It might not have been as enthusiastically adopted as UK Prime Minister Cameron hoped but ‘the Big Society’ idea is likely to be around for a while. But what does it mean for specialist not-for-profit organisations such as those in the refugee and asylum sector? Is the big society a smokescreen for funding cuts or is it an opportunity for small groups such as RCOs (refugee community organisations) to increase their influence as the role of the government is rolled back?
Today I went to the AGM of London Refugee Voice (a partnership organisation for RCOs) and these questions were top of the agenda. The AGM was attended by representatives of a variety of refugee/asylum organisations and the speakers were: Jonathan Ellis (of the Refugee Council); Kaveh Kalantri (of the Iranian Association); Stephen Bowen (of the British Institute of Human Rights); and Dame Elizabeth Hoodless (of CSV).
It was a really interesting and inspiring event with lots of opinions and ideas relevant to our project. Here are the key messages from the event for the time-pressed among you – those of you keen to know more, read on below.
- It is important organisations in the refugee sector cooperate and are not seen as minority interest groups (with this in mind, RCOs should show what they’re doing to encourage integration).
- Organisations in the refugee sector need to be able to better define the impact of their work and demonstrate what the disadvantages would be if they disappeared due to lack of funding.
- The refugee sector needs to develop ways that it can create at least some self-sufficient revenue, e.g. through social enterprise.
What is ‘the big society’?
There are unknowns and there are known unknowns… or something like that! What was clear from the event was that no-one is entirely clear what is meant by big society – presumably it’s supposed to be the antithesis of big government… although I’m not sure what that means either.
Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire has written a book about it – The Big Society (2010). I haven’t read it but one of the speakers at the event had, and had concerns that despite Norman’s protestations that the big society is not just about encouraging the wealthy to engage in philanthropy, it was still too reliant on a 19th Century philanthropic model of welfare. The speaker pointed out that whilst Victorian philanthropy had successes in some areas (e.g. York and Manchester) in other contexts (e.g. London) it was patchier. It is also the case that organisations that started as individuals’ philanthropic projects are now largely reliant on government funding. Another speaker worried that a focus on philanthropy, charity and volunteering would allow the government to abdicate responsibility for vulnerable people, and allow society to focus on ‘the deserving poor’ rather than recognising that everyone has a right to, for example, adequate shelter.
Who is in ‘the big society’? Or, is the big society inclusive?
A key concern participants had was how inclusive the big society would be. Did the big society include everyone or was it a white middle-class society? In other words, does the big society include new comers, such as asylum seekers and refugees, or would they not be seen as deserving recipients of voluntary action and organising? One speaker pointed out that the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers would be a testing point for the big society – and that if it was to mean anything it had to be inclusive and this meant supporting the integration of asylum seekers from day one, not just after refugee status has been given.
A number of speakers made the point that if the Government is in favour of voluntary action, civil society and community organising then they have to accept that some of that organising will be problematic for them (e.g. protests) or community relations (e.g. racist campaigns). How will the Government manage this so that everyone can be involved in the big society but that the risks are managed?
How can the refugee/asylum sector make the most of the big society?
I got the impression from the event that many participants were sceptical about the impact the big society rhetoric will have. It was clear that some felt that it was smoke screen for cuts. However, there was also a positive air about the event, which was that to survive the refugee/asylum sector has to make the most of the current situation. It’s not enough to protest about cuts – the sector has to show that they are essential for a functional, inclusive big society. They need to show the impact of their activities and speak the language of the new government to make the most of the (albeit limited) opportunities there are.
P.S. Apologies for the UK-centric nature of this post. If any US-based readers have comments or comparisons, please get in touch with a comment below or by email.