Where is the community sector when it is needed? The sector should provide opportunities for people to mobilise on inequality and poverty, and be a valuable source of new ideas and alternatives. This is a sector that needs to be active in the face of austerity, economic recession and political unresponsiveness. Yet, outside of a small number, it is a sector that has been noticeable mostly for its absence.
There has been a constant whittling away of the resources available to the sector. At best this is a reflection of the inferior status of the sector: politicians see it as expendable, a source of quick and easy savings. At worst it is a reflection of a political hostility to the sector and a desire to put manners on it.
Community groups have, as a result, become dominated by the fight for survival. Organisations are partly trapped by the predominance of their role as service-providers to increasingly disadvantaged communities. At times, advocacy has disintegrated into a demand to save jobs in the sector.
Everything, it appears, is changing and yet the survival imperative has the community sector ever more determined to stay the same.
The sector has not examined whether its structures still serve action for equality and justice. The sector has not explored how its role could evolve to enable a society based on these values to emerge from this crisis; or analysed what happened to it during the boom times.
During the boom times the sector evolved as a policy-focused lobby. It sought a closer relationship with decision-makers at national level and, ultimately, to bring its agendas into social partnership. Opportunities for partnership with the state opened up at local level too. A division grew between those organisations close to or engaged in social partnership and those outside the partnership process.
There was a failure to develop a dual strategy. Participation within social partnership was weaker for not being linked to protest and agitation outside of social partnership, and protest and agitation was more easily marginalised where it had no means of communication with decision-makers.
During the boom the state had funds to dispense and the sector secured significant funds to provide services within disadvantaged communities. The sector turned into a local service-provider. It developed a skills base as an employer and a service-provider to the exclusion of its earlier focus on politicising and mobilising. This function was accompanied by a significant bureaucratic workload. The accountability of organisations shifted to the state and its authorities rather than to their local communities.
The sector must now become more visible and active. Imagination is required to define a new purpose and agenda for the sector and to break with the roles taken on in the boom times. Organisations in the sector need to change their primary role from being a partner of the state or a servant of the state. Their primary role has to become oppositional to the dominant policy positions being pursued by the Government.
Organisations need to build and pursue new agendas that reflect an alternative to the dominant visions for society and the economy. Academia has an important contribution to make in responding to this challenge of imagination. Academics need to enable organisations to advance effective alternatives to current austerity policies.
Fluid alliances are needed across the strict boundaries that have divided the sector. New relationships of co-operation and collaboration need to be brokered.
The relationship between national and local organisations needs to be repaired and redeveloped. National action needs to advance local issues. Agendas at national level need to come from the local experience of poverty and inequality if they are to have resonance. Local action needs to give expression to analysis and priorities agreed at national level if local opposition is to be part of something greater than the efforts of individual organisations.
The surplus of organisations operating within the sector also has to be addressed. Where there is overlap of function and values, mergers need to be considered. Some co-ordinating structures too now need to be let go and others need to be given new function.
The focus for much of the policy work done has been on the powerful and the focus for service provision has been on the powerless. An oppositional purpose, a context of political unresponsiveness and a situation where values of equality and justice have only limited popular traction mean that the sector now has to refocus the nature of its work with the disadvantaged, those at risk of disadvantage and those with potential to be in solidarity with people living in poverty and inequality.
This is about prioritising work to convince these people of the necessary centrality of equality and justice to the society that emerges from crisis. Mobilisation and politicisation must become the core activities.
Niall Crowley is an equality consultant and formerly CEO of the Equality Authority