Precious little ‘good news’ has come out of COVID-19 pandemic.
But if there has been one heartening story to come out of the crisis, then it has been in the community response to it. Across the country, thousands of Mutual Aid groups have emerged, taking on vital work and supporting the most vulnerable people in their communities through this unprecedented disaster.
The flourishing of these groups raises many questions, particularly for those of us interested in community power. How do Mutual Aid groups form and organise? What kind of reception have they got from existing institutions and networks? What kind of relationship have they built with state-run public services?
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In this new report, we shed new light on this movement, and answer these questions. We uncover what Mutual Aid has achieved, what it has struggled with and how it has operated in practice. In particular, we draw out five key take lessons for those interested in the movement. These are:
- That Mutual Aid groups have been an indispensable part of our COVID response: There’s sometimes a perception that community activism is ‘nice to have’ but ultimately unimportant. However, this has not been the case with Mutual Aid groups. Their work was crucial in enabling the Government’s shielding and social distancing policies to sustain in practice.
- They demonstrate the wider potential of community power: Mutual Aid demonstrates the potential of a less formal, community-led, and more human way of responding to people’s needs, outside of the traditional public service framework that is the established model of deploying support.
- That councils have significant influence over their viability and success: The attitude of the local council has a clear impact on the success and sustainability of community groups.
- That they function better in areas where social capital is more developed: They are also more likely to thrive in areas where there are more working age people with more free time. The furlough scheme and home working have played a major role in creating these conditions.
- Their small scale is key to their success: Mutual Aid groups demonstrate the power of a highly localised approach to supporting communities. This is a scale where more people can be involved to a greater extent, and where they can respond more directly to the specific conditions in their area. These groups also show how voluntary and informal efforts often function most effectively when they are relatively focused.
The report then synthesises these lessons into some concrete recommendations for councils and central government. At the local level, we argue that councils should play a facilitative role in their interactions with Mutual Aid groups. This means working with them in order to help them reach their potential, not, seek to actively direct then, or worse, ignore them and leave them to fend for themselves. We recognise however, that this kind of community development work can be time and resource intensive for local government. Accordingly, our second recommendation is that Whitehall creates a community support financial package for local government, which will allow them to take on this facilitative role.
Our final recommendation recognises the extent to which the Mutual Aid movement has been enabled both by people moving to home working, and by the furlough scheme. Given the time and opportunity, it seems that many of us choose to devote our energies to community activism. This is a tremendous untapped resource for our country, and one that we can start to harness if we introduce employment policies and practices that support flexible working.
If we can learn the lessons of the Mutual Aid movement, and implement new policies which allow for the flourishing of community activism going forward, we truly can ‘build back better’. For those interested in making this happen, and in unleashing community power more generally, we hope this report will be of use.