With over 700 mutual aid groups (at the time of writing) mushrooming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, change seems to be on the way. There are grounds for hope as communities find new ways of mobilising informal groups of volunteers to help support people in their local area and more encouraging evidence of growing interest in trying to understand the underlying causes of communities’ concerns.
It is far too early in the COVID-19 timeline to come to any firm conclusions about the potential of these mutual aid groups for creating more hopeful communities for the future. Groups seem to vary considerably, in terms of the ways in which they organise themselves and the ways in which they define their respective remits. Systematic research will be needed to compile a more comprehensive picture.
There are extremely encouraging signs though. From my own – very limited – experience, groups can be experienced as genuinely inspiring. Local people can come together as communities in such positive ways, organising collectively to provide mutual support. Volunteers can and do receive support themselves as well as providing assistance to others. This is solidarity in action, democratically organised and effective in practice.
Unsurprisingly, groups have been facing challenges too. There is so much to learn from getting involved in mutual aid, not least about the extent of unmet need within communities. The lockdown has highlighted problems with the complexity – and the fundamental inadequacy – of the benefits system for a start, along with the multiplicity of many of the most vulnerable people’s needs.
Groups have been learning so much about the range of support services that are on offer and how to access them, as well as about the inadequacies and the gaps, the possibilities and the lack of opportunities for collaboration. Some local authorities and voluntary sector agencies have been rapidly expanding their services in response to COVID-19, with some particularly positive moves to collaborate with mutual aid groups and other community-based initiatives. This is not necessarily the case everywhere, however.
There are dilemmas for community organisers and activists. Where to draw the boundaries between mutual aid provision on the one hand, and public service provision on the other? How to avoid substituting for public services as they struggle to meet increasing demands for services with diminishing resources as the result of the austerity of the past decade? When to move into advocacy and campaigning? And how to sustain the support networks that have been developing within communities, for the future? Community action needs resourcing in its own right too. These are questions that are being debated right now, as the situation develops.
There are further challenges to be anticipated, for the coming period in any case, whether the current pandemic subsides or not, even without a second or even subsequent wave. With the prospect of economic recession and consequent rise in unemployment, social needs can be expected to increase. But those who are going back into paid work may have less time for community activism, thereby increasing the pressures on those who remain active in mutual aid groups. So how will communities respond to such challenges?
There is historic evidence to point to the ways in which crises can and do elicit negative as well as positive responses. Beneath the myths surrounding the ‘community spirit’ that Britain was supposed to have demonstrated during the Second World War, for instance, there were darker experiences too. Both then and now, there have been examples of seriously anti-social behaviour, whether hoarding or profiteering, commandeering toilet rolls or selling ‘test kits’ at inflated prices. Criminals have also been taking advantage of people’s vulnerabilities and anxieties with scams and cybercrimes. The scope for racist right-wing populists to arouse people’s resentments and fears would seem considerable in such contexts. Times of crisis can lead to more hateful as well as to more hopeful futures. These are challenges that need to be confronted as a matter of urgency, as current mobilisations to tackle racist violence so clearly demonstrate.
Meanwhile, research is compiling evidence that demonstrates increasing interest in understanding the underlying causes of contemporary problems, rather than blaming ‘the other’, along with a desire to share lessons about how to develop alternative strategies in response. Resources for community-based learning have been shrinking in the context of austerity along with the resources for community and youth work more generally. But popular political education initiatives have been mushrooming all the same. The lockdown has resulted in rapid developments in electronic forms of provision, reaching new audiences more extensively in the process. Hundreds of participants have been logging onto webinars, exploring the possibilities of developing alternative approaches to contemporary challenges, and examining alternatives such as the Green Industrial Revolution to revive Britain’s economy by creating socially useful employment.
This is not to claim too much for such educational initiatives per se. On the contrary. But they do have potentially important contributions to make, as part of wider strategies to build more hopeful communities for the future.
Marjorie Mayo is Emeritus Professor in Community Development at Goldsmiths, University of London.
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