The issue of standards for community work might seem a bit on the esoteric side. Yet, they cannot be ignored by anyone concerned about our unequal and harsh society. They need to become a central point of reference for a community sector under ever increasing threat and pressure, if it is to continue to make its key contribution to social change. The new All Ireland Standards for Community Work serve as a guide for those involved in this work. Moreover, they should catalyse a discussion on the priorities for this work at a time when funders’ bureaucratic requirements increasingly distract energy and attention. They should also guide the funders and policymakers who interact with the sector.
In particular, those who are marginalised, excluded and living in poverty, must have a direct say in the decisions that affect their lives if the decisions are to be effective. Community work has a key role in ensuring this happens. It engages those who depend the most on quality public services, and who therefore need, more than anyone else, support in decision-making. Representative democracy is no substitute.
Community work is identified in the Standards as a “developmental activity comprised of [sic] both a task and a process”. The task is social change to achieve equality, social justice and human rights. The process is participation, empowerment and collective decision making in a structured and co-ordinated way. It is about the right and the capacity of people who experience exclusion to have their voices heard.
In the past, this work was given greater recognition and support by the state. It was accepted as an important and valuable means of promoting participative forms of democracy. The collapse of this support is one reason why these Standards are important.
Funding for community organisations has been slashed. The Community Development Programme funded over 150 independent projects working in local areas with high levels of disadvantage and poverty and with groups, such as Travellers and women, experiencing inequality and discrimination. The participation, empowerment and collective decision-making which the projects promoted have all but disappeared.
Many previously independent organisations are now effectively under the control of local authorities. The role of community work in informing public policy and in mobilising communities to articulate and pursue their interests is no longer recognised. Many of those involved argue that their role has been reduced to delivering services that the state cannot or will not provide.
The Standards reassert the role of community work. Promoting equality and inclusion will inevitably, from time to time, bring those involved in this work into public debate and disagreement with decision makers. Policy-makers need to acknowledge the importance, for democracy, of this critical and constructive dissent.
The Standards demand professional standards from people working in community organisations, whether this work is being undertaken on a paid or voluntary basis. These demands are based on giving practical expression to five core values:
• Collectivity, with action to support communities to come together, reflect on their situation and take action for change, given that shared issues won’t be addressed by dealing with individual problems alone.
• Community empowerment, with action to ensure that people experiencing poverty and inequality are supported and empowered to work for change.
• Social justice and sustainability, with action to support people to advocate for their rights, challenge the unequal distribution of power, wealth and resources, and advocate for policies and practices that are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.
• Human rights, equality and non-discrimination, with action to support communities to recognise and challenge oppression, stereotyping, and prejudice, build connections and solidarity with people in other parts of the world, and promote the human rights of women and marginalised groups;
• Participation, with action to ensure meaningful participation by people experiencing poverty and inequality in the design, implementation, and monitoring of policies and programmes addressing these issues.
The former Department of Community, Environment and Local Government has produced a new Framework Policy for Local and Community Development. Community Work Ireland is concerned about the failure of this policy to address some key issues. The Department’s next step is to prepare an implementation plan. This plan must shape an approach and a structure for supporting community work based on the core values in the Standards. The Standards were produced by the All Ireland Endorsement Body for Community Work Education and Training and were supported by Community Work Ireland.
Rachel Doyle is joint national coordinator of Community Work Ireland.
By Rachel Doyle