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Rural communities left behind as third sector becomes ‘house-trained’

kate-clifford1It feels like everything is changing and with that change comes uncertainty and challenge. For some regions in Northern Ireland the changes over the last 20 years have brought vision, voice, activism, resources, capacity building, investments and an articulation of needs for local communities.

These communities are coping and coordinating when things go wrong in their areas. They understand how things work and why, and they are not afraid to use all their resources to get what they need or to build what they need. They are confident and connected communities supporting and helping others to move to being the same.

For others the picture is as bleak or as grim as it was in 1996, if not more so. Their reality has been one of further marginalisation from decision-makers, resources and political representation. They find themselves not only without community cohesion but with little vision and hope for the future. Existence and tolerance are the best they can hope for.

These communities are distant, remote, under-resourced and isolated. They are being told that their deprivation and poverty are their own fault and that they should ‘know by now how to resolve their issues’.

Community development places a mandate on all of us to care about those who are most marginalised, isolated and vulnerable. It is a principled and value-based, action process which sets out a way of working that creates a more equitable sense of power among citizens.

These values and principles must ground our work and, as government policy becomes increasingly concerned with the devolution of power and control to the citizen, we need to hold fast to these values and ensure we act in the best interests of all communities.

The third sector has a duty to challenge injustice and poor policymaking. We can showcase innovative ways of working and prove how, when communities are resourced and supported, they can deliver lasting and positive outcomes for local people.

Critical to this is the independence of our sector. An independent sector can hold a true position of challenge to government and legitimately raise concerns on behalf of those at risk.

But in the last 18 years of my career I have witnessed a chameleon sector. Organisations have changed purpose, compromised values and principles and accepted contracts that challenge their core ambitions. The sector has been turned into a service delivery agent for government – sustained by contracts which focus more on numbers than quality of work.

A risk-taking sector that has delivered significant social change has been ‘house-trained’ by government contracts.

Innovation has been curbed. We know that innovation sometimes fails, but learning from risks often shapes and supports better knowledge and thinking. These learning opportunities are being lost, driven out by fear of failure.

As government spending levels decrease, it is the safer options which are resourced. Charities become a cheap delivery option and we are seeing survival of the fittest rather than the best.

We are seeing mission drift and the implementation of contracts which are causing terrible pain to those delivering them. We have seen tempered voices, organisations that are not reacting to poor policy for fear of reprisals on funding and influence. We have witnessed unmet needs in communities as a result of rigidity of contracts.

So what are the likely solutions? ‘Social enterprise’ is being posited as a panacea, offering third sector organisations the opportunity to create their own resources and secure their own freedom. But not all organisations can pursue this option. Nor should they be expected to.

Yes, social enterprise has in some places enabled communities to sustain vital core services. But the loss of services is largely due to economic market failures, low investment and an historic lack of rural policy. Much rural social enterprise exploits voluntary effort to make the enterprise work.

The move to transfer into community ownership is also to be largely welcomed. We know the success stories of groups who have established much needed affordable housing on vacant land, developed wind turbines on rural land which pays for them to invest in local resource, leased the local swimming pool which was in danger of closing and made it work for the local community.

But again I urge caution in the exploitation of voluntary endeavour and call for support to help communities grasp a full understanding of the long-term undertaking of assets. As assets become available we need to support these groups to recognise and uncover liabilities of taking on such assets, understand the business planning needed, to think through the long term commitment they are making and understand the governance and liability of what they are taking on.

For many disadvantaged regions and groups the following quote is true: ‘They are disproportionately poor in terms of money and wealth but they are rich in experience: they work to nurture the gifts and talents of the individual for the development of their community, carving a way out of no way, and persevering in the face of exploitative systems for the betterment of their community’.

The role of rural community development is vital as we negotiate a changing landscape. Its value and contribution to society should not be underestimated or under-resourced.

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