Civil Society and Poverty

Posted on 12 Nov 2013 under Civil Society, Previous Publications

There is widespread agreement between political parties that the state cannot do all the heavy lifting to reduce poverty. What part can civil society play?

The Webb Memorial Trust, working closely with the APPG on Poverty, has commissioned Edge Hill University to find out. The work programme includes a review of the growing number of ‘fairness commissions’, case studies of successful initiatives and meetings with parliamentarians. A report will be published in April 2014.

Why is civil society important?

Civil society contains two processes that can be potent forces for social development – association and participation. ‘Association’ occurs when citizens come together to work on issues of common concern and ‘participation’ often follows when citizen use this process of association to take part in public affairs that affect their lives. Together the two processes add up to ‘active citizenship’.

In his book From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World, Duncan Green, explains why active citizenship is important:

‘Active citizenship has inherent merits: people living in poverty must have a voice in deciding their own destiny, rather than be treated as passive recipients of welfare or government action. What is more, the system – governments, judiciaries, parliaments, and companies – cannot tackle poverty and inequality by treating people as ‘objects’ of government action or other action. Rather, people must be recognised as ‘subjects’, conscious of and actively demanding their rights, for efforts to bear fruit.’

Such citizen action is frequently called ‘the demand side of governance’, and complements ‘the supply side of governance’, which is the role of the state. Robert Chambers suggests that states’ inability to put citizens at the heart of social programmes is one of the prime causes why they fail to reduce poverty.

William Beveridge was of this view. As he witnessed the implementation of his proposals through state agencies, rather than the friendly societies that he had proposed, he complained about the ‘damage’ that the welfare state was doing to what people do for themselves. He suggested that the government should ‘encourage voluntary action of all kinds’ and ‘remove difficulties in the way of friendly societies and other forms of mutuality’. Beveridge saw himself as laying the groundwork of a ‘welfare society’, not a ‘welfare state’.

Changing mind-sets

Across Europe, there are now growing questions about whether the state can or even should provide solutions to the issue of poverty. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding such questions, there is a growing understanding that people can no longer be passive recipients of state services, but will have to step forward to play a bigger part in helping themselves and others.

The idea of the ‘Big Society’ may have slipped down the political agenda, but nevertheless there is much interest in developing people based solutions such as ‘social enterprise’ and ‘citizen organising’ that can help to transform our society from the bottom up.

Starting point for the study

The framing question for the Edge Hill University study is:

‘At a time of austerity how do people in their localities and institutions exercise agency to counter the structural constraints imposed by the wider political economy in order to address poverty and inequality?’

The programme has started with trying to gain a better understanding of the role of ‘fairness commissions’. These have been established in a number of local authorities, and are seeking solutions about how to improve equality outcomes in their areas.

The Edge Hill University study notes that it is too early to draw frim conclusions but some important questions have emerged that need to be examined to understand the potential impact and longevity of fairness commissions. These include:

• What can we learn about the commission process as a mechanism for promoting democratic social and political change at a local level and beyond?

• How will momentum for change be sustained once the commissions have reported?

• Is there scope for collaboration between cities and across regions in bringing issues to national attention?

Later work

Following work with fairness commissions, the work will seek out successful examples of how civil society is working to reduce poverty. A key question is: ‘Can we find a demonstrable record of achievement where civil society has reduced poverty?’ We need to get beyond the warm words that are often spoken about the role of civil society to the practical reality of performance. There are some examples of success, such as London Citizens’ pioneering of the concept of the living wage. It will be important to see if there are other practices that can contain similar potential.

Barry Knight – Principal Adviser to the Webb Memorial Trust