The coalition public sector cuts are biting hard. Poor communities are watching their civic, cultural and social support and development infrastructures being swept away in a tidal wave of closures and cuts. The brutal reality is that we have seen only 15% of these cuts actually be delivered: there is much more pain to come. In the context of these savage cuts a conference held by the leading voluntary sector umbrella body should have been a welcome opportunity to discuss the potential impacts and possible responses to Government economic policy.
5th March saw the gathering of the annual conference of the National Council of Voluntary Sector Organisations. This is the UK’s premier event for the 3rd Sector. The event attracts representatives from a broad range of community voluntary sector organisations. The focus of the conference is to examine and explore the latest trends in the sector, lobby Government and local authorities, identify best practice and innovation whilst highlighting issues and problems of policy or implementation. These issues were of course discussed and the conference provided a wealth of information to those in attendance. In general terms this is to be welcomed, however in the recent context of recession, riots and increased levels of racism, one might have reasonably expected that these issues would have been given an airing.
Not so I’m afraid. The NCVO conference has traditionally been a terribly white and middle class affair and this year seemed no different.
There were very few attendees from black organisations or voluntary groups. There were no speakers representing these communities and no representation of the specific issue of racism on the conference agenda. Astonishingly in 2012 the NCVO conference failed to identify or highlight the reality of institutional racism within Government policy and its consequent effect on black communities. Given the huge turmoil in the sector and the fact that this is the number one issue in black communities nationwide, this omission is unforgivable.
The end of black voluntary sector provision.
Eric Pickles’s, Secretary for Department of Communities Local Government, ideological hostility to what he terms 'state funded multiculturalism' has amplified current levels of racial disadvantage. This is a result of the Governments shift from a policy for social cohesion focused on encouraging and supporting integration, to a policy of forced assimilation. As a result, black only provision across the board is being increasingly seen as “racially divisive” and inimical to the promotion of racial harmony.
This is of course nonsense. Separate or additional social care or welfare provision arose in response to the reality of institutional racism in service provision and the failure of the mainstream voluntary sectors to adopt and implement equality and anti racist policies.
NCVO conference sailed on oblivious and bizarrely made no mention of the impacts of policy on levels of racism and racial disadvantage. The issue of Governments failure to conduct Race Equality Impact Assessments as currently required by the Equality Act 2010 was absent despite a range of recent successful legal challenges.
There was only a passing reference to the August ‘riots’, and no real recognition of the substantive issues of deaths in custody, stop and search and the hugely disproportionate impact of cuts on black communities. Given the very strong link between recession and the potential for increased rates of racism as communities compete for scarce resources, this omission is very serious indeed.
The conference provided no real focus on any of the myriad of social, economic and political issues that impact on urban black communities, all of which are set become much worse.
Why would a major national umbrella body for the UK’s voluntary sector dismiss these important issues? Access to additional finance may provide the answer. But first it’s important to get a historical perspective on the development of the black voluntary sector.
Back to the future: Racism, paternalism and marginalisation.
The black voluntary sector at a national and local level is being eviscerated as a result of a culture of institutional racism within Government at both a local and regional level. This has seen disproportionate cuts to the sector and the closure of thousands of black and ethnic minority voluntary sector projects providing vital frontline services. Local authorities and Government are paying scant regard to race equality issues in making these decisions.
Across the country we are seeing the return of the old ‘colonial’ style model of 3rd sector provision where white mainstream voluntary sector organisations are colluding with the implicit racism of disproportionate cuts by agreeing to provide services to black communities who were once served by black organisations.
Reports from black organisations in London, Bristol and Birmingham reflect a national trend. Whereas they previously provided services directly to black communities they have endured cuts to their grant funding. In a twist of bitter irony these same organisations are now being approached by mainstream white organisations to either join bidding consortia as a junior partner or as sub contractors expecting to provide the same service to our communities for a fraction of the money required.
Generally, majority white organisations by definition fail to represent the communities whose needs they are now seeking to meet. Unable to demonstrate real commitment to equality through the test of representation of both staff and management, combined with a NCVO like disinclination to highlight and confront issues of racism, these organisations do not have the cultural or professional competence to meet our needs.
And yet they are queuing up to bid for such contracts. For those black organisations that do seek to partner these organisations, they report that their treatment is largely condescending and patronising. Black groups find themselves being sidelined, marginalised and undermined in bidding consortiums.
Black organisations providing services such as youth diversion, crime prevention, supplemental education and employment projects, are all being closed down at an alarming rate. Black women and elderly social care projects, public health campaigns targeting black communities, business start up programs, adventure playgrounds and community centres are all facing closure.
The fact is that the funding for such projects had already seen a dramatic decline over the last 20 years. This resulted in a small but dynamic sector that was seeking to look at new ways of identifying and developing a new sustainable model of funding. The combined effects of the recession are obliterating these projects at a rate that will lead to their virtual extinction.
These specialist culturally distinct services were fought for and won on the back of decades of struggle for race equality in the provision of public services. Throughout the 1980’s black communities struggled to access culturally appropriate mainstream provision of social and health, health, supplementary education, youth employment and housing projects were funded in recognition of the inability of mainstream public services providers to meet the needs of culturally distinct communities.
Prior to this, services such as local meals on wheels for the elderly, were providing traditional English dishes to Asian and African elders. Fish and chips instead of chapatti and curry. Bangers and mash instead of ackee and saltfish.
Sufferers of Sickle Cell were misdiagnosed; black youth kicked cans down the road as they boycotted youth services that failed to meet their needs, mainstream community centres refused to allow black social events as they were culturally alien: ‘too loud and noisy’, black homelessness was hidden as black people refused to stay in hostels where they were subjected to racial harassment, people seeking to challenge racism were turned away from advice agencies who had little or no experience or understanding of the dynamics of racism in British society.
Those employed in the provision of these services were overwhelmingly white and failed to have the cultural competence necessary to understand the reality of racism. The cultural reality of institutional racism that pervaded service provision of the statutory and voluntary sector services meant that even where staffing was more diverse, in the absence of effective equality policies, they struggled to deliver for black communities.
The conscious betrayal of a black community for profit.
Today as a result of public sector cuts and a resurgent level of institutional racism we see a fast forward return to these bad old days. On a fundamental level it’s a return to a culture of paternalistic racism of 1980’s that deemed black people as incapable of providing professional services or as venal and untrustworthy. We thought those days were gone and although we might expect a Tory led coalition Government to promote racism, that white mainstream voluntary should collude with that racism for financial gain whilst perfectly aware of the circumstances in which these developments have taken place, is frankly a betrayal of black communities. Add to this their cultural predisposition and deep political reluctance to challenge racism, conferences that ignore the issues, staff and boards that don’t reflect diverse communities and you can begin to assess the enormity of that betrayal.
I sat in on a meeting in Bristol where these things were being discussed. An elderly Asian man spoke about the closure of his local Asian elderly centre. He spoke movingly of the culturally appropriate and professional service he enjoyed on a daily basis. He bemoaned the closure of the centre saying that all those who attended the centre are now sitting at home “whilst their brains rot.” Asked if they would go to the largely white elderly centre that remained opened he said no as the food and the culture was alien to him and he believed he would not fit in and probably have to deal with a degree of racism. It was heartbreaking stuff.
I recently raised these issues with NCVO on line during a twitter '#NCVOevents' debate about the conference and was invited in to meet the Chief Execute for a chat about these issues. I certainly intend to do so with a small delegation of organisations that can seek some accountability from NCVO as to why in the 21st century we still have to raise these issues. The phrase ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, comes to mind. Watch this space