Community Activists Network
The news this week featured stories about cuts to charities being made by local authorities. The government's response was to talk about all it was doing to make voluntary and community groups less dependent on the state.
I've heard this line before and it really makes me cross. So I posted this response - Cuts, dependency & neo-liberal nonsense.
Nick Beddow suggested this might be worth starting a new discussion on....so here it is.
My view is that far from being dependent on the state, charities are basically propping the state up with our huge (voluntary) contribution to supporting those in need. If we did not do this, the state would have to. So who is dependent on whom?
Or...are we all part of a mutually dependent eco-system where charities, the state, the private sector and communities cannot exist without each other?
And if so what does that mean for how we work and engage with government, the private sector and others?
be good to hear your thoughts.
Hi Toby, I read your thoughts on posterous and thought I would chip in with a few comments of my own.
Charities have always played a role stepping in where needs are being unmet by the state. In fact before the development of the modern welfare state post 1945, charities where quite often carrying out what are normally considered to be roles of the state. As populations have grown and larger societal needs developed, it was far more sensible and appropriate for the state to take over the functions of what some charities were doing to avoid a patchwork of service delivery and develop universal services such as social services. This happened on different levels so there was always a quasi relationship between state and charities. Certain charities have always continued to be at least part financially supported by the state, some far much greater than others, whilst other charities have prefered to maintain a bigger arms length away from state intervention.
The issue at the moment is that the widely held belief is of course that the Government line of reducing charities state dependency is a convenient cover story about saving money and providing an alternative excuse for cuts and reduce the defecit. It is quite telling that the Government are also placing so much faith on encouraging more people to foster a bigger culture of public charitable giving at a time of increasing economic austerity. Perhaps far too long some charitable organisations have become far too dependent upon state funding to operate and maybe more independence of mind is required. As ever the issue is of timescale. When there are little alternative sources of funding available who picks up the pieces when the money runs out?
Equally the Government should also be remembered that certain charitable organisations such as Mountain Rescue teams and the RNLI (which are purely voluntary) don't receive any state funding whatsoever and it would cost millions for the state to step in and provide the same quality of service; two perfect examples of where the state is totally dependent upon the charity sector in providing a service to the public.
From the point of view of social return on investment it would be fairly easy to build up a business case as to why government should support charities because it would cost them more if they didn't. Sadly this is one econoimic lesson that might not be learned until its too late a few years from now.
This is pretty nuanced stuff. It seems to me that if citzens are dependent on the state to do for them the things that they are most competent to do when organised into powerful communities, then that's unhelpful and create a crushing dependency that is also a form of oppression. If professionals in a helping role wherever may hail from are active in trying to act as a surrogate for community agency or voice then they are proping the state up alright, on the back of citizens that they have relegated to status of clients of their services.
Arguing that the voluntary sector is meeting the needs the state would otherwise not be able to airbrushes citizens out of the equation or at least deflates their role in addressing their own and each others needs, and worse yet inflates the role of professionals. I think there is a fundamental role for civil society groups and they must be supported to survive but the case for their survival must be frame careful lest we inadvertantly create a whole new kind of dependency...
I think there is a culture of top down rule by discord, or divide and rule by setting the 'paradigm ' under which we 'negotiate' for scraps. The neo-liberal paradigm that tries to reduce life to a single bottom line is one that has become to dominate over the 'public service' or 'co-operative and mutual aid' paradigms most members of this network probably prefer.
The story has become one of conflict and competition over scarcity. Not about building social capital, the asset based approach to community development or collective resilience.
If the voluntary sector...
...which can be described by a huge number of names from civil society to charitable to third sector to direct social action to the social economy (the latter being my favourite catch all) ...
...is only seeing itself in relation to its role supporting government...
...and in competition for its grants or contracts...
...it misses a trick about about valuing its own strength and its potential autonomy.
Its important to take a whole life approach too, and reduce the 'millions' down into real human sums for it to make some sense.
It costs around £5000 for the state to provide a school place for a year. (so around £50,000 to educate a young person from 5-15.)
It costs around £80,000 to keep a young person in protective care or cutody. If they are in that situation at age 16 or so, they are likely (though not inevitably) to cost the taxpayer many hundreds of thousands over the next few years ...as they revolve in and out of the criminal justice system/benefits/rehab/health services etc.
So it makes sense to fund a youth service.
Its less important whether the state or the social economy delivers that service.
But big services that have geographic catchments like schools tend to be more efficient for the public sector to provide. Running smaller institutions offering service to communities of interest like care homes, befriending or youth clubs is what the social economy does well by its proximity.
But don't forget the charitable model itself can be a breeding ground of dependancies... A charity can become part of the revolving door support structure...
it can stigmatise a community by unasked for hand-outs...
or be a patronising sticking plaster that absolves those that 'donate' from taking on real social responsibility - like paying a fair level of taxation to pay for an essential public service.
Or we can be more self-directing (finding innovative new approaches to solving need by being close to or led by its beneficiaries). Or campaiging, changing the law through its challenge.
A lot depends on the culture within each unique organisation and on the leadership on which it can draw. Not the professionalism, though that is important in complex situations. The style of leadership and the kind of stories its puts out really matters... it defines if its an empowering organisation that builds a culture of learning and reflection for example?
Hi Cormac, Jez, Simon
Really interesting comments. Thanks. Some further reflections from me…..
Of course we don’t want a culture of dependency that weakens the capability of citizens to self organise and do things to realise their ambitions for their communities. And I would agree that in some areas, the experience of being ‘done to’ through top-down regeneration initiatives have dulled people’s sense of agency and purpose. However, as I’m sure you would agree, that’s not an irreparable situation and there is considerable appetite even in the most disaffected communities to improve things.
But I think there is a difference between receiving state funding and having everything delivered on a plate (often in a way which is not sensitive to local needs and ambition). I do not see any problem (in principle) with charities receiving state funding and doing things for themselves – particularly if the public body providing the funding is intelligently commissioning (and not interfering with how the charity should operate).
I think charities and public bodies can operate in ways that empower or disempower local people (or beneficiaries). That is not inherently to do with money, but rather their culture and practice. I am deeply concerned by a lack of accountability to beneficiaries/citizens within organisations and recognise the need to strengthen governance and accountability within charities and public bodies. However, I think the talk of state dependence of charities is deeply unhelpful and must be challenged.
There was something of a ‘kickback’ to what I saw as the ongoing attack on charities who receive public money (and primarily grants – as presumably contracts are okay?) which I believe is based on flawed logic. I think the reality is a more subtle situation of mutual dependence between the state and its agencies, civil society and the private sector – this is the eco-system I referred to in the intro to the discussion. We are all mutually dependent on each other. No one part can exist without the other.
So to talk about dependency as if it is a bad thing is unhelpful in my view. Our ‘dependents’ are family and friends and those we care for. That’s a good thing, right? so why is it bad for organisations to have dependents?
I’m not sure that much of this is different to the last government – they too were (towards the end) increasingly obsessed with ‘third sector service delivery’, with the implication being that grants were bad (dependency) whilst contracts and delivering services were good (‘commercial’ and independent). But what we’re seeing is an escalation of those arguments within the context of spending cuts. As the language becomes more prominent – from an implied criticism of grants to a more explicit one – the context for the discussion becomes more established and it becomes more accepted that the basic premise for the debate is ‘fact’. We cannot allow this gradual chipping away of the legitimacy of state support for civil society and community action to continue…
I think the boiling frog principle - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog - applies here…we will soon find the heat being turned up as we slowly (and unwittingly) get boiled to death.
I think, as you have all implied in your comments, that delivering public services is only one part of the story….there is far more that the sector does and can do. And that is not about dependency and needn’t be disempowering. I’ve seen plenty of examples of state funding being used to engage constructively and critically with public bodies. Being independent minded need not, necessarily, be compromised by receiving state funding.
That doesn’t mean we should not be developing new ways to secure funding, developing new activity outside of engagement with the state. Far from it. But, my main point really, to say that the state has no place providing any funding to civil society is just absurd.
As in life, everything in moderation….getting a sensible balance is what’s needed and, as Jez rightly says we ought to be aiming to ensure we create; ‘an empowering organisation that builds a culture of learning and reflection’ across all sectors.
Oh Toby a soap box worth standing on. But what should be a charity is a good question. I often wonder why I'm asked to pay extra to support children in need or for health, I would like to think that the Government cares about these issues and therefore adds it to the budget - naive me! I think overseas aid therefore must be something we choose to pay out of our pockets in time of prosperity - stupid me again. Yes its all very mixed up and wrong and has actually reached an all time low in terms of common sense.
Yes, the public should do their bit, I agree, but it seems that in places where there is the most poverty, fear and apathy there isn't the knowledge, money or personal resources. Yes government - even to volunteer costs the individual! That's where the charities come in. Maybe its simple. The 'powers that be' in their ivory towers with their liberal values and out of touch morality are completely clueless when deciding what is important. I really believe that if you have never had, you don't know what you want or what your choices are. I now also know that if you've always been blessed you are the wrong person to allocate money and judge where money should go! That's the problem we have now.
Thanks Toby for getting me vexed too! And thanks for the honest article
thanks for posting your comments here......i'd managed to confuse myself with comments on the blog and discussion being in different places! :)
i think there are a few questions that probably need to be publicly debated and considered more thoroughly....
1) what is it the state's role to provide and what ought we to be doing for ourselves? whatever we may feel about the Coalition's approach, they have stimulated this conversation which it feels it's appropriate for us to have...particularly with an ageing population and the pension timebomb ticking.
2) what is a charity? and what is 'charitable activity' (not always the same...as many unincorporated community groups will know well)?
3) what is a public service?
this final one often stumps me....as i'd rather assumed that what made it 'public' was that it was delivered by the state. That's clearly no longer the case...so when is a public service not a public service? is a private sector delivered service still public? what about not-for-profit delivered services?
i'm baffled on this one...and where do we draw the boundaries around what is public? is community development a public service?
i dont suggest to have answers (i have views though) but i do think these questions are important to debate in order to respond to the changes that are taking place all around us.
too much of the discussion is unhelpfully polarised for 'political' advantage and come with loads of baggage (which we all have...but dont always admit to), rather than an honest exploration of the challenges we face as a society.
Thanks Toby and you are right again.
There are so many agendas, theories ( they scare me most!) and political spins on it all and then there is the media creation a public hatred for public services and civil servants which is divisive a.nd helps no one.
Be great to somehow have the public debate and try to get to the needs, wants and gaps and remove the agendas from the room ( if that is ever possible). I just think that so much damage has been done, mainly I think by the media and this Government scoring points and dismantling things that were working. It should have given use the opportunity for change and honest discussion , but people have been bruised, angry and thrown aside in so many cases that its become impossible to do without emotion anymore.
I am interested to see what will come from recent events and if plasters will be applied on the gapping wounds left. Time will tell.
Hi all - there is another factor at work here. I can only speak from personal experience, but it is often the case that agencies of the state providing services in some areas are actively discouraging of community-led provision. The reasons for this are numerous, but in one instance, the service provided at neighbourhood level by a partnership of community and voluntary sector organisations is cheaper (by a significant amount) and more effective (by an equally significant amount) than the statutory provision. So why is there opposition to supporting and funding the neighbourhood solution? I could be cynical in my argument here, but I will resist - you can fill in the gaps... The neighbourhood services are driven by local people and service users, volunteers are valued and supported and have the opportunity to receive training leading to employment, and this is the product of collaboration between community based organisations.
The delivery of services by local groups cannot be undertaken for nothing - so the removal of the relatively small amount of funding they receive will leave gaping holes in provision which the state will not fill. The community groups doing this work are mopping up after statutory services which are not serving their communities properly, and they serve the most excluded. Many poor communities know exactly what they need, and how to deliver it. What they have a problem with is resources, which statutory services are often not inclined to share. The dialogue needs to be about recognising community volunteers as professionals - many of them are, and just because a person is affected by poverty it does not mean that conversations about 'agency' can be held over their heads.
HI everyone, in a tearing rush so can't tarry but just to say...... our position is that it's completely appropriate for state money (our common wealth) to be used to support independent and autonomous voluntary action. It's about the terms and conditions of the engagement that we need to argue, and these - now largely determined by commissioning strategies - are sapping the life out of our community and voluntary groups, never mind using the skills and resources of local people.
The other side of our position is to OPPOSE the privatisation of public services - whether to private or voluntary agencies or figleaf social enterprises. Of course this is a nuanced situation (vol groups have always provided services, can reach the parts, etc etc.) but we mustn't get caught up in that - what we are seeing is the dismantling of the welfare state and the fragmentation of what is left. Period. This will happen unless enough people stick their foot in the door and say no thank you. That means practical organising at local and national level and people and their organisations being willing to be brave, speak plainly to those in power and withdraw consent and co-operation from their regressive and repressive policies. We have written a bit about all this lately - best starting point if you're interested is probably this - http://www.independentaction.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/NCIApri...
keep on keeping on,
It takes a village to raise a child - we are inter-dependent as a species for so much that we value and need. I get in my car every day and drive to Sheffield; independence? Who made the car, the roads, maintained the lighting, transported the fuel? Independence and dependence are false polarities - the bottom line is co-operation between all of us, to meet the needs of all.
I don't think it makes me dependent if people employed by the state meet any part of my needs as long as it isn't done in a way which controls me or oppresses me - and I'm content to rely on other's competence to provide the infrastructure I need (including private companies where appropriate - I don't manufacture my own toothbrush and toothpaste before I brush my teeth every morning) . But I do want the opportunity to hold everyone who provides this infrastructure to account if they balls it up, from whatever sector - when it goes wrong or I have an insight into how it could be improved I want to know who and how and when I can get in there and have a say.
I don't feel dependent if the state or a charity or a voluntary group provides services - I'm more interested in how they are able to meet the needs of all. I certainly wouldn't want to depend on capitalism for most of my services if equalities are to be assured: I wouldn't want to trust in a world driven only by profit - I want to know I'm getting care from someone driven by a vocation, not being processed by a cold hand with the other hand on the cash register (too late to rephrase?).
Charities and community groups can and do create some amazing support for people - but we have been exploited and have exploited ourselves by over-stretching to meet real deep needs . Much better to campaign for the state to resource services which we all need, while we hold the state service providers to account for the quality of the service and the behaviour of the people who support us.
I also think it's a bloody cheek for a bunch of posh twits to suggest that charities are dependent on state funding - these parasites depend on working people for generating the huge profits they are busily hiding away in tax havens and legalised scams. Ayup, a bit of socialism for you.