Charities should speak up for civil society not market society

John TizardWhen Oxfam published a tweet on inequality in Britain on 6 June, it was only saying what thousands of local voluntary and community groups have been thinking for some time.

The Oxfam message was blunt and direct, but it chimed with the reality that is being experienced in communities across the country. It said that ‘Lifting the lid on austerity Britain reveals a perfect storm – and it’s forcing more and more people into poverty’.

It referred to zero hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts, unemployment and child care costs. Actually, it could have produced a much longer list of the hardship and pain being felt in many neighbourhoods and families.

Oxfam was acting in accordance with a long tradition of British charities. Without charities and wider civil society being prepared to speak out and campaign, our society would be the poorer and major social change would never have occurred. Charities, faith groups and civil society organisations must always be ready to champion the impoverished and the marginalised; ready to speak up for those without a voice; and to challenge orthodoxy and contemporary public policy if this is the cause of hardship.

Oxfam is a large, internationally respected charity. It is important that its example is followed by other large national charities, and especially by small community based voluntary organisations. Groups that are rooted in their communities know better than most what is happening locally and what needs to be done to ameliorate local social problems, and they are best placed to produce evidence to support any case, which they have justification to make. It is also important that these smaller local organisations feel able to speak up and to campaign, and have the capacity and support where necessary to do so. Critically, they must not be intimidated, and resist any pressure not to speak out by public sector funders. And where such pressure seems overbearing, they should know that capacity and support can come from effective local infrastructure groups such as councils for voluntary service.

Now is the time for the community sector to demand

a seat at the tables that matter within localities

Local authorities, and in particular politicians and other bodies such as the police and NHS, should actively encourage local community and voluntary organisations to provide a voice for their members, beneficiaries and communities. They also need, in turn, to encourage and support their members, beneficiaries and communities to speak for themselves. Empowerment is essential.

The local and national representative bodies for charities, and the wider voluntary and community sector must be strong and argue against any government or legal challenge to the charity sector’s voice. Thankfully, the major national sector bodies are doing so in response to the legal challenge to Oxfam. In my view, they have to turn the volume up higher because the charity voice has to be heard even more loudly between now and next year’s general election. And local groups must follow suit, even if this creates a tension with local public sector funders.

The charity, voluntary and community sectors should be involved in local strategic planning and decision making. And yet, too many local authorities have dismantled the architecture of local strategic partnerships which provided some formal involvement, albeit often at the margins of total public sector spend and activity. Now is the time for the sector to demand a seat at the tables that matter within localities. At the same time, however, they have to protect and honour their individual missions and independence. Being involved does not have to mean becoming Trappists, nor endorsers of decisions with which one disagrees.

Many charities will wish to go further. I believe very strongly that the charity, voluntary and community sector, along with a wider coalition of civil society organisations such as faith groups and trade unions, must challenge not just immediate social and economic problems, and the policies that create them, but to be prepared to challenge the underlying structural and philosophical causes.

Neo-liberalism has dominated politics for many years. It has led to the preference for market solutions, and now to a programme of creating a smaller state. It has placed business sector provision of public services ahead of that of charities and the voluntary and community sector; and often ahead of the public sector itself. It has removed from the public realm, services and assets, which would still be better placed there. The public realm has been eroded.

Pubic assets become private assets, not nurtured for the public good but for profit. Community interests can be cast aside in the interests of others. Cuts can and are being made to key services and support mechanisms which will diminish social capital, at the very time when it needs to be grown as part of a wider economic and social growth programme. Inequality and poverty grow, whilst wealth also grows.

One result of this, of course, is the trend for local authorities to stop grant-funding, and to force the voluntary and community sector to bid for contracts on terms often designed for major business sector corporates. And in some cases, it has forced charities to become sub-contractors to these corporates, and to bear their risks. Collaboration and partnership can be more appropriate and sustainable than competition for every aspect of public service.

Charities, voluntary and community groups have to find their voices and find allies to challenge and to argue for fairness, social justice, community empowerment and a new settlement.

A strong civil society may prove to be inconsistent with neo-liberalism, which may be why the Big Society stumbled. A strong civil society certainly requires a strong not a minimalistic state and is not a substitute for the state.

So, it is as important for Oxfam to campaign and work in the UK as it does internationally. It equally vital for smaller local voluntary and community groups to contribute to national campaigns as well as provide a local voice and services for their communities. They will often adopt a twin track approach to contemporary challenges – responding through both provision of services and advocacy, and campaigning – as for example we have witnessed with the growth of food banks. They may also mobilise communities into action – both vocal and practical.

The voluntary and community sector is at its best when it combines practical action with voice. Now is the time for both!


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Simon Cooke
Simon Cooke
10 years ago

I’m sure that Oxfam is just fab as a charity but that doesn’t excuse it presenting a message that was both politcally partisan and factually incorrect.

The most shockingly misleading part of Oxfam’s recent campaign has been their persistent – and deliberate – conflating of wealth inequality and income inequality. They tweeted:

“1% of Britons own the same amount of wealth as 54% of the population. RT if you think this is unacceptable”

Now since if you have no debt and a fiver in your pocket you have more wealth than a lot of the population this statistic isn’t really surprising. Indeed, if people were to turn off their faux-indignation for a second and make use of their brains they would realise what a daft assertion this claim is:

Now it is undoubtedly the case that wealth is unevenly distributed but it is also the case that this has little or no connection to income. Indeed it is perfectly possible for a person to have a significant income but no wealth. By way of example consider a thirtysomething couple who have just bought a London flat for £250,000. To do this they’ve borrowed 90% of the money from a bank or building society and, in a lot of cases, the rest of the money from the bank of mum and dad. They’ll have a car on a lease agreement, credit card debt and perhaps the remnants of some student loans. They have no wealth, they’re part of that 54% in the Oxfam tweet. But they will have income – probably a household income significantly above the national average. They are not poor.

Oxfam want us to believe that the lack of wealth equates to poverty because it suits their argument. But it is completely false to suggest that we have food banks because half the population have little in the way of wealth. To say again, if you’ve no debts and a fiver in your pocket you are wealthier than a large chunk of the population – best part of 2 million full-time students for a start.

Moreover, the on-line ad that caused the ruckus made some further false claims – that unemployment was rising, for example – that undermine any argument about poverty. It seems that Oxfam simply want to shout about a problem rather than proffer any sort of solution (although god forbid they do this in the UK – their ‘solutions’ in Africa act to embed poverty and create dependence rather than promore growth and development).

What Oxfam’s campaigns don’t tell us is why we have food banks, how zero hours contracts came about, why prices have risen (if indeed they have) and what lies behind extortionate childcare costs. The charity don’t mention that food banks are needed mostly because the administration of benefits is a shambles rather than because of benefit cuts. We aren’t told that half the increase in the cost of energy results from cross-subsidy to support ‘green’ energy – most of this going to wealthier land- and home-owners. And we aren’t told that the high tax on fuel results in additional costs for food, clothing and household goods.

Levels of poverty (and this is relative poverty not the absolute poverty that calls for food banks) are falling in the UK, perhaps not fast enough but falling nonetheless. But it doesn’t suit Oxfam’s message to explain how this is happening or to note that liberalising employment and reducing regulatory burden on the private sector is what will succeed in reducing poverty over the long haul. Instead, Oxfam prefer to misuse statistics – as we see above – to create an impression that poverty is a bigger problem. And Oxfam also want to perpetrate the myth that someone being rich – in wealth or income – is the reason for someone else being poor.

Oxfam know that world poverty has plummeted over the last couple of decades, falling faster than ever before. A billion people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. OK they’re not yet up to our western standards of living but they’re headed that way. And Oxfam also know the reason for this fall in poverty but choose to ignore it and promote the keeping of peasants on barely sustainable subsistence farms through subsidy. Oxfam know that it is free market capitalism that gets people out of poverty.

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