing social problems.

Most of us accept nowadays that social reform requires the state, companies, voluntary organisations and citizens all to play a part. However, Lord Wei went further and argued very persuasively that there needs to be far more integration. Society cannot tackle problems arising from youth unemployment, poor housing or immigration without input and action from groups and individuals genuinely acting together.

Although this might seem obvious, the reality is that people and groups working for social change are extremely splintered, and this is as true in Hong Kong as anywhere else. A case study in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011 described the impressive outcomes of a four-year effort in an area straddling Ohio and Kentucky to improve school results.

The background here is a steady decline in US education standards over several decades, even though countless voluntary and public bodies have spent billions of dollars in charitable donations to reverse the trend.

The big change came when a group of community leaders decided to abandon their individual agendas and work together. This involved several hundred individuals and dozens of local government, educational, business and non-profit and advocacy groups - many of them traditionally focused on specific, often narrow, interests. What they did was assemble all their areas of activity - for example, after-school programmes - agree on targets for each one and form multi-sector teams to work on them all in a united effort.

The "collective impact", as the authors put it, was considerable. The umbrella structure cost US$1.5 million a year, yet co-ordinated organisations with combined budgets of US$7 billion; the potential for a high return is obvious. But it was not easy. Funders had to think beyond individual recipients. Many different players needed to share resources and co-operate in such areas as measuring results. They had to sacrifice some of their traditional autonomy and indeed their traditional aims (or "isolated impact") in favour of the bigger agenda.

I believe Hong Kong badly needs to consider such an approach. Hundreds of non-governmental organisations, community groups and government bodies are involved in trying to solve our social issues. In many cases, a number of organisations are all apparently trying to address the same problem, but all defining it slightly differently and setting different goals. The result must be a serious waste of resources. Indeed, the lack of co-ordination and the small-scale focus must be undermining efforts devoted to solving social problems.

I would not underestimate the challenge of getting groups to combine their agendas and activities. Lord Wei points out that when it comes to government bodies, such an approach could potentially infringe on democratic oversight.

Getting NGOs to co-operate can also be difficult; they value their independence, and some see each other as rivals. But our failure to tackle social problems should tell us all we need to know: "collective impact" may well be the only way to achieve meaningful social progress.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council